It never fails, when the subject of the morality of lying arises in a discussion, that someone will propose the scenario of lying to Nazis to save Jews. You are hiding innocent Jews in your home. Nazis arrive at your front door, seeking to murder those innocents, and they ask you if you are hiding any Jews in your house.
This hypothetical is not new. Saint Augustine considered the question as to whether it is moral to lie to murderers in order to save innocents. The “lying to Nazis to save Jews” scenario is simply a more recent version of that question. And it does not matter, to the morality of the question, if it is extremist Muslims seeking to murder moderate Muslims, or terrorists seeking to murder school children, or the Khmer Rouge seeking to murder doctors and teachers. The basic scenario is the same: murderers ask you if you are hiding innocents, and you in fact are hiding them. Is it moral to lie in that situation?
The classical answer of moral theology is that of Saint Augustine and Saint Aquinas.
Augustine answered that the act of lying is your own sin, for which you would be culpable, but the act of murder is the sin of the other person, for which you would not be culpable. Each human person is bound by the eternal moral law to avoid sin. And neither is it justifiable for you to commit a lesser sin, so that someone else will not commit a greater sin. [Saint Augustine, On Lying, n. 13.]
Aquinas considers the more general question: “Whether every lie is a sin?” His answer is ‘Yes’. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica writes:
“On the contrary, It is written (Sirach 7:14): ‘Be not willing to make any manner of lie.’
“I answer that, An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that ‘lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.’ Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i).” [Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 110, A. 3.]
The answer of Sacred Scripture is also very clear, all lying is to be rejected. For God is Truth, and Satan is the father of lies. See my post: What does Sacred Scripture say about the morality of lying?
The teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that lying is wrong by its very nature (CCC 2485). Does this assertion imply that lying is always wrong? Yes, for the Magisterium teaches that acts which are wrong by their very nature are intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral.
Pope John Paul II:
Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused.
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.
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. [ Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 78, 81.]
It is not moral to commit even a small sin, in order to obtain a great benefit, nor to avoid a great harm. God said to Saint Catherine of Sienna that one should not commit the smallest sin, not even to redeem the whole world from Hell.
Saint Catherine of Siena: “The light of discretion (which proceeds from love, as I have told thee) gives to the neighbor a conditioned love, one that, being ordered aright, does not cause the injury of sin to self in order to be useful to others, for, if one single sin were committed to save the whole world from Hell, or to obtain one great virtue, the motive would not be a rightly ordered or discreet love, but rather indiscreet, for it is not lawful to perform even one act of great virtue and profit to others, by means of the guilt of sin.” [The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, n. 42. In this quote, God is speaking to St. Catherine by means of a private revelation.]
It is not moral to lie in order to save someone from eternal damnation, so it is also not moral to lie in order to save someone’s life. For all those innocents who die at the hands of murderers will have eternal life in heaven; all is not lost for them, even if the murderers succeed in killing them. All true innocents go to Heaven. But if you sin for any reason, you offend God and you are not entirely innocent.
Be innocent, like the innocents that you are hiding from murderers, and reject all lying.
A Practical Argument
The moral teaching of Scripture and the Church is clear. Lying is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral. But there is also a practical argument to be made here, which offers several reasons why this scenario does not work to justify lying.
1. The scenario is disingenuous
No one ever uses this example to assert that lying is only moral in extreme situations. They always quickly move on to justify all the convenient little lies of their ordinary lives: lying to one’s spouse to avoid hurt feelings, lying to their children to obtain some type of behavior, lying to one’s boss at work to avoid getting in trouble, lying to the government to obtain some type of benefit, and so on.
See the problem? The extreme example of lying to murderous Nazis to save Jews is merely a pretext to justify lying to virtually everyone around you for virtually any reason. It is reprehensible to use the severe harm of the Jewish holocaust as a way to justify all the convenient little lies of your life. Even if lying were moral in the extreme hypothetical, the conclusion that all other lies can be justified by any good intention or by any difficult circumstance does not follow, and is contrary to magisterial teaching.
2. The scenario is naïve
Nazis come to your door and ask you if you are hiding Jews. You lie and say: “No.” And then the Nazis just go away. They totally take your word for it, because they trust you and are also very gullible. Yeah, right.
Is that really how the scenario would play out? Not at all. They are going to search your house no matter what you say. They are not going to take your word for it.
They will search your house anyway. Lying will not save lives. Lying will not make them go away.
3. How well can you lie?
It is easy (but still immoral) to lie to children. They tend to believe whatever they are told. But you are not going to convince Nazis to refrain from searching your house by one lying word. Nazis are not naïve. They will regard your every answer with great suspicion. They have no inclination to believe anything you say.
And they will not accept a simple one word answer. They are going to question you at length: “Are you hiding Jews in your house? Have you seen any Jews in this area? Have you ever known any Jews in your life? Do you know of any businesses owned by Jews in this area?” And so on.
So, if you choose to lie, you are going to have to tell one lie after another: sentence after sentence, explanation after explanation. How well can you lie? If you lie badly, so that they detect that you are lying, they will realize that you are hiding innocents in your house, and they will not stop searching until they find them. Lying incompetently will result in the deaths of innocents.
So, how well can you lie? This is not an ordinary conversation. You are under duress. There is a literal gun to your head, or to the heads of your wife and children. If you lie and the Nazis realize you are lying, people will die. They will kill the innocents that you are hiding and your whole family. Even if you are an experienced actor or actress, capable of an Oscar-worthy performance, you might not be able to lie convincingly while they point guns at you and your family members. There are no second takes. They will scrutinize your every word, tone of voice, facial expression, and the wording of every answer. And if they even think for a moment, if they even detect the slightest indication, that you might be lying, they will not stop searching until they find the innocents you are hiding.
By lying, you are betting the lives of everyone in your home that you can lie so convincingly, under extreme duress, that wicked persons who regard you with great contempt and suspicion will be convinced. If you lie unconvincingly, they will realize you are lying and that the opposite is true: you are hiding innocents in your home.
Lying is more likely to result in the deaths of everyone in your home. You are not that good of an actor. You are not that clever in your lying answers to intense questioning. By lying, you are not only committing the sin of lying, you are committing the sin of endangering innocent lives.
4. Silence is much more effective
In the face of extreme evil, such as Nazis seeking to murder Jews, you should consider silence as one of the best options. Jesus was silent before Herod. He said not a word to that evil man.
Mental reservation is not intrinsically evil. In ordinary difficult circumstances, you might morally use mental reservation. But in the extreme scenario of murderers seeking innocents, the same practical problem arises with mental reservation as with lying. If they detect that your answer is misleading, you will have given away the innocents. If the wording of your answer is not exceedingly clever and convincing, despite being thought up on the spur of the moment, you will have done more harm than good by inadvertently indicating that you are hiding innocents.
It is better to remain silent. Let them search the house, and hope that the innocents are hidden well enough not to be found.
5. Violence is an option
If the murderous Nazis find that you are hiding innocents, they will likely kill you and your family as well. Everyone in your home is in danger of being murdered. So it is moral to use deadly force against Nazis who come to your home to murder everyone.
But many commentators object to the idea of using violence against murderers who come to your home to kill innocents. The same commentators who insist that the “lying to Nazis to save Jews” scenario justifies almost any lie, object strongly to the use of violence to save those innocents. Why? If the context of the question were not lying, but rather when killing constitutes self-defense rather than murder, would not this scenario be accepted as a clear case of self-defense? It is more clear as an argument for killing in self-defense than for lying.
But they object strongly to the killing of murderous Nazis because it disarms their excuse for all the little (and big) lies that they wish to tell in their own lives.
Faith versus reason
The Catholic religion is based on both faith and reason. However, faith is greater than reason. If the Faith teaches that lying is always immoral (and it does), and if you are a person of faith, then you will set aside your own reasonings and give the teachings of the Church the religious submission of mind and will. The problem is that most Catholics, even those that seem devout, still put their own ideas and reasonings above Church teaching. And that is why the great apostasy is near.
A wise man is no better than a fool, unless he is also brave. Have the courage to reject the majority opinion of your peers and your own reasonings, when the teaching of the Church is to the contrary.