“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?