Lying and Ethics by Example

In discussions on lying, many Catholics approach the question by proposing various examples of acts that seem to be both lies and moral. They then resolve this conflict by either claiming that lying is not always immoral, or by claiming that the lie must be a type of mental reservation and not a lie. But this approach to the moral evaluation of lies is flawed in its methodology. It is essentially based on what seems to be moral, rather than on the teachings of the Church on both the basic principles of ethics and on the immorality of specific acts. The seeming morality or immorality of specific examples cannot be the basis for a moral evaluation.

When an example of lying or of mental reservation is proposed, we should evaluate the act based on the three fonts of morality, as taught by the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor and other sources. A list of examples and their moral analysis follows.

1. a police officer doing undercover work

The ethics by example argument is that if lying were always wrong, then police officers could not do undercover work; therefore, lying is not always wrong. This argument is flawed because it assumes the premise that undercover work must be moral, and because it ignores the clear teachings of the Magisterium that lying is intrinsically evil. Although undercover work is not intrinsically evil, if lying is essential to the work, then the work cannot morally be done.

An operative for an intelligence agency (a covered agent) can often do undercover work without lying. The official cover agent operates under his real name, often working at an embassy of his own government. He gathers intelligence information and passes it on to his government. Spying is not intrinsically evil (Hebrews 11:31).

Using various different names is not lying, since God goes by many names. Also, Sacred Scripture approves of the use of different names by the same person: Abram changed his name to Abraham; Saul to Paul; Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter. And the Saint we all call Veronica (vera icon) was actually names Seraphia. So a police officer could use an assumed name without lying. A rose by any other name is still a rose.

However, many types of undercover police work would practically require lying. Otherwise, a prudent criminal could merely ask, ‘Are you a police officer?’ If any type of work cannot be done without lying, then it should not be done.

Another erroneous approach to this question is to stretch the use of mental reservation to an absurd extent. For example, a police officer is asked if he is a police officer. He states: “I am not a police officer.” The claim is made that the officer’s statement is mental reservation, because he really means that he is not working as a police officer in the open, but undercover. This approach fails the nature of lying cannot be disassociated from the actual statement that is made. The statement is false. The proposed interpretation is not based on the actual spoken assertion. Nothing moral is contrary to reason; the whole moral law is open to reason. When an interpretation of one’s words cannot be understood by reason, it is not an interpretation that can justify mental reservation. This statement of the officer that he is not an officer is the direct and deliberate assertion of a falsehood, therefore, it is intrinsically evil. (All intrinsically evil acts have an evil moral object, are deliberately-chosen, and there is a direct relationship between the object and the chosen act.)

Moreover, the questioner could ask the question in many different forms, and he could ask many different related questions, such as: “Are you working as an undercover police officer?” or “Have you ever been inside of a police station?” or “Do you know any police officers?” or “Have you ever been paid for doing any type of police work?” ETC. The result is that, in practical terms, police undercover work involves lying and therefore cannot morally be done.

2. Jesus stated that He did not know the day and hour of His Return

{13:32} But concerning that day or hour, no one knows, neither the Angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Some persons evaluate this statement by Christ such that Jesus stated He did not know something that He in fact did know. But they also say that He was using ‘wide’ mental reservation. They err because they do not evaluate this act in terms of the three fonts of morality. The assertion that the Son does not know is a direct and deliberate assertion; if the assertion is false, then it is a lie, because lying is the direct and deliberate assertion of a falsehood. Mental reservation is not justified if a falsehood is directly asserted because then the moral object would be evil. And any interpretation of one’s words, needed to make the statement true, must be accessible to reason. For what is moral is always open to reason.

But since the Son of God is Truth, He cannot lie. A direct and deliberate assertion is not a lie if it is true. Therefore, Jesus did not know the day and hour of His own return. But now we are left with the problem of how God who is all-knowing can fail to know anything. The answer is to consider that Jesus, uniquely, is one person with two natures, Divine and human. He therefore has two minds: a finite human mind and an infinite Divine mind. In His Divine mind, Jesus knows all things all in one act; such is the omniscience of God. But it would be a heresy to claim that the human nature of Jesus is not finite, for then He would not be like us, in His human nature, in all things. And, for much the same reason, it would be a heresy to claim that the human mind of Jesus, though finite, has the same type or degree of knowledge as His Divine mind. So we are obliged by correct doctrine to hold that Jesus did not know all things in His human mind, and that what he did know was not known all at once, in one act, a way of knowing found only in the Divine Nature. (It is not a heresy to say that the human mind of Jesus is finite and therefore does not know all things.)

Why would Jesus, at that point in time, not know the day and hour of His own return? It is because it was not ordinate for Him to know. The human mind of Jesus has the Beatific Vision of God, but being finite nevertheless does not know all things. His human mind only knows what is ordinate or fitting for Him to know.

3. Examples are given from various Saints’ lives, on the premise that if a Saint uttered a statement, it could not be a lie. This approach is flawed because the Saints are generally also sinners. A Saint might lie. Or a Saint, being a sinner, might misunderstand the proper use of mental reservation in a particular instance, and assert a falsehood incorrectly thinking that it is justified by mental reservation. So these examples cannot be used to build a doctrine on lying and mental reservation. This approach is particularly regrettable when it ignores the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on the basic principles of ethics.

4. In the book of Tobit, the Angel Raphael makes what seems to be a false assertion:

{5:18} But, lest perhaps I cause you to worry: I am Azariah, the son of Hananiah the great.”

The claim is made that since his name is really ‘Raphael’, he must be either lying or using wide mental reservation. Both claims are false. First, the Angels were created long before humanity and human language. So it cannot be said that the only true way to refer to this Angel is by the Hebrew name Raphael. Second, the assertion is true if properly understood, AND the listeners were capable of properly understanding by use of reason. Hebrew names often have a meaning in Hebrew. Azariah is a name meaning ‘Yahweh helps,’ which is an apt description of Raphael. Hananiah is a name meaning ‘Yahweh is merciful,’ which is an apt description of God himself. The Angels are sons of God. And he calls Hananiah ‘the great’ because he is using that name to refer to God himself. God is great.

So Raphael did not lie. Neither did he use mental reservation so widely that his true meaning could not reasonably be understood.


Lying is properly defined as the direct and deliberate deprivation of truth from an assertion, in other words, it is the intentional choice of an act that directly asserts a falsehood. Mental reservation can never fit this definition. If it does, then it is actually a type of lying. Mental reservation only has a good moral object when the assertion can be reasonably understood as true, without the addition of unspoken words and without an interpretation that is outside the scope of reason applied to the assertion by itself.

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3 Responses to Lying and Ethics by Example

  1. Jonathan Simcoe says:

    So, if someone directly asks a police officer if he is a drug dealer (because his cover is to portray he is a drug dealer) and he says ”yes”, then, he is not lying but only keeping his cover ? Whereas if the question would have been are you a police officer (while he was keeping his cover as drug dealer), and had said ”no”, then he would have been lying ?

    • ronconte says:

      I don’t think it is true for him to say he is a drug dealer. There will always be some differences of opinion when applying ethics to a myriad of different real world questions. But it is not useful to go through every possible question that he might be asked, and determine which ones can be answered using mental reservation. Some questions could be answered using mental reservation, but not all. Therefore, he would not be able to work undercover without lying.

  2. Jonathan Simcoe says:

    Thank you. That is a fair and just answer.

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