Much time and energy has been wasted in the recent debate about lying – since some have simply refused to accept the definition of a lie as given by the Church and also by philosophy. Here, I will briefly discuss the central points of this definition and offer a few clarifications.
The definition given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Following St. Augustine, the Catechism defines a lie as: “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” (2482) This is the definition given in both editions of the Catechism – a point which many have overlooked. Likewise, even the first edition of the Catechism stated that, “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.” (2485)
Finally, we point to an earlier portion of the Catechism, in which the criteria for the evaluation of the morality of human acts are laid out: “The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action. […] A good intention (for example, that of helping one's neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just.” (1750, 1753)
From these passages (common to both English editions of the Catechism) we can discern that lying is wrong always and everywhere – it is evil “by its very nature,” it is “intrinsically disordered.” This means that lying is not wrong merely on account of the intention of the liar, nor on account of the circumstance of those to whom the lie is told; the act itself is wrong, because “it is a profanation of speech.” Lying is wrong, because it is contrary to the very nature of communication – speech and signs are meant to communicate the internal word from one mind to another; therefore, to directly communicate what the mind holds to be false is always wrong.
Notice that the nature of lying does not rest on the intention of the one telling the lie (as though a lie were only a lie, if the liar had an evil intention), nor on the circumstances of the one to whom the lie is told (as though a lie were only a lie, if told to someone who had a right to the truth). Since lying is “intrinsically” or “by its very nature” evil; it must be maintained that the act itself is wrong, not merely the circumstances or the intention.
Modifications from the first to the second edition of the Catechism
Many have noted that there were some changes in the discussion of lying from the first edition to the second (typical) edition of the Catechism. We consider those modifications here [the first edition is in italics, the corrected text is in bold]:
To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.
To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.
Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving the neighbor who has the right to the truth.
Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving one's neighbor.
The key modification regards the qualification – someone [or the neighbor] who has the right to know the truth – which was removed from the Latin (and subsequent English) edition of the Catechism.
We have already seen that both editions of the Catechism claimed that lying is “intrinsically” evil. Likewise, both editions began the discussion of lying with the definition given by St. Augustine, a definition which leaves no room for any qualification about the subjective status of the person to whom the lie is told: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” Moreover, both editions of the Catechism rest upon the philosophical theory of speech according to which the very nature of speech “is to communicate known truth to others.”
Indeed, the qualification given in the first edition of the Catechism, but removed from the second edition, contradicts the rest of the discussion of lying. Both the patristic and the philosophical foundations of the Catechism’s teaching on lying require that the nature of a lie be defined not by the subjective state of the other, but by the very words and gestures themselves – if, by words or signs, a man communicates to another what he himself holds to be false as though it were true, he has lied.
The question of intention
Some have claimed that a lie is not a lie if it is told with the intention of bringing a person to conversion. These persons point to the following line from the Catechism: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” (2483) They will say that the error to which the Catechism refers is principally moral error – such that, if a lie is told with the intention of bringing about some moral good, it is not a lie.
For our part, we can no longer presume the good will of those who would make such a claim – they are quite obstinately abusing the Catechism in order to win the argument.
The “error” referred to in CCC 2483 is, quite obviously, not moral error but intellectual error. The paragraph states that “lying is the most direct offense against truth,” and that lying injures “man’s relation to truth.” In the following paragraph, we read that “the gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms.” Finally, in CCC 2485, lying is condemned as a “profanation of speech;” since speech is meant “to communicate known truth to others,” but lying consists in “saying things contrary to the truth.”
Lying is a deception which, by its very nature, is intended to lead another into intellectual error – to thinking that something false is true. The good intention of the liar (for example, trying to lead another from moral error into moral rectitude) does not make this “behavior that is intrinsically disordered” to be good or just.
Not all deception, however, is a lie. The Catechism makes a slight reference to the doctrine of mental reservation in CCC 2489: “Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not to be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to it.”
The “discreet language” referred to above is not lying, but broad mental reservation. We have already discussed this topic at length in previous articles, but here we will simply summarize the doctrine.
Broad or wide mental reservations can only be used when speaking “to someone who does not have the right to [the truth].” A broad mental reservation is not a lie, for though the other is deceived, the speaker does not directly state a falsehood, but instead makes use of ambiguous or discreet language. This ambiguity must arise either from the words themselves or from the circumstances of the communication.
The doctrine of mental reservation is in no way an allowance for some lies, but is in fact a more precise teaching about lying itself. Lest any should think that a lie is wrong primarily because of the intention to deceive, the Church has clarified that broad mental reservation (which includes the intention to deceive) is not intrinsically evil, but that lying (which consists in presenting falsehood as truth) is by its very nature to be condemned. Hence, we see that the evil of lying lies not in the intention of the speaker, but in the very nature of the act itself – which is the purposeful communication of falsehood as truth.