Errors on Lying at the New Theological Movement blog

In this post, It is a sin to lie, even to Planned Parenthood, a Catholic priest, posting under the pseudonym ‘Reginaldus’, discusses Catholic doctrine on lying. The main point of the post is that lying is always immoral. This point is supported by the teaching of the CCC that lying is intrinsically disordered, implying that lying is intrinsically evil. And traditional moral theology has always held the lying is that type of act that is always immoral. So the main theme of the post is true doctrine.

[For information on the identity of Fr. Reginaldus, see this post.]

However, there are a number of doctrinal problems with the rest of the post.

First, Reginaldus cites Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas, and the CCC, but he ignores Veritatis Splendor. The encyclical Veritatis Splendor by Pope John Paul II is the most comprehensive magisterial document on the basic principles of ethics, especially on intrinsically evil acts. Lying is intrinsically evil, and yet the encyclical that discusses intrinsic evil in the greatest depth is not cited. In fact, I can find no reference to Veritatis Splendor in any of the posts at the New Theological Movement.

Second, in discussing lying, Reginaldus does not mention intrinsic evil or moral object or the three fonts of morality in his post (though he mentions intrinsic evil in a comment below the post). His analysis of lying suffers from his disregard for the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on the three fonts of morality. By not evaluating lying based on the three fonts, he falls into certain errors.

Third, his definition of lying is erroneous.

Since lying is intrinsically evil, the correct definition of lying will be always wrong based on its moral object, regardless of intention or circumstances. Therefore, we cannot incorporate intention or circumstances into the definition, if such an incorporation would imply that intention or circumstances determines, in whole or in part, the moral object. The use of intention and circumstances to determine the moral object is a widespread problem in moral theology today; this erroneous approach is used by some persons to claim that contraception is moral with some intentions or in some circumstances, to claim that direct abortion is really indirect, etc. The re-imagining of the moral object as partly the result of intention or moral object has the effect of allowing one to state that a particular act is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral, while justifying certain examples of that act by saying that a particular intention or circumstance causes the act to be no longer intrinsically evil. And that is essentially the problem with Reginaldus’ post.

Reginaldus erroneously says: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church has accepted St. Augustine’s definition of a lie: ‘A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.’ ” Like so many authors today, Reginaldus accepts whatever the CCC states without question, as if the CCC were infallible. In fact, this point in the English CCC is a mistranslation of the Latin CCC and of Augustine’s Latin as well, as I explain here.

Furthermore, the mention of intention or circumstances when describing an intrinsically evil sin does not imply that the moral object is a result of intention or circumstances. An intrinsically evil act can be defined with a mention of the most common intention or circumstances associated with that act, as long as the moral object and the immorality of the act is independent of intention or circumstances. So, for example, masturbation is defined by the CCC with a mention of the most common intention (to obtain sexual pleasure), but this does not imply that masturbation for some other purpose would become moral or would become no longer masturbation (as Fr. Martin Rhonheimer erroneously asserts). In another example, euthanasia is defined as murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. But if the same moral species of act were done with a different intention, such as to obtain an inheritance, the moral object would remain evil and the act would remain intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

So if we interpret the CCC in the light of the teachings of Veritatis Splendor on the three fonts of morality, we can easily see that a statement of the most common intention for lying (to deceive) does not imply that a lie with a different intention is no longer a lie and no longer intrinsically evil. In fact, the teaching of Veritatis Splendor necessarily implies that lying be immoral even without the intention to deceive and even without the consequence that a person is deceived.

Did St. Augustine define lying such that the intention to deceive must be present for the act to be always immoral? No, he did not. He explicitly states that perhaps it is also a lie to deliberately assert a falsehood without any intention to deceive, and he recommends that the reader never deliberately assert a falsehood at all. St. Augustine did not teach that all lies include the intention to deceive. See my lengthy explanation on this point.

So Reginaldus has an incorrect definition of lying. At the start of the post, he asserts that lying includes the intention to deceive. Later, in the comments, he incorrectly asserts that “The essence of a lie is deceiving another through stating a falsehood.” But the consequence that a person is deceived by a lie is in the circumstances. This contradicts his own correct assertion that: “because lying is intrinsically evil, and this is an act of lying, no circumstances can justify the sin.” Reginaldus defines lying as if the nature of the act depends, not solely on the moral object, as Veritatis Splendor teaches, but on intention or circumstances as well. He admits that the Church condemns all lies because of their nature (what Veritatis Splendor calls the species of the act), but he misunderstands what determines that moral nature or species.

Fourth, Reginaldus errs in his explanation of mental reservation. How does lying differ from mental reservation? Since lying is intrinsically evil and mental reservation is not, the difference is in the moral object. This conclusion follows from the teaching of Veritatis Splendor, (an encyclical the New Theological Movement blog entirely ignores). But because he does not properly define lying in terms of its moral object, he also misunderstands mental reservation.

In a subsequent post, Lying to Planned Parenthood, or is it mental reservation?, he continues the same type of error. First, he correctly asserts: “On account of the fact that lying is a depraved act by its very nature, there is no circumstance in which it is permissible to lie…” But then he falls into the error of incorporating circumstances into the definition of the nature of the act: “To deceive another by uttering a falsehood is always a lie, and it is always wrong.” The fact that a person is deceived by a lie is a consequence in the circumstances of the act. If one were to lie with the effect that no one was deceived, as often happens when a lie is discovered, the act remains lying and remains intrinsically evil. Similarly, if one were to lie with an intention other than to deceive, the moral object would be unchanged, as would the nature of the act.

Next, Reginaldus goes on to discuss many different examples of mental reservation. The problem here is that he makes wide mental reservation very wide indeed, so wide that almost any assertion could be made to seem moral by means of the intended and very unlikely interpretation. For example, he claims that an undercover cop could state: “I am not a cop” as a type of mental reservation, because he really means “I am not working as a cop.” But this example of mental reservation is the strict type (condemned as a type of lying). For the assertion as stated is not true. An undercover police officer is still a police officer. And the additional words “not working as a” are not stated or implied.

So while Reginaldus correctly asserts that lying is always wrong, his definition of lying and of mental reservation is erroneous, with the result that some lies are permitted.

The main source of this very common problem in moral theology today (doctrinal errors concerning intrinsically evil acts) is the utter rejection of Veritatis Splendor, a document of the Magisterium that definitively teaches the Church on the topic of the three fonts of morality.

Update: in a more recent post, The Nature of a Lie, Father Reginaldus acknowledges that lying is intrinsically evil, due to its moral object, and that lying is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. His interesting post on Lying in Sacred Scripture is here. To a great extent, his more recent posts correct the previous post’s failings, mentioned above.

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2 Responses to Errors on Lying at the New Theological Movement blog

  1. Jonathan Simcoe says:

    Could you please explain in what ”circumstances” or ”way” a police officer may misrepresent the fact he is a police officer in the course of his undercover investigation without lying, if any ?

  2. ronconte says:

    My answer is too lengthy for a comment. I will work on a post on the subject.

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