Lies, damned lies…

“I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come….But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not in public but as it were in secret.” John VII 8 – 10

I find this passage strange because, taken literally, Jesus appears to have told a lie. One authoritative apologist interpreted this as mental reservation: Jesus was not going up in the way which his friends expected. He just failed to add this rider. Of course we can’t read too much into a single passage in the fragmentary Gospel account but it does bring us up against an interesting question.

In the 1994 edition of the Catechism a lie is described as ‘to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.’ Here the criterion is one of justice. But this was revised (by Cardinal Ratzinger, as it happens) in the 1997 edition to “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.’ The remedy offered in hard cases is either silence or ‘discreet language’. The latter presumably refers to mental reservation of various kinds. (Section 2475 et seq.)

The second reading is undoubtedly the traditional one, based on a natural law understanding that telling a lie is to abuse the faculty for speech which was given to us for telling the truth. Mental reservation allows one to deceive in certain extreme cases, but one must not actually tell a lie. Loquatio contra mentem was how the theologians put it. Readers of Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua will know what a fuss that caused.

What do you think? Do you believe that all lies are wrong, irrespective of circumstances? Is there any point on the scale, from social lying to telling a Nazi contingent that there are no Jews in the house, at which you would accept a direct lie? Or would you follow the justice interpretation – holding that, although truth is in general owed to our neighbour, there are circumstances when a direct lie would be justifiable? What examples would you give?

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7 Responses to Lies, damned lies…

  1. Stair Sainty says:

    One hates to admit to fault (in public anyway), but lies may sometimes be a necessary part of one’s social relations. If one’s spouse, for example, after Christmas indulgence, asks one’s opinion of an outfit, should one always be honest? Is a truly honest answer sought by the questioner?

    Perhaps a criteria that may have to be applied sometimes is whether the truth may cause unnecessary hurt. Sometimes brutal honesty may be necessary, but not always.

    The difficulty one confronts in not always adhering to the entire truth is the example it may set one’s children. Parents lie about Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy and when a child eventually learns that both are beneficient inventions, the child may even feel betrayed – particularly when mocked by their contemporaries who may have learned the truth earlier or never believed the fable.

    As a parent and husband I have not always been able to determine what answer to give. When an older child, doubting the Tooth fairy has challenged me in front of a younger child, still a contented believer (and recipient of the fairy’s generosity), was I right to firmly insist on the fairy’s existence – but then explain why to the older child later?

    These are “small” lies, of course, but I am not even sure whether it is morally right to differentiate between the big and small lie.

  2. hugo1963 says:

    I’m not sure that I don’t believe in Father Christmas, but the Tooth Fairy has been pretty slack or I should be rich by now – just like my dentist. But Stair Santy gives some good examples. Here is another one.
    I have been invited to a social occasion, which I want to avoid.

    “I would love to come (lie), but I have another engagement (lie)”

    “Sorry, I can’t come” (lie, because I can, but won’t)

    “I don’t want to come” (truth but hurtful)

    If I was the inviter I would prefer to receive the first, even though I know that it may not be true. And if it is not true at least I know an attempt has been made to spare my feelings.

  3. Horace says:

    Perhaps this quotation may help. It is from:- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger “GOD and the WORLD” — A Conversation with Peter Seewald.

    To interrupt with one little question: Are necessary lies permissible, for instance getting someone to say on the telephone that you are unavailable?
    These are quite practical questions on which even moralists are divided. There is an important school of thought, represented by Kant, that holds that truth has a value in itself and that it is therefore never appropriate to trespass against it. It is quite understandable that someone should want another person to say on the phone that he is not there. But you should at any rate keep very careful watch on yourself here; once you open this little door you very quickly slip farther and farther. But I would not want to condemn straightaway such an attempt to protect oneself — because I do it, too.

  4. tim says:


    The meaning of words alters according to their context. There is also what the speaker intends to say: and what those who hear him understand. For legal purposes, the question is generally what those who are addressed reasonably understand him to have meant. What is said may have more than one meaning – neither the speaker nor his hearers need realise this.

    I tell a lie (I suppose) if I say something that I know that my intended hearer must interpret in a sense I know to be false. What other hearers may understand by it is probably less important. But I am not (if not on oath) necessarily obliged to tell the whole truth, or indeed to say anything at all. Nor am I always obliged to be clear or unambiguous.

    Charity is an obligation as well as truth. There are degrees of both. It may be necessary to choose between them, according to circumstances. When your wife, before a party, says: “How do I look?” the response “Smashing!” is to be preferred to “Much as usual” (even when both are equally true). Careful drafting helps (which is what I would understand by “discreet language”). To say (on the phone) that someone is ‘not available’ does not necessarily mean that they are not there, or physically unable to come to the phone: it may simply mean that they are not prepared to make themselves available in the circumstances. The hearer may understand this: and the speaker may reasonably expect that he should. To refuse an invitation ‘because of a previous engagement’ is a formula, which is generally not understood literally. In less formal situations, this may not do: but it should usually be possible to find words that combine truth and charity. “That sounds lovely, but I’m afraid it’s a bit difficult…”?

    I’m sure there is sometimes a duty to lie: including when the Nazis inquire about Jews in the cellar. Here charity has a clear priority: and one shouldn’t waste time on colourable evasions in case they arouse suspicion. In less extreme circumstances, one must make prudent judgements, giving full weight to the rights of truth: “keep very careful watch on yourself”. Perhaps it’s like the use of physical force, permissible for grave reasons as a last resort (or is that a dangerous analogy?)

  5. Durham says:

    2 miscellaneous points

    The NSRV says that in some ancient manuscripts the John quote: “I am not going to this festival” add the word “yet”. Presumably the ediitors thought this was an interpolation. But only the original text was inspired, and no copy exists.

    Horace’s quote is interesting because Ratzinger refers to Kant. But he doesn’t refer to Augustine and Aquinas, who took the same view, but for different reasons. This reinforces his habit of preferring non religious philosophers in his addresses.

  6. Iona says:

    “I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come”.

    Jesus similarly says “My time has not yet come…” at Cana, apparently to refuse his mother’s implicit request that he help the unfortunate wedding MC with his inadequate supply of wine; and yet goes on to accede to that request.

    Don’t both quotations simply show Jesus changing his mind? Or, demonstrating a reason for not doing something which he nevertheless went ahead and did?

    Both are from John’s gospel, incidentally. Or is it incidental?

  7. Tyn* says:

    Loquatio contra mentem is the definition – saying what is not the case. Mind u it is not saying what may not be the case, but what certainly is not the case. It has to be against a fact. It would’ve been a lie had Jesus denied ever going to the feast later on, or if he had denied having said he wouldn’t go. But when u change ur mind what do u do?

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