What does Sacred Scripture say about the morality of lying?

I hesitated before writing and posting this article, because I know that theological arguments based on Sacred Scripture are widely ridiculed by many Catholics. If an argument from the Bible displeases them, they simply claim that other interpretations are possible. They know that they can disregard any Biblical teaching by suggesting a different, often disingenuous, interpretation. People in sinful secular society today often believe whatever they choose to believe, especially on ethics, as if there were no absolute moral truth. Many Catholics have begun to imitate them. They believe whatever they wish to believe, invent whatever absurd interpretation or a theological explanation is necessary to arrive at that conclusion, and then they claim that it is really the teaching of Jesus or the Bible or the Magisterium.

Another reprehensible approach to Sacred infallible Scripture is to first claim that the Bible contains errors. Typically the types of errors that are claimed concern minor points, even trivialities. Then having supposedly proven that the Bible errs, though their ‘proof’ only concerns irrelevant matters, they next conclude that any teaching on faith or morals in the Bible might also be in error. It is as if alleging trivial errors somehow exempts them from anything they dislike in the bible, from the eternal moral law, and from Divine judgment.

As a matter of dogma, the Magisterium has repeatedly definitively taught that Sacred Scripture is entirely inspired and entirely inerrant, not only on matters of faith and morals, but on all matters about which Scripture makes an assertion.

Now specifically on the topic of lying, Sacred Scripture has clearly and definitively taught that lying is one of those types of deliberate acts that is always immoral.

{20:16} You shall not speak false testimony against your neighbor.

{5:20} Neither shall you speak false testimony against your neighbor.

While some persons have interpreted this commandment as limited to false testimony under oath or during a trial, the Church has always interpreted each of the ten commandments as having a broad meaning, beyond the behavior explicitly forbidden. The commandment against adultery is interpreted as explicitly forbidding adultery, and as implicitly condemning all sexual sins, regardless of marital state. Similarly, the commandment that explicitly forbids a grave type of lying: lying under oath ‘against’ your neighbor, a mortal sin due to the gravity of perjury and of causing grave harm to your neighbor, also implicitly forbids all lying, even when the act is only a venial sin.

Saint Augustine: “On the other hand, those who say that we must never lie, plead much more strongly, using first the Divine authority, because in the very Decalogue it is written ‘You shall not bear false witness;’ [Exodus 20:16] under which general term it comprises all lying: for whosoever utters anything bears witness to his own mind. But lest any should contend that not every lie is to be called false witness, what will he say to that which is written, ‘The mouth that lies slays the soul.’ [Wisdom 1:11] And lest any should suppose that this may be understood with the exception of some liars, let him read in another place, ‘You will destroy all who speak a lie.’ Whence with His own lips the Lord says, ‘Let your communication be Yes, Yes; No, No; for whatsoever is more than these comes of evil.’ [Matthew 5:37] Hence the Apostle also in giving precept for the putting off of the old man, under which name all sins are understood, says straightway, ‘Wherefore putting away lying, speak ye truth.’ [Ephesians 4:25] ” (Augustine, On Lying, n. 6).

The ten commandments is not a list of every sin. Instead, the ten commandments offers a list of ten archetypal grave sins. That is why the type of lying condemned in the ten commandments is of the grave type, bearing false witness ‘against’ someone, and not the more common venial lie. This does not imply that lesser lies, not told as a false accusations, are moral.

So already we see, from the Ten Commandments and their traditional interpretation in the Church, that lying is always immoral. But if we look further into Sacred Scripture, this interpretation is verified so extensively that no other interpretation is possible. Scripture also gives us insight into the definition of lying. For some persons say that lying is always wrong, but they define lying in such a way that deliberately speaking falsehoods is sometimes considered to be ‘not a lie’.

{19:11} You shall not steal. You shall not lie. Neither shall anyone deceive his neighbor.
{19:12} You shall not commit perjury in my name, nor shall you pollute the name of your God. I am the Lord.

Leviticus condemns lying and perjury under oath; therefore, the broad interpretation of the eighth commandment is correct. Scripture not only condemns perjury, but also lying in general.

The same verse that forbids lying, also forbids deceiving. So the claim of some misguided teachers today that a lie is only a lie if it includes deceiving one’s neighbor, is refuted by Sacred Scripture. Lying and deceiving are separate sins.

The Magisterium teaches that there are three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. The intention to deceive, to lead into error, is an immoral intended end (first font of morality). The deliberate speaking of a falsehood, the act itself of lying, has an evil moral object (second font of morality). The Magisterium teaches that, for an act to be moral, all three fonts must be good. USCCB Catechism: “All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.” See also, CCC 1760: “A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.”

So it is not true, as some foolish persons have asserted, that a lie is only immoral if both disorders are present: the intention to deceive (or lead into error) and the inherently disordered act of deliberately expressing a falsehood. Intrinsically evil acts are immoral regardless of intention or circumstances. Scripture condemns the intention to deceive and the act of lying, regardless of whether those disorders occur one or another by itself, or both together.

{6:16} Six things there are that the Lord hates, and the seventh, his soul detests:
{6:17} haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
{6:18} a heart that devises the most wicked thoughts, feet running swiftly unto evil,
{6:19} a deceitful witness bringing forth lies, and he who sows discord among brothers.

If the Lord God hates an act, it cannot be moral. For the basis of the eternal moral law is the Justice inherent in the very Nature of God. It is because God is good that good acts are licit and bad acts are illicit. Each and every immoral act is in some way, to some extent, contrary to the very nature of God, who is Goodness itself.

Proverbs condemns lying as immoral, and this condemnation is separate from the condemnation of bearing false witness: both types of acts are immoral. Deceitfulness is condemned, as is lying alone: both types of acts are immoral.

Is it ever moral to intend to deceive? Consider the three fonts of morality. The intention is the intended end, the purpose for which the act is chosen. But St. Thomas rightly observes that an intention can include the intended means as well as the intended end. [Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 12, A. 4; see also A. 1-3.] And the Magisterium has always taught that the end does not justify the means. Therefore, any moral evil in the intended end or the intended means makes the first font of morality (intention) bad and the act as a whole immoral. But, as I explain at length in The Catechism of Catholic Ethics,

such is not the case for physical evil (harm or disorder). When physical evil is intended as an end, the intention is always immoral. But physical evil may sometimes be intended as a means to a good end. For example, a physician may intend to amputate a limb in order to save a life. His intended end is good, but his intended means is physical evil.

Some commentators have opined that he does not intend to amputate the limb, he only intends to save the life. Certainly, this must be true as concerns the intended end, in order for the act to be moral. But it would be absurd to claim that a physician who intentionally chooses to amputate a limb has no such intention, at least as the means to another end.

Is it ever moral to intend to deceive? That anyone is deceived is a type of harm or disorder (‘physical evil’). If the deception of your neighbor is your intended end, the intention is always immoral. But if the intention to deceive is the intended means to a good end, the intention may be moral, if the good of the end outweighs the harm or disorder of the means (for both the means and the end have consequences that must be weighed in the third font of morality). Therefore, in order to accomplish a good end, one may intend to deceive another person as a necessary means to a greater good. But the chosen act must always have a good moral object, such as mental reservation. One may never intentionally choose to commit an act that is intrinsically ordered toward an evil moral object, such as lying.

{12:22} Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord. But whoever acts faithfully pleases him.

If lying were sometimes moral, it could not be called an abomination to God.

{13:5} The just shall detest a lying word. But the impious confound and will be confounded.

If lying were only immoral sometimes, those who are just would not detest lying. Notice also that, in the above two examples, lying is condemned in itself. The word is called lying, without reference to the intention of the person who lies, such as the intention to deceive, and without reference to the circumstances, such as whether a person has a right to a particular truth.

{4:2} Slander, and lying, and killing, and theft, and adultery have overflowed, and bloodshed has brought more bloodshed.

Not only slander, but also any type of lying is condemned by Scripture. Lying is related to slander because both acts have the same evil moral object. Lying is related to murder, theft, and adultery because all these acts are contrary to the love of neighbor.

{7:13} Do not love a lie against your brother, nor should you act the same toward your friend.
{7:14} Do not be willing to devise a lie of any kind. For the practice of lying is not good.

Lying is not moral when directed toward anyone: your brother, your friend, your enemy, a person who has no right to a particular truth. No lie of any kind is moral. For the practice of lying, that is to say, the intentional choice of the act itself, is contrary to goodness.

{1:7} For the spirit of the Lord has filled the world, and he who contains all things, retains knowledge of every voice.

{1:11} Therefore, keep yourselves from complaining, which benefits nothing, and refrain your tongue from slander, because secret conversation will not pass into nothingness, and the mouth that lies kills the soul.

{1:15} For justice is perpetual and immortal.

God knows all things, including knowledge of every voice. Therefore, lying is immoral, not only because it is contrary to the love of neighbor, but also because it is contrary to the love of God who is Truth and who hears all our words. Slander is also condemned, as it is contrary to love of neighbor and love of God who is Truth. Regardless of how secret your lie is, it is contrary to the love of God who knows all. The mouth that lies kills the soul. For any lie that is gravely contrary to the love of God and neighbor is a mortal sin, causing the loss of the state of grace (which loss is a type of death). And any lie that is a venial sin tends to lead the one who chooses to lie in the direction of further lies, further rejection of truth, and eventual mortal sin. Justice is perpetual and immortal, therefore, lying is not justified at any time, nor in any place. Circumstances cannot transform an intrinsically evil act into a moral act.

{5:33} Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients: ‘You shall not swear falsely. For you shall repay your oaths to the Lord.’
{5:34} But I say to you, do not swear an oath at all, neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
{5:35} nor by earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.
{5:36} Neither shall you swear an oath by your own head, because you are not able to cause one hair to become white or black.
{5:37} But let your word ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ For anything beyond that is of evil.

First, Jesus teaches about oaths. Swearing falsely under oath is certainly a sin. But no one should need to swear an oath to cause others to believe him, for all persons should speak the truth at all times. No one should say ‘Yes,’ if they believe that ‘No’ is true and ‘Yes’ is false. No one should say ‘No,’ if they believe that ‘Yes’ is true and ‘No’ is false. In other words, to intentionally-choose to assert a falsehood is always a sin; it is the sin of lying.

{8:43} Why do you not recognize my speech? It is because you are not able to hear my word.
{8:44} You are of your father, the devil. And you will carry out the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning. And he did not stand in the truth, because the truth is not in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks it from his own self. For he is a liar, and the father of lies.
{8:45} But if I speak the truth, you do not believe me.
{8:46} Which of you can convict me of sin? If I speak the truth to you, why do you not believe me?

Lying is always immoral. If lying were sometimes moral, and other times immoral, it would not be fitting for Jesus to call the devil: ‘father of lies’. The devil is entirely corrupt, and so any action of which he is figuratively said to be the father cannot be moral at all.

{4:25} Because of this, setting aside lying, speak the truth, each one with his neighbor. For we are all part of one another.

Again, this passage condemns lying, exhorting all humanity to speak the truth with one another, without any discussion of intention or circumstances. Certain kinds of actions are always immoral, by the very nature of the act. The eternal moral law rejects all lying as sinful because God is Truth, and because we are all part of one another, part of the family of man created by God.

Finally, as if answering directly those unfaithful souls who claim that lying becomes moral, or becomes not-lying, when good intentions face dire circumstances, Sacred Scripture gives us this example of faithfulness to the eternal moral law.

[2 Maccabees 7]
{7:1} And it happened also that seven brothers, united with their mother, were apprehended and compelled by the king to eat the flesh of swine against divine law, being tormented with scourges and whips.

{7:37} But I, like my brothers, deliver up my soul and my body for the sake of the laws of the fathers, calling upon God so as to bring forgiveness upon our nation sooner, and so that you, with torments and lashings, may confess that he alone is God.
{7:38} Truly, in me and in my brothers, the wrath of the Almighty, which has been led over all our people justly, shall cease.”
{7:39} Then the king, burning with anger, raged against this one with cruelty beyond all the rest, bearing it indignantly that he himself was derided.
{7:40} And so this one also died in purity, trusting in the Lord through all things.
{7:41} Then, last of all, after the sons, the mother also was consumed.
{7:42} Therefore, about the sacrifices and about the exceedingly great cruelties, enough has been said.

These seven Jewish brothers and their mother all suffered ‘torments’ and ‘exceedingly great cruelties’ and finally death, rather than abandon their faith in God. They died rather than commit the mortal sin of apostasy. How does this pertain to the sin of lying? They could have chosen to lie in order to deceive the king. They could have avoided torture and death by lying. They could have pretended to eat swine’s flesh, as was suggested by some who stood near:

{6:21} Yet those who stood near, being moved by an iniquitous pity because of long friendship with the man, taking him aside privately, asked that flesh be brought which was lawful for him to eat, so that he could pretend to have eaten, just as the king had commanded, from the flesh of the sacrifice.

They could also have used an exaggerated (claimed) mental reservation, which in truth is just a clever form of lying. (True mental reservation exists and is moral, but what many Catholics are calling mental reservation is just a form of lying.) But they did not. They were honest and faithful to God.

These seven brothers and their mother are held up by Sacred Scripture as examples for us to imitate. We should not lie, not even to avoid the torture and death of self and family. For lying offends God, whereas accepting suffering and death in order to avoid any sin does not offend God, but rather pleases Him greatly.

Lying is always a sin.
Teaching others that lying is not always a sin, is always a sin.
Teaching a distorted concept of mental reservation in order to justify lying is always a sin.

Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

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