Monday, November 16, 2009

Is Lying Always Wrong?

Q - I have a question about lying. We all know lying is a sin, I think even an intrinsically evil one. CCC 2485. What about the police sting operations? Specifically the ones used to catch child predators. Often times a police agent will pose as a child in order to entice the criminal. Sinful?

A -
Thanks for the question! Let us look at the paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that you cited.
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.
We can see that a lie is when we consciously withhold the truth from someone.  It can be a grave sin, depending on the situation.  But, what about these situations where someone is lied to in order to bring justice?  The Catechism says this:
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 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 know it.
Notice the last line - we are not bound to give someone the truth, if they do not have a right to know it.  So, building on these two paragraphs we can define a lie as = deliberately withholding the truth from someone who has a right to it.

One example I might give to illustrate this definition is the following:
-During World War II a Christian family helps their Jewish neighbors by hiding them in their house.  Nazi soldiers come knocking on the door and ask if there are Jews inside.  The Christians say there are not Jews inside.  Did they lie?  Not by the definition above, because the Nazis have no right to the truth.

In the same way, if someone is trolling the internet looking for minors to prey upon, they have no right to know if they are talking to a police officer or not.  Therefore the officer is not lying and no sin is committed.

Other situations that may keep us from giving out information (when we might say nothing at all) include protecting another person's privacy, company secrets, government intelligence, personal reputation, etc.

I hope this helps.


Keith said...

Great post. The "right to know" issue is crucial to point out. In that vein, could you elaborate on the issue of gossip (perhaps in a piggyback post), the close cousin of lying? The motivation is a discussion I had recently about how personal information about others can sometimes be permissively relayed even in the innocuous wrapper of a "prayer request."

Chris said...

My daughter, in her child-like wisdom, said this when she heard the question: "Sometimes!"

tour86rocker said...

"The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet LANGUAGE."

But discreet language isn't actually the same as untruth. I think it's saying that you can be silent, answer in a way that instead changes the subject, offering up your own life, or exercise some other kind of cleverness.

I don't feel that lying to those who aren't entitled to the truth squares with the precept that good ends don't justify bad means.

Daniel said...

I appreciate your concerns which are obviously relevant today, but your definition of a lie misrepresents the Church's view in the Catechism. Silence and discreet language employed to hide something of the truth is not at all a lie, which is to speak what is false.
What you might not be aware of is that the initial edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was sent to the Bishops of the world in 1992, was REVISED as to its definition of the lie. The initial edition in 1992 defined a lie in relation to a person's "right to the truth." The finally promulgated edition of 1997 took this right's language out, as it had never been the Church's stance on lying. It was a Protestant introduction by Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century, and eventually spun into all sorts of problematic positions.
In the case of the Nazis...silence and wit are licit, but not lying, which is a different thing all together.
It is true not everyone has a right to all particular truths of a given situation, and that we can employ silence and wit, but never a lie- St. Paul admonishes us never do evil so that good may come of it.
There is a great debate raging over at
on this very issue.


Marcel said...

Daniel - I still disagree with your conclusions and have put a response up here -