An error in the definition of lying

The teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church must be read and interpreted in the light of Tradition, Scripture, and the other documents of the Magisterium. Read in isolation, the CCC is easily misunderstood because it is so terse. The concise nature of the CCC is useful, in that many doctrines are succinctly summarized. But it is also problematic, if the reader is not careful to avoid misinterpretation. Worse still, is the error of reading one passage of the CCC in isolation from other passages of the CCC.

In his blog, The Fifth Column, Steve Kellmeyer’s examination of a CCC passage on lying results in an erroneous definition.

“Let’s look at the definition:

” ‘2483 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.’ [emphasis added]

“There are two parts to a lie:
1) speaking or acting against the truth
2) in order to lead someone into error.

“Both parts must obtain in order for the speech or action to be morally illicit.”

The CCC states that: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” Let’s analyze this statement in terms of the three fonts of morality, taught by Veritatis Splendor as well as the CCC. There are two parts to this statement:
1) The intention or purpose (the first font of morality), to lead someone into error,
2) and the chosen act itself, with its moral nature as determined by the moral object (the second font of morality), speaking or acting against the truth.

The CCC defines lying by stating the nature of the act (second font), to speak or act contrary to the truth, and the most common intention (first font), to lead into error. However, this does not imply that a lie told with a different intention is moral or is not a lie.

As Veritatis Splendor definitively teaches, any act with an evil moral object is an intrinsically evil act, and intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Every intrinsically evil act is always immoral because the act is, in and of itself, that is, by its very nature, immoral. The CCC teaches the same doctrine about intrinsic evil, along with the specific teaching that lying is an example of an intrinsically evil act:

“2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

Any act that is immoral by its very nature is an intrinsically evil act.

“1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just.”

Any act that is intrinsically disordered is an intrinsically evil act. Therefore, the CCC teaches that lying is an intrinsically evil act.

That the phrase “in order to lead someone into error” is part of the intention, not part of the moral object, is clear from this statement in the CCC:

“2485 The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity.”

The CCC teaches that lying is intrinsically evil, and that a good intention does not make an intrinsically evil act moral. The CCC also teaches, as does Veritatis Splendor, that intrinsically evil acts are immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

“1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

Therefore, according to a proper interpretation of the CCC, a lie told without the intention to deceive or to lead into error, or a lie told in dire circumstances, is still a lie and is still an intrinsically evil sin.

Skellmeyer’s statement that, “Both parts must obtain in order for the speech or action to be morally illicit,” is false because these two ‘parts’ are the first and second font of morality. The ‘part’ which is the intention is not essential to the definition of lying. Also, Veritatis Splendor, the CCC, the Compendium, and the USCCB Catechism all teach that all three fonts must be good for an act to be moral.

“1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together.”

Any one bad font makes an act a sin. So it is contrary to the teaching of the CCC to say that both a bad intention, to lead into error, and an evil moral object, speaking contrary to truth, must be present for the act to be a lie, or for the act to be a sin.

Veritatis Splendor, the most comprehensive and definitive magisterial document on ethics, teaches that intrinsically evil acts are immoral due to their moral object, regardless of intentions and circumstances.

Pope John Paul II: “Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. (Veritatis Splendor, n. 80).

“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. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”. 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. (Veritatis Splendor, n. 81).

Evangelium Vitae teaches the same doctrine on intrinsic evil:

Pope John Paul II: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 62).

Since lying is intrinsically evil (intrinsically disordered, morally illicit by its very nature), no circumstance, no purpose or intention, can make the lie moral. Neither can any intention or circumstance transform lying into some other type (or species) of act, one that is good or moral.

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