Fig Leaves, Falsehoods, and the Father of Lies

What does Sacred Scripture say about lying?

{19:11} You shall not steal. You shall not lie. Neither shall anyone deceive his neighbor.

{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,

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

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

{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.

{1:11} … the mouth that lies kills the soul.

{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.

{14:6} Jesus said to him: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.

Jesus is the Truth because Jesus is God, and God is Truth by His very Nature. Jesus calls the devil, “the father of lies”. The devil is opposed to all the good in God and in God’s creation. So while God is truth, the devil is the father of lies. The devil (Satan) committed the first sin in all of Creation, by his pride against God, who is truth. There followed afterward many sins, by many persons, including murder and lying.

How are pride, lying, and murder related? They are opposed to the very nature of God. They are opposed to Jesus who is the Way, Truth, and Life. Following Jesus along His Way takes humility, the opposite of pride. Truth is the opposite of lying. Life is the opposite of murder. So it is no small thing to claim that some lies are moral, or that some deliberate assertions of falsehoods are not really lies.

Sacred Scripture says that we should not be willing to devise a lie “of any kind”. Sacred Scripture says “you shall not lie”. Sacred Tradition has always understood these passages of Sacred Scripture to condemn lying as always immoral. The Commandment against bearing false witness has always been interpreted by the Church as forbidding ALL lies. Saint Augustine condemned lying as sinful, even when a lie might save innocents being sought by murderers. Saint Aquinas condemned lying as always immoral.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that lying is wrong by its very nature, and, in discussing intrinsically evil acts, the CCC gives lying as one example. Pope Saint John Paul II says that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, regardless of the intention or purpose of the act and regardless of circumstances.

Now some lies are venial sins, while other lies are mortal sins. If you in fact choose to lie to murderers in order to save innocent life, it is perhaps only a venial sin.

But if you decide that lying is not always wrong, you imply that all other intrinsically evil acts, including murder, euthanasia, abortion, genocide, rape, slavery, pride, lust, malice, and other gravely immoral acts, are justifiable in the same way. For all intrinsically evil acts are inherently immoral due to an evil moral object, regardless of intention or circumstances.

Revisionist Ethics

Sometimes, we poor sinners, contending with the difficulties of this life, face situations in which telling the truth presents difficulties, and lying would seem to offer a solution. Mental reservation is not fitting for every situation. Remaining silent is not always practical. The traditional answer to this problem is that an honest Christian in a sinful world must sometimes accept suffering, rather than commit a sin.

The radical revisionists have a new solution: just don’t call it lying. They divide the telling of falsehoods into two types, (1) lying, which they pretend to believe is always wrong, (2) and the telling of a falsehood that is somehow not really a lie. Whenever you want to justify a lie, you claim that it is a falsehood but not a lie.

In her article “Fig Leaves and Falsehoods“, Smith asserts that “false signification” (asserting a falsehood) is not always lying. Signification (making assertions) has many purposes, she claims, since the fall from grace of Adam and Eve.

Okay, that’s a new one. So because Adam and Eve sinned, we can ignore Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium, and get away with lying by renaming it “false signification”. Which false assertions are actually lies, and which are not really lies? Supposedly, it depends on your purpose. If you have a good purpose (or intention), then the deliberate assertion of a falsehood is said to be not a lie.

Or maybe it depends on the circumstances, as to whether the person you are deceiving deserves to know the truth. Smith presents both explanations to justify “false signification”. But either way, she is justifying the deliberate assertion of a falsehood, based on either intention (purpose) or circumstances. And when this “false signification” is justifiable, it is conveniently no longer termed lying. In this way, Smith can pretend to believe that lying is intrinsically evil and always immoral. It’s just that the “justifiable” lies are called something else. (I’m not robbing a bank, I’m just making a withdrawal at a bank where I don’t have an account.)

By the way, Smith does the same thing with contraception and abortion. She justifies abortifacient contraception, despite the deaths of innocent prenatals, by insisting that the act is not really contraception, due to a non-contraceptive intention (or purpose) and/or a difficult circumstance. The woman is not committing the sins of contraception and abortion; she is merely taking an abortifacient contraceptive pill, choosing to remain sexually active when she could refrain, and then laughing off the deaths of her own unborn children as a mere side effect. But don’t call it contraception or abortion, because those acts are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

If Smith is right, then why did Pope Saint John Paul II teach, in Veritatis Splendor (the Splendor of Truth), that intrinsically evil acts are never justified by intention or circumstances? And why does the Catechism of the Catholic Church teach the same? The teaching that intrinsically evil acts are defined by their moral object, not by intention (or purpose), not by circumstances or consequences, is very clear. But that teaching is difficult. It means that you must refrain from certain acts, despite the difficulties that will result. It means that you cannot attain certain ends that you desire. And only the radical revision of Catholic doctrine on ethics can justify lying, contraception, abortion, and various grave sexual sins.

What is next? If Smith is right, that we can divide the telling of falsehoods into two types, those that are intrinsically evil lies and those that are morally justifiable, then all other intrinsically evil acts would be justifiable in the same way. The problem is not that someone might tell a venial lie to a murderer to save an innocent. The problem is that when you pervert the teaching of the Church to make a little white lie into a moral act, the cornerstone of Catholic morality — that some acts are always wrong to knowingly choose — crumbles to the ground. Every sin becomes justifiable. Nothing is always wrong. And truth is trampled to the ground.

What about the words of Jesus, that He is the Truth, and that the devil is the father of lies? There is no denying that Smith’s clever article is irreconcilable with the words of Jesus and the teachings of Sacred Scripture on lying. She is doing the work of the devil, teaching Eve that she can eat the forbidden fruit, by renaming the fruit, or by reference to a good intention or a difficult circumstance.

When will the Magisterium condemn these wicked false claims on morality? Well, these false claims are already contrary to the clear and definitive teaching of the Church. I suppose this false claims will continue to be popular, since sinners are always looking for clever ways to justify their sins. But at some point a Pope or Council will condemn these claims as heresy. Until then, many souls are being led astray.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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By the way, a “jocose lie” is not a joke based on an amusing fiction. Rather, a jocose lie is a falsehood told with the malicious intention of causing the other person to behave in a foolish manner, for the amusement of the liar and his friends, to the embarrassment and possible harm of the one who is deceived. This lie is strongly condemned by Aquinas because the malicious intention and possible grave harm makes the lie a mortal sin.

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2 Responses to Fig Leaves, Falsehoods, and the Father of Lies

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    How does “Mental Reservation” fit into this?

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