Is Lying Ever Justified?

Can You Lie for a Good Cause?

Lying (crossing fingers)
Young woman crossing her fingers behind her back. Peter Glass/Getty Images

In Catholic moral teaching, lying is the deliberate attempt to mislead someone by telling an untruth. Some of the strongest passages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church concern lying and the damage that is done through deception.

Yet most Catholics, like everyone else, routinely engage in “little white lies” (“This meal is delicious!”), and in recent years, spurred on by sting operations against Planned Parenthood conducted by pro-life groups such as Live Action and the Center for Medical Progress, a debate has broken out among faithful Catholics over whether lying is ever justified in a good cause.

So what does the Catholic Church teach about lying, and why?

Lying in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

When it comes to lying, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mince words—and neither, as the Catechism shows, did Christ:

“A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, … there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” [paragraph 2482].

Why is lying “the work of the devil”? Because it is, in fact, the first action that the devil took against Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—the action that convinced them to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus leading them away from truth and from the Lord:

Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord [paragraph 2483].

Lying, the Catechism says, is always wrong. There are no “good lies” that are fundamentally different from “bad lies”; all lies share the same nature—to lead the person to whom the lie is being told away from the truth.

By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity [paragraph 2485].

What About Lying in a Good Cause?

What if, however, the person with whom you’re interacting has already fallen into error, and you’re trying to expose that error? Is it morally justified to “play along,” to engage in lying in order to get the other person to incriminate himself? In other words, can you ever lie in a good cause?

Those are the moral questions we’re confronted with when we consider things like the sting operations in which representatives of Live Action and the Center for Medical Progress pretended to be something other than what they really were. The moral questions are obscured by the fact that Planned Parenthood, the target of the sting operations, is the United States’ largest provider of abortions, and so it’s natural to frame the moral dilemma in this manner: Which is worse, abortion or lying? If lying can help uncover ways in which Planned Parenthood is violating the law, and that helps to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and reduces abortions, doesn’t that mean that deception is a good thing, at least in these cases?

In a word: No. Sinful action on the part of others never justifies our engaging in sin. We can understand this more easily when we’re talking about the same kind of sin; every parent has had to explain to his child why “But Johnny did it first!” is no excuse for bad behavior.

The trouble comes when the sinful behaviors seem to be of different weights: in this case, the deliberate taking of an unborn life versus telling a lie in the hopes of saving unborn lives.

But if, as Christ tells us, the devil is “the father of lies,” who is the father of abortion? It’s still the same devil. And the devil doesn’t care if you sin with the best of intentions; all he cares about is trying to get you to sin.

That’s why, as Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote (in Anglican Difficulties), the Church

holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one … [emphasis mine]

Is There Such a Thing as Justified Deception?

But what if the “willful untruth” not only doesn’t harm anyone, but could save lives? First, we have to remember the words of the Catechism: “By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.” In other words, every “willful untruth” does harm someone—it harms both yourself and the person you’re lying to.

Let’s set that aside for a moment, though, and consider whether there might be a difference between lying per se—that which is condemned by the Catechism—and something that we might call “justified deception.” There is a principle of Catholic moral theology that can be found at the end of paragraph 2489 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has been cited repeatedly by those who wish to build a case for “justified deception”:

No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

There are two problems with using this principle to build a case for “justified deception.” The first is obvious: How can we get from “No one is bound to reveal the truth” (that is, you can conceal a truth from someone, if he has no right to know it) to the claim that you can openly deceive (that is, make knowingly false statements) to such a person?

The simple answer is: We can’t. There is a fundamental difference between remaining silent about something we know to be true, and telling someone that the opposite is, in fact, true.

But once again, what about situations in which we’re dealing with someone who has already fallen into error? If our deception simply prompts that person to say what he would have said anyway, how can that be wrong? For instance, the unstated (and sometimes even stated) assumption regarding the sting operations against Planned Parenthood is that the Planned Parenthood employees caught on video supported illegal activities before they were given the opportunity to do so.

And that’s probably true. But in the end, it doesn’t actually matter from the standpoint of Catholic moral theology.

The fact that a man routinely cheats on his wife would not remove my culpability if I were to introduce him to a woman that I thought would indulge his passions. In other words, I can lead someone into error in a particular instance even if that person habitually engages in the same error without my prompting. Why? Because every moral decision is a new moral act. That’s what it means to have free will—both on his part and on mine.

What the “Right to Know the Truth” Really Means

The second problem with building an argument for justified deception on the principle that “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it” is that the principle refers to a very specific situation—namely, the sin of detraction and the causing of scandal. Detraction, as paragraph 2477 of the Catechism notes, is when someone, “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.”

Paragraphs 2488 and 2489, which culminate in the principle that “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it,” are very clearly a discussion of detraction. They use the traditional language found in such discussions, and they offer a single citation—to passages in Sirach and Proverbs that refer to revealing “secrets” to others—that are classic passages used in discussions of detraction.

Here are the two paragraphs in full:

The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it. [paragraph 2488]

Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it. [paragraph 2489]

Seen in context, rather than ripped out of it, “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it” clearly cannot support the idea of “justified deception.” What is under discussion in paragraphs 2488 and 2489 is whether I have a right to reveal another person’s sins to a third person who does not have a right to that particular truth.

To take a concrete example, if I have a coworker who I know is an adulterer, and someone unaffected in any way by his adultery comes to me and asks, “Is it true that John is an adulterer?” I am not bound to reveal the truth to that person. Indeed, in order to avoid detraction—which, remember, is “disclos[ing] another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them”—I cannot reveal the truth to the third party.

So what can I do? According to Catholic moral theology on detraction, I have a number of options: I can remain silent when asked the question; I can change the topic; I can excuse myself from the conversation. What I cannot do, under any circumstances, however, is to lie and say, “John is certainly not an adulterer.”

If we are not allowed to affirm an untruth in order to avoid detraction—the only circumstance actually covered by the principle “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it”—how can affirming an untruth in other circumstances possibly be justified by that principle?

The Ends Do Not Justify the Means

In the end, the Catholic Church’s moral theology regarding lying comes down to the first of the moral rules that, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “apply in every case” (paragraph 1789): “One may never do evil so that good may result from it” (cf. Romans 3:8).

The problem in the modern world is that we think in terms of good ends (“outcomes”) and ignore the morality of the means through which we attempt to arrive at those ends. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, man always seeks the Good, even when he is sinning; but the fact that we are seeking the Good does not justify the sin.