Is Lying Always Wrong? — part 3: Saint Augustine

It is often incorrectly stated that St. Augustine defined lying as follows: ” ‘A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.’ ” This text is a quote in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2482; the citation is from St. Augustine, On Lying. However, the quote is mistranslated and taken out of context.

First, St. Augustine says: “4. But it may be a very nice question whether in the absence of all will to deceive, lying is altogether absent.” (On Lying, first sentence n. 4).

The phrase ‘very nice’ is more accurately translated as ‘very subtle’ [Latin: subtilissime]. Augustine then goes on to discuss the possibilities, but does not resolve the question as to whether or not a false assertion without the intent to deceive is a lie. He does not state a position on this question. He discusses several different possible definitions of lying, and does not settle on one definition.

However, he leans toward the position that a false assertion is still a lie, even without the will to deceive. For he advises us that we should neither have the will to deceive, nor deliberately assert a falsehood. He says that we should not do either one, whether separately or together.

“For there is no need to be afraid of any of those definitions, when the mind has a good conscience, that it utters that which to be true it either knows, or opines, or believes, and that it has no wish to make any thing believed but that which it utters.” (On Lying, last sentence n. 4).

Why then does Augustine define lying as ‘speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving’? He does not. The whole passage reads as follows.

“But whether a lie be at some times useful, is a much greater and more concerning question. Whether, as above, it be a lie, when a person has no will to deceive, or even makes it his business that the person to whom he says a thing shall not be deceived although he did wish the thing itself which he uttered to be false, but this on purpose that he might cause a truth to be believed; whether, again, it be a lie when a person willingly utters even a truth for the purpose of deceiving; this may be doubted. But none doubts that it is a lie when a person willingly utters a falsehood for the purpose of deceiving: wherefore a false utterance put forth with will to deceive is manifestly a lie. But whether this alone be a lie, is another question. Meanwhile, taking this kind of lie, in which all agree, let us inquire, whether it be sometimes useful to utter a falsehood with will to deceive.” (On Lying, first paragraph, n. 5)

St. Augustine doubts whether or not it is a lie to utter what is false without the intention to deceive. But he does state that everyone agrees it is a lie if a person willing utters a falsehood with the purpose (intention) of deceiving. However, this is not put forward by him as a definition of lying, since he adds “whether this alone be a lie, is another question.” In other words, speaking a falsehood with the intention to deceive is certainly a lie, but speaking a falsehood without the intention to deceive might also be a lie; he is not certain.

Therefore, it is false to say that St. Augustine defined lying such that a person ONLY lies when his utterance of a falsehood includes an intention to deceive. Unfortunately, the English text of the CCC gives the impression that Augustine defined lying in just that way. Here is the CCC quote again, ” ‘A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.’ ” It is at best a loose translation of the Latin text of Augustine (accurately quoted in the Latin CCC). But at worst it is a mistranslation affected by a misunderstanding on this point of moral theology by the author or editor responsible for this text.

The Latin text in the CCC, presented as a quote, reads: ” ‘Enuntiationem falsam cum voluntate ad fallendum prolatam manifestum est esse mendacium’ “. And this is an exact quote from the Latin text of On Lying (De Mendacio) as found in: OEuvres complètes de Saint Augustin, Volume 22, p. 7; Augustine, De Mendacio, Caput 4, n. 5.

The full Latin text there reads as follows:
“Nemo autem dubitat mentiri eum, qui volens falsum enuntiat causa fallendi : quapropter enuntiationem falsam cum voluntate ad fallendum prolatam, manifestum est esse mendacium.”

My translation is fairly literal: “But none doubts him to be lying who willingly asserts a falsehood for the purpose of deceiving; because of this, it is manifest that the assertion of a falsehood with the intention to lead [someone] into being deceived is a lie.”

The CCC translation has ‘speaking’ instead of ‘asserting’ (or enunciating), which is fine as long as we understand ‘speaking’ broadly, so that any type of indication (such as a nod of the head) would be included. But the phrasing “a lie consists in” is not justified by the Latin text of the CCC, nor by the full text of Augustine. He plainly states that this phrasing is not a definition that would necessarily include every lie. Speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving is a lie, but it is not the definition of lying. Augustine considers that it might still be a lie to assert a falsehood without intending to deceive.

All this pertains to what Saint Augustine actually wrote. But more important is how we should understand the thoughts of Saint Augustine in the light of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Augustine is not Jesus Christ, and his words are not Sacred infallible Scripture. We must consider that perhaps the position of Augustine can be improved by recourse to Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

On the basic principles of ethics, no other magisterial document in the history of the Church is as thorough and comprehensive in its definitive teaching on ethics as Veritatis Splendor. The three fonts of morality, formerly a common opinion of theologians, became, upon the publication of Veritatis Splendor, the definitive teaching of the Church. We do not live in the time of St. Augustine. It would be sinful for us to ignore the teaching of the Magisterium since that time, or to consider only the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas, and the CCC, while ignoring Veritatis Splendor. [The Latin phrase ‘Veritatis Splendor’ loosely translates as ‘the encyclical that most Catholics pretend does not exist’.]

The three fonts of morality are: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances.

Applying the three fonts of morality to Saint Augustine’s work on lying is fairly straight forward. He considers numerous possible difficult or grave circumstances, and whether or not it would be moral to lie in those circumstances. He concludes that it would not be moral to lie in any circumstance, not even to save an innocent life, and not even to save one’s self from rape (On Lying, n. 13-14, n. 40-41). Even dire circumstances, in his view, do not justify lying. In terms of the three fonts of morality, Saint Augustine was in effect implicitly teaching the now explicit doctrine of the Magisterium that an intrinsically evil act (an act with an evil moral object) is never justified by any circumstance.

As discussed in the first two parts of this article series, lying is intrinsically evil. Every lie has an evil moral object, the deprivation of truth from an assertion, or, put more simply but less philosophically, to assert a falsehood. But since intrinsically evil acts are always direct and deliberate, one must know or believe that the assertion is false (is contrary to truth), and the assertion must be direct. An indirect assertion would be a case of mental reservation (which is sometimes moral, and other times immoral).

So the doubtful matter, which Augustine does not resolve, is answered by applying the teachings of Veritatis Splendor. An act is intrinsically evil when it has an evil moral object. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Since lying is intrinsically evil, it must be immoral to lie even without the intention to deceive. To say otherwise is to contradict the teaching of Veritatis Splendor and the CCC that intrinsically evil acts are immoral, regardless of intention.

“There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery.” (CCC, n. 1756).

“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.” (CCC, n. 1753).

The CCC states that intrinsically evil acts (acts with an evil moral object) are morally illicit (sinful) “independently of intention or circumstances”. The CCC also states that intrinsically disordered acts (another way of referring to intrinsically evil acts) cannot be justified by any intention. And the example of lying is given as one such intrinsically evil act, which is not justified by intention.

Therefore, the teaching of the CCC on lying and on intrinsically evil acts clearly answers the doubt of St. Augustine on whether it is still a lie if a falsehood is asserted without the intention to deceive. It is a lie and a sin to assert a falsehood, regardless of intention. For lying is intrinsically evil, and intrinsically evil acts are immoral regardless of intention or circumstances.

The teaching of Veritatis Splendor, while it does not specifically mention lying, also asserts the doctrine that every intrinsically evil act remains immoral despite a good intention or dire circumstances.

“One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species – its “object” – the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 79).

Many persons take the position, on the question of lying, that it would be impossible to determine whether a lie is morally evil without knowing the intention and the circumstances (the totality of the foreseeable good and bad consequences). This position is rejected by the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor. An evil moral object makes an act immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

“Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 80).

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. ‘As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?’. Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81).

“For this reason – we repeat – the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 82).

The teaching of Veritatis Splendor could not any clearer. Whenever any act is intrinsically evil (having an evil moral object), then the act is never justified by intention or circumstances. And when we apply this doctrine — and it is a doctrine of the Magisterium, not merely a theological opinion — to the work of St. Augustine on lying, we must define lying as the assertion of a falsehood, regardless of intention. Although Augustine states what is, in practice, the most common purpose for which a lie is told, to deceive, this intention is not essential to the moral species (the inherent moral meaning or essential moral nature) of the act itself. Only the moral object of the intentionally chosen act, to assert a falsehood, is needed for the act to be intrinsically evil and always a sin.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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