The Catechism of the Catholic Church on 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.

Many online commentators have misunderstood the CCC definition of lying.

“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.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2482, 2483.]

The description of lying in the above quote has two parts:
1) speaking or acting against the truth
2) with the intention of leading someone into error.

Therefore, some foolish commentators claim that both parts are required in order for the act to be a lie. In this approach to the sin of lying, it is admitted that lying is intrinsically evil, but the claim is made that the deliberate assertion of falsehood is not a lie, or is not intrinsically evil, unless accompanied by the intention to deceive or to lead into error.
Now the CCC does state that: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” But 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 description of lying:

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. An act can be described by its essential moral nature, the second font alone, or an act can be described in terms of two or three fonts. But neither type of description implies a contradiction or nullification of the teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.

For example, euthanasia is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But the definition of euthanasia is essentially murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. Suppose that the same act of murder is committed with a different intention, such as to gain an inheritance. The act is no longer defined as euthanasia, but it is still an intrinsically evil type of murder.

The intrinsically evil act of direct abortion is essentially murder in the circumstance that the person being killed is prenatal. But if the same act of murder is committed after the child is born, then it is infanticide, not abortion. But the act remains a type of murder because the moral object is unchanged.

Therefore, the definition of an intrinsically evil act can include a particular intention or circumstance. But this does not imply that the intrinsically evil act becomes moral, or is no longer intrinsically evil, with a different intention or different circumstances.

Pope John Paul II: “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.]

As Pope John Paul II’s encyclical ‘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, in and of itself, that is, by its very nature, is 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:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” [n. 2485.]

Any act that is immoral by its very nature is an intrinsically evil act. Other terms used to refer to intrinsically evil acts include: “intrinsically disordered”, “intrinsically immoral”, “intrinsically wrong”, and “something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order.” The Magisterium often expresses the very same doctrine using different terms. Diversity of expression tends toward clarity of meaning.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.” [n. 1753.]

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:

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error, by saying things contrary to the truth, constitutes a failure in justice and charity.” [n. 2485.]

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.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “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.” [n. 1756.]

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 a sin, and an intrinsically evil act.

See my booklet:
Is Lying Always Wrong?

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

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