Pope Francis and lying to save life

by jimmyakin

in +PopeFrancis, Moral Theology

In World War II, some people lied to protect Jewish individuals and save their lives. Was this right? Here's some information you might want to be aware of.

Back during World War II, some people lied to save Jewish lives.

More recently, Lila Rose has used undercover tactics to expose Planned Parenthood.

At issue is the question of whether it is every okay to lie, particularly when you’re trying to save lives.

We live in a violent world, and the issue keeps coming up in human history.

Here is some information you might want to be aware of involving Pope Francis.


On the One Hand

Before we get to the Pope Francis material, we should note that there is a strong view in the history of Catholic thought that says lying of any kind, for any reason, is always wrong.

This view has been endorsed by some of the biggest names in Catholic theology, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

There have been other views proposed as well, though they have not been the majority view, and it does not appear that  the Magisterium has infallibly settled the question.

Indeed, the original edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church contained a definition of lying that seemed to endorse a proposal made some decades ago that restricted what countes as a lie to telling a falsehood with the intent to deceive a person who had the right to know the truth.

If this was lying in the technical sense, then it would imply that some cases of lying in the broader, everyday sense (telling a falsehood with the intent to deceive, without specifying whether the deceived person has a right the truth) would not be morally wrong. Some such acts could, potentially, be justified if the person to whom the (broad-sense) lie was told had no right to the truth.

The fact that the original edition of the Catechism included this statement is a notable indicator that the matter has not been infallibly settled, and advocates of the lying-is-always-wrong view should bear in mind that the history of the question is not uniform and does not appear to be infallibly settled.


On the Other Hand

Although the original edition of the Catechism seemed to endorse the restricted view of what counted as lying, they changed it.

Now the relevant passage defines lying this way:

To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error [CCC 2483].

(Remember the “or act” part. It’s going to be important.)

When the Holy See released the changes to the original edition of the Catechism, they did so without commentary, and so Catholic moral theologians have tried to discern the significance of this change.

Was the Holy See endorsing the historical majority view? Or was it simply not wanting to endorse restricted view and defaulting to a more general formulation of the kind one would expect in a catechetical text, leaving the technical questions to the experts to hash out over time, under the guidance of the Magisterium?

Whichever was the case, the publication of this new wording would not constitute an infallible determination of the issue any more than the publication of the original wording of the Catechism did.

Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger was at pains to explain that the treatment of a subject in the Catechism does not change the weight the Magisterium assigns to a particular teaching.

Whatever weight it had before the publication of the Catechism, that it is the weight it had afterwards.

Read more about that here.

However, advocates of the lying-is-sometimes-not-wrong view should bear in mind that the historical majority position and at least the wording in the current edition of the Catechism is against them.


Part of the Problem

Part of the problem here is that we are torn between two powerful intuitions.

On the one hand, we have a powerful intuition–planted in human nature by God himself–that lying is wrong.

That’s a human universal. It appears in every culture. Indeed, cultures could not even form among people who didn’t have the level of mutual trust that the anti-lying ethic is meant to foster.

On the other hand, we also have an intuition that in some cases deceiving another person is not wrong, particularly when that person is an aggressor and the stakes are high.

Thus police officers adopt ruses when trying to catch criminals. Spies do it to serve their nations. Military forces do it to achieve victory on the battlefield.

How precisely these two intuitions–the need to tell the truth and the need to save lives–are to be squared is something too complex to go into here.

I will not be proposing any solutions to this question, and I await further guidance from the Magisterium.

However, I would like to call the reader’s attention to some material that has recently become available in English.


The Actions of Church Officials


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Sue in soCal May 18, 2013 at 5:08 am

If it ever becomes necessary that I have to lie to save a life, I will lie and face whatever judgment God has for me.

Joseph Z May 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Just as an experiment, I wonder how this would work with other things. For example, stealing is wrong. But it wouldn’t be a sin say to steal a weapon from one who was going to use it to harm others… in other words, to save life. Or lets say an alcoholic has just purchased a new bottle of liquor… I don’t believe it would be a sin to try and take this away from him, because he would only use it to hurt himself. I don’t see why this can’t work in the case of lying to save the life of others. Our hypothetical Nazis would only perform great evil with the truth, and as such the truth has become twisted and is a weapon, much like I have a right to own a firearm to defend myself and to hunt, but not to harm another person, and it is at that point someone is right to take such a thing away. I think I agree with Dr. Janet Smith, perhaps there is another final end to speech rather than simply telling the truth which had to become so after the fall… It just seems to me like it would be a grave mistake to force people into a moral doubt about such a thing when the stakes are so high… I mean, surely drinking a little is more against nature than lying to save life? I don’t know, I just know that I don’t *think* the Lord would be offended by such an action. But that’s what moral and philosophical argument is for right? To find the answers to such questions haha

StephenKorsman May 26, 2013 at 5:47 am

The whole mental reservation argument – in my opinion that is neutralised by the reference to the “acts” that may deceive, and only works if lies depend on expressed words for their existence.  Words can be used to deceive, and acts can be used to deceive.  Mental reservation is an act of omitting words in order to deceive.
If I am hiding Jews in my fridge, and Nazi soldiers come to me door and I give them the ridiculous story that there are Jews in my fridge, my intent is to deceive them.  I therefore make a statement that is truthful in words but deceitful in its act.
If I tell the Jews to go and hide, and I tell the soldiers that I don’t know where any Jews are (because I don’t know if they hid in the fridge or the broom cupboard, and other Jews are not on my map), my words may technically be true, but I do know that they are in my house.  My intention is to deceive, my act of omission is designed to deceive.
In such situations I can easily keep my words accurate, but to save Jews, I can’t act without the intent to deceive.
Rahab (Judges 2) lied a) about knowing who the spies were, and b) where they had gone.  No mental reservation there.  James 2:25 (KJV) – “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?”
So her works (acts) were good.  It can be argued, of course, that the good acts excluded the lies, and were limited to the protection.
Jesus said we can rescue a sheep from a pit on the Sabbath.

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