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The Catechism on Lying:
2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.
2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.
2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.
2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.
Aquinas on Lying
Objection 4. Further, one ought to choose the lesser evil in order to avoid the greater: even so a physician cuts off a limb, lest the whole body perish. Yet less harm is done by raising a false opinion in a person’s mind, than by someone slaying or being slain. Therefore a man may lawfully lie, to save another from committing murder, or another from being killed.
Reply to Objection 4. A lie is sinful not only because it injures one’s neighbor, but also on account of its inordinateness, as stated above in this Article. Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms [. . .] Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).
ST II-II, Q. 110, A. 3.
Tim Evans says
I have an objection I’ve never heard you entertain in all your years of being a South Pole Elf.
If I understand correctly, your logic goes as follows:
“All lies are sinful. Lying to a child about Santa Clause is a lie. Therefore, it is a sin to lie about Santa Clause.”
Is that right?
Okay. What if the first premise is actually false? Not that “The Church is wrong” or anything so dramatic, but simply that there are exceptions to many rules, and this may be one.
Hypothetically, could you entertain the possibility that if you were able to travel back in time to bring this specific question to the Angelic Doctor, or the holy well-intentioned men who wrote out the Catechism, they might consider it an exception? Of course they never thought about such a silly thing as Santa. Could it be that they would laugh and say, “ok, that’s an exception to the all-lies-are-sinful rule.”
There are preceding examples of exceptions to otherwise universal truths. For instance, in Romans 5:12 it says all men are stained with original sin. And yet we know of four examples of exceptions to the rule. But the Bible doesn’t say “with at least four exceptions!” No, it says “all men”.
So, could this not be one of the likely exceptions to the “all lies” rule that was simply never considered?
Jim Mensching says
Of course, Thomas didn’t have Nazis at the door.
I will grant my knowledge of Thomas can fit on the tip of my little finger (sin of Pride, since I am exaggerating) but there is some element of coercion here when you have an authority which is intrinsically evil – Nazis – are asking someone to participate directly in the harm of another human being. This is different from say, harboring a fugitive who has committed (or has been accused of) a an activity reasonably recognized as a crime , since being Jewish (or another ancestral group) would not constitute a crime in any reasonable circumstance. The lie in question is not designed to promote harm or violence, but in fact designed to prevent it. Complete truthfulness in this case would lead to a much graver sin – accessory to murder/genocide. Catechism 2484 seems to take this into account somewhat, at least (in our eyes) calling it a venial sin and appreciating context and “lesser of two evils.” Forget Nazis – what man would dare truthfully answer “yes” to the question “Do I look fat in this?”
Now if a lie is told for direct benefit for the person lying, there may be an element of sin. Examples would be lying to cheat someone out of something, to avoid consequences of behavior, etc. In this case a lie is committed to hopefully save the life of another, and the liar is still at great harm. After all, in John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” After all even if the person tells the truth he still risks punishment/execution by the Nazis for the “crime” of harboring Jews. All those throughout history who have protected the innocent from the wicked surely used some form of deception.
i really enjoyed listening to your podcast about lying to kids on Santa Claus. But on the matter of if swearing is okay. I was a bit uncertain as to what you meant. can you talk bout it, in regards to James 3:10
Stephanie K says
Hello Pints with Aquinas!
Thanks for this podcast. I enjoyed it very much, especially since this has been a conversation in my own marriage, where my husband takes a position similar to yours about not lying to kids about Santa, but I grew up with the Santa tradition and loved it. I spent every Advent writing and leaving notes to the elves in strange places around our house, which my mom would find and respond to with tiny handwritten notes with updates from the elves about what their lives were like at the North Pole, etc. It was an experience of love and delight. I felt so loved and attended to, knowing that someone had found my note under the couch or by the cat door, and writing a response to it! Sometimes it took the “elf” a couple days to come across my note if it was in an obscure place and sometimes the elves didn’t answer my questions as thoroughly as I hoped, but they always responded in some way or drew a little picture or something. I certainly believed it was the elves writing to me, though once I found out it was my Mom, it didn’t really matter. In my spiritual development, the experience had the same effect whether it was the elves or my mom, for as I have come to recognize it later in life, it was an early experience or lesson of attentiveness of (ultimately) God. The goodness of that correspondence was never limited to the elf or my mom anyways, since it was just a shadowy image of a higher reality and truth, namely the way my thoughts and hopes and whole life are known and held by God. So in a world where there is so much sordidness and sickness and lack and destruction, I am keen to maintain whatever wholesome childhood traditions there are that can offer kids the occasion to experience love as a taste of Love.
SO, in defense of Santa and the elves, a question:
Question – What if intellectual consistency leads us to a position that just seems untenable in the end? Don’t you think there are certain situations where a conclusion might have to be rejected because it just seems unreasonable in the final assessment? I was intrigued that in the Nazis-at-the-door situation, you seemed to acknowledge this possibility. For although you’d demonstrated the intellectual consistency of how lying even in such a situation would still meet the definition of a lie and therefore sinful to some extent according to Aquinas – nonetheless you acknowledged, that if you were actually in that situation, you’d probably just go ahead and lie to protect them! I think I would as well, because to do the intellectually consistent thing there just seems off; the thought of betraying the people in the basement offends a more common-sense assessment of the situation. So in your admission that you’d probably lie to protect the Jews, it seems you acknowledge there is a point where the intellectually consistent conclusion has to yield to some other gut-level assessment of what is reasonable and good.
Obviously, I grant that the Santa issue is COMPLETELY different in so many ways, since lying to protect people from torturous death has such higher and more noble and compelling stakes than just trying to maintain a silly childhood tradition. But still, doesn’t your admission about what you’d actually do in the Nazi situation perhaps clue us into a larger principle? that sometimes the intellectually consistent conclusion just doesn’t make sense? For me at least, that’s what’s going on in the Santa situation. I can track with you all the way through the Aquinas’ definition of lying and its sinful nature and it all seems philosophically very neat…. But in the end, we end up in a position that just seems kind of untenable and unreasonable: Opposing telling kids about Santa – seriously? come on! I’m guessing that a lot of people, like me, are ultimately inclined to throw intellectual consistency out the window just because it clearly seems to have gone wrong somewhere along the line. When I think about the experiences of love that I had as a child through the Christmas traditions, my husband’s very intellectual opposition to Santa not only isn’t compelling, but also just seems kind of unreasonable and ‘off’ in a strange and Grinch-like way. So we can agree on definitions of sin and talk about that all day long….. But in the end, I hope I would lie to protect the Jews, and I still don’t really see a problem with promoting the Santa traditions. So what do you think? Is your admission that you’d perhaps just protect the Jews, regardless of philosophy, an acknowledgement that there is another more common-sense logic at play? Or do you not agree?
If one is going to commit to the moral absolutism of saying that lying is always wrong, then it entirely inconsistent to say that killing or violence of any sort, even in self-defense, could ever be justified. Common sense instructs one how terribly foolish this is though, and that it is not only justified, but upright and even obligatory, for us to stop a malicious man engaging in violent evils with the proper means, be they violent or fatal. In this way, then, that there is a just kill, there is a just lie. To bottleneck on the metaphysical emptiness of the nature of a lie is to admit of Kant’s deprived ethics. Of course, we don’t want to be utilitarians either, and not live by any genuine moral principles but only preferred consequences. This is why I found this episode rather disappointing; it misses out on the genius that is virtue ethics. We aren’t good merely to uphold the metaphysical dignity of morality, Morality is good on its own. It is instead so that our lives can imbued with the dignity of morals, which is exactly what it is to be virtuous. A just lie, then, is so because it preserves the common good – the lives and well-being of others. Not to mention, it keeps one intending evil from harnessing the Truth and making something wicked with it. If need be, one can wade into deeper metaphysical waters, going into Plotinus and Augustine, about the nature of evil and how it is a privation. It’s on this score that one can also defend a just lie, since this privation instead works to preserve being. Excuse me then, I have an axe to not return to a madman…