Is Lying Ever Justified?

“The problem is not that we are sinners: the problem is not repenting of sin, not being ashamed of what we have done.” In his homily at his daily Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae on May 17, 2013, Pope Francis was discussing, and commending, the example of Saint Peter, who, having denied Christ, was now (in John 21:15-19) reaffirming his love for his Lord and Savior.  It is a moving yet painful scene; as Christ asks Peter three times if he loves Him, Peter’s shame over his earlier threefold denial of the Truth envelops him.  Yet it is that shame, Pope Francis says, that ultimately allows Peter to repent, to return to the Lord in love, to embrace once again the Truth that he had so fervently denied.

As I read the text of the homily, my thoughts were drawn from the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the debates of the present day.  Two millennia after Peter’s repentance and return to the Truth, the Catholic blogosphere in the United States is consumed with a debate over—of all things—the morality of lying.  And in the days before Pope Francis delivered his homily on the necessity of Peter’s shame, the words of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio had been dragged into the debate.  Discussing incidents in his past during Argentina’s Dirty War, the man who is now Pope Francis had seemed to indicate that he had engaged in and counseled deception to save lives.  And Cardinal Bergoglio had discussed the incidents in question matter-of-factly, giving no indication that he had later repented of any possible deception—nor, it should be noted, offering any clear statement that he regarded such deception as morally right.

Nonetheless, these passages from Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words added fuel to a debate that had been reignited a few weeks earlier, after the pro-life organization Live Action, capitalizing on the coverage of the trial of Philadelphia “House of Horrors” abortionist Kermit Gosnell, released the results of its latest sting operation against abortion clinics.  Live Action had sent young women into abortuaries to tell the employees that they were seeking abortions, and to ask those employees if they would make sure that their babies were dead, no matter what happened.  In other words, they wanted to get abortuary workers to say that they would follow in Gosnell’s footsteps—and sadly, though not surprisingly, some did.

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Those who had praised Live Action in the winter and spring of 2011, the last time the organization had made a national splash with similar tactics, rushed to do so again.  Those who had pointed out the Catholic Church’s perennial and unequivocal teaching on the immorality of lying (while condemning abortion and Planned Parenthood no less strongly than the defenders of Live Action’s tactics had) did so again.  And from there, the debate followed pretty much the same course as it had in 2011, which is to say that it was really no debate, but two sides each convinced of the rightness of its position, talking past each other.

Until, of course, the release of Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words, when the side defending lying in the service of a good cause thought that they had been handed a trump card.

In 2011, I had reluctantly weighed in on the side that cited the Church’s unequivocal teaching.  I say reluctantly, not because I had any desire to defend lying, but because, when I wrote my first piece in February 2011 (“Justified Deception or Lying? The Case of Live Action v. Planned Parenthood“), I was hardly concerned that Planned Parenthood employees were encouraged through deception to say things that they might well have said without having been deceived.  One can be convinced of the immorality of a particular action without being overly concerned when someone other than oneself (or someone for whom one is responsible) commits it.  And, sadly, it is fallen human nature to enjoy a bit of schadenfreude when the dastardly deeds of someone you dislike are revealed.  But as the debate, or rather nondebate, dragged on for months in 2011, I began to realize that my initial reaction had been wrong.  There is more at stake in this question than the defenders of lying acknowledge; it cuts right to the heart of the Faith and what it means to be a Christian.

Part of the problem is that the debate has largely been carried on at the level of anecdote and hypotheticals.  If lying is always wrong, the defenders of Live Action cry, what about the story of Rahab?  What about the Egyptian midwives?  Are you saying you would have handed Anne Frank over to the Nazis?  Do you really believe it’s wrong to tell your wife that the dress she loves doesn’t make her look fat?

Anecdotes—even ones drawn from Scripture—are material against which moral arguments can be tested, but they are not a substitute for moral theology.  And—it cannot be stressed enough—no single anecdote, or even a series of anecdotes, even ones drawn from Scripture, is sufficient to prove a moral argument false.  When Augustine and Thomas Aquinas fleshed out their cases for why lying is always wrong, they had to deal with the stories of Rahab and the Egyptian midwives, and they did.  (Both, Aquinas argues, were rewarded for their faithfulness to God, not for their deception.)  But their arguments against lying (and the Catholic argument in general) start, not with anecdotes or hypotheticals, but with first principles: You cannot do evil that good may come of it (cf. Romans 3:8); the Devil is the Father of Lies (cf. John 8:44); you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free (cf. John 8:32).

This is why, for Christians, any argument in favor of lying is stillborn.  Truth lies at the heart of Christ’s teaching, because Christ is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and walking on the Way, and participating in the Life of Christ, means embracing the Truth, even when it is inconvenient, or painful, or seemingly not as effective in accomplishing the particular ends we hope to accomplish.  When Aquinas argues that the problem with lying is that our words are no longer faithful to reality, his (and the Church’s) entire understanding of reality lies behind his argument.  We participate in reality to the extent that we unite ourselves to Christ, and that means uniting ourselves to the Truth, because Christ is the fullness of Truth.  This is the full power of the scene between Pilate and Christ on Good Friday—not long after Peter’s threefold lie—when Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).  While some interpreters see Pilate as a forerunner of modern-day relativists, others, aware of the tradition that Pilate later repented of his role in Christ’s death and became a Christian, see Pilate’s question as serious, even earnest.  Yet, in either case, the irony could not be greater, because the Truth is standing right in front of him, and Pilate is too blind to see.

Every act, no matter how small, is a moral act.  Every act, no matter how small, draws us closer to Christ or leads us farther from Him.  These are uncomfortable truths in a world in which Christianity has largely been confined to an hour or so on Sundays and holy days, in which we are constantly told that “business is business” and that the point of political and cultural battles is the winning of them, rather than being able to say, with Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight; I have run the race; I have kept the Faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Yet the Church has always taught that we will be measured not simply by what we accomplish but by how we accomplish it.  Christian morality is about the fighting, and the running, and the keeping of the Faith, as displayed in our actions, because those actions themselves, rather than the ends we hope to accomplish by those actions, reveal our commitment to the Truth.  This is the problem with consequentialism: When Saint Paul says that we cannot do evil that good may come of it, he is admitting implicitly that good may come out of evil actions.  And that makes sense, because God can take even the worst of our sins and turn them to the good—for instance, by bringing life into the world as the result of an act of sexual immorality.  That God can create life out of our sinfulness, however, does not lessen the moral culpability of the man and the woman whose action departed from what the Didache calls “the Way of Life.”

And here we arrive at the heart of the problem.  Aristotle argued that men always seek happiness, even when their actions will make them unhappy; Aquinas takes it further, and argues that men always seek the Good, even when their actions are objectively evil.  What separates the Christian from the pagan is the recognition that, in order properly to seek the Good, each of our actions must be good as well.  God, as the traditional Act of Faith reminds us, “can neither deceive nor be deceived”; to follow Christ means that we must do likewise.  When we deceive our fellow man, with even the best of intentions, we depart from the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.

(One very vocal defender of Live Action has suggested that the entire problem can be solved through a semantic shift, that we simply need to quit using the word lie, which has a pejorative sense, and replace it with the word deceive, which is neutral.  Yet the Church does not regard deception as an action that can be either good or evil, depending on the circumstances, as both the line from the Act of Faith quoted above and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that “Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving one’s neighbor,” make clear.)

Over and over in Scripture the liar is grouped with the adulterer and the fornicator and the murderer (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:10), all of whom, Scripture says, share the same fate (cf. Revelation 21:8, 22:15).  Again, that seems a hard truth, and we rebel at the thought: What kind of God would consign someone who lies in order to try to save unborn children to the same fate as the man who rips them to pieces in their mothers’ wombs?  And so we seek other justifications.  Perhaps we even admit that Christian morality does declare that lying is always wrong, but, we reason, surely in this context lying is at worst a venial sin, while abortion is a mortal one.

A venial sin, however, is a sin, because it is a departure from the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  The classification of sins comes to us from Scripture (cf. 1 John 5:16-17), but neither Scripture nor Tradition justifies ever committing any sin, even a venial one.  The Church binds us to confess our mortal sins, but She urges us to confess even venial ones, because while they may not, in the end, deprive us of Heaven, they do draw us away from the Truth.  Every Catholic liturgy includes a general confession and absolution, because even venial sins make us less worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  (The second Confiteor immediately before Communion, found in the Traditional Latin Mass up until the Roman Missal of 1962, further stresses this point by reminding us that we may have committed venial sins even while engaged in worshipping Christ.)

But there is more.  As Blessed John Henry Newman writes in Anglican Difficulties, the Church “holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one ….”

This is not scrupulosity; this is a recognition of the fundamental damage that sin—even venial sin—does to our souls.  While venial sin, by itself, “does not break the covenant with God,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns that “Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.”  And now we are back to where we began: “The problem is not that we are sinners: the problem is not repenting of sin, not being ashamed of what we have done.”  To wave the words of the Catechism and Pope Francis away by pointing out the enormity of other people’s sins is to miss the point: Their sins are theirs, and they will be called to account for them; our sins are ours, and we will have to answer for them.  And when we are called to account, our defense cannot be that we departed from the Truth in order better to follow Christ, because Christ is the Truth; nor that we departed from the Way of Life in order to save lives, because Christ is the Way and the Life.

If we make that defense, we will stand forever in the courtyard, dreading, as Peter did, the moment when the cock will begin to crow.  We will never make it, as Peter did, to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where our pride can give way to the proper shame that allows us to embrace the Risen Christ Who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.


  • Scott P. Richert

    Scott P. Richert is publisher for Our Sunday Visitor and Editor at Large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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