The Catechism on Lying and Intrinsic Evil

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teaches, just as Pope Saint John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor:

1. intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances
2. an intrinsically evil act is an act with an evil moral object
3. neither intention or circumstances can make an intrinsically evil act moral or justifiable

“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. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).” CCC 1753

“The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.” CCC 1754

“A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” CCC 1755

“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.” CCC 1756

In the CCC, Veritatis Splendor, and other magisterial sources, intrinsically evil acts are indicated by language such as: “in itself evil”, “intrinsically disordered”, “inherently immoral”, etc. The moral object is referenced by terms such as “in and of itself” or “by its very nature” and also “the moral species” or “the moral nature” of the act. When the moral object is evil, the act is intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Intrinsically evil acts are immoral by the nature of the act. These are acts that objectively offend God, despite good intention and dire circumstances. Intrinsically evil acts are not always gravely immoral, but they are always immoral. A venial lie is intrinsically evil, even though it is not a mortal sin. On the other hand, many intrinsically evil acts (perjury, adultery, murder, contraception) are objective mortal sins.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.” Veritatis Splendor 67

Pope Saint 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. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object’.” Veritatis Splendor 80

Pope Saint John Paul II: “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 81

Therefore, if an act is intrinsically evil — wrong by its very nature, intrinsically disordered — no intention, however good, and no circumstance, however dire, can justify the knowing choice of that act. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.

Neither can we cleverly redefine the act, so that an intrinsically evil act become dependent on a circumstance or an intention for its definition. In such a case, we would be putting a new label on an act that remains, despite our disingenuous terminology, inherently wrong by the very nature of the act.

Lying

Some persons, out of weakness of faith or weakness of mind, have proposed that either:
a. lying is not always immoral, or,
b. the deliberate knowing choice to assert a falsehood is not a lie and not intrinsically evil, unless accompanied by the intention to deceive.

Both of these proposals are contrary to the clear and definitive teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on the three fonts of morality and intrinsically evil acts.

Both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine taught that “every lie is a sin” [On Lying, n. 1; Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 110, A. 3.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that lying is wrong by its very nature, and intrinsically disordered:

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

“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. The end does not justify the means.” [CCC 1753]

Moreover, the text above clearly states that a good intention cannot justify lying. The Magisterium teaches that lying is intrinsically evil, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

So the first proposition (a. lying is not always immoral) must be rejected.

As for the second proposition (which redefines lying), this claim is always contrary to the teaching of the CCC and Veritatis Splendor.

“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…. 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.”

A change in intention does not change the moral object. Every act with an evil object is intrinsically evil and always immoral.

Moreover, the definition of lying given by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theological does not reference or depend on intention at all:

I answer that, An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.” Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i). [Summa II-II Q 110 A 3]

Aquinas also explains (Q110, A 2) “That a person intends to cause another to have a false opinion, by deceiving him, does not belong to the species of lying, but to perfection thereof”. In other words, the usual intention that accompanies lying is not essential to its definition as an intrinsically evil act.

Therefore, we cannot define an intrinsically evil such that a certain bad intention makes the act intrinsically evil, and a different good intention makes the act not intrinsically evil, despite having the same object.

How then should be understand the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” [CCC 2482]

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

There are a few possibilities for the interpretation of the above quotes.

1. The most common intention is stated, but speaking a falsehood should still be defined as lying with any other intention as well.

This interpretation is supported by the teaching of the Church on the three fonts of morality. The overall act of the human person is good only when all three fonts are good; any one bad font makes the act a sin. So an intrinsically evil act can be described along with its common intention or the typical circumstance associated with the act; the overall act always includes all three fonts. But such a description does not imply that an act with a bad moral object is made good by a change in intention, nor does it imply that the moral object depends on the intention.

This interpretation applies also to the definition of masturbation given in the CCC: “the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure.” The most common intention, “to derive sexual pleasure”, is stated. But the act itself is intrinsically evil regardless of intention. No faithful Catholic would claim that the very same physical act would become moral if the intention were something other than to derive pleasure.

In another comparison, the CCC (and Evangelium Vitae) describes euthanasia as including the intention “to eliminate suffering”. The intention of the act is also termed the motive or purpose of the act. But as the CCC makes clear “Whatever its motives” euthanasia “is morally unacceptable.” Euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving suffering. But if the intention were otherwise, the act itself remains intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

2. The phrasing “in order to lead someone into error” might be understood as a description of the moral object. Lies are inherently deceptive; they are ordered toward leading others into error. In this interpretation, a lie for a good purpose, so as to save lives, would still be intrinsically evil. Even if the person has no intention, in their own mind and heart to deceive, the chosen act is inherently deceptive.

Similarly, direct abortion is gravely immoral even if there is no intention to kill the prenatal, but only to save the life of the mother. The knowingly chosen act is still ordered directly toward killing the innocent prenatal, so the act remains a type of direct abortion, regardless of intention.

3. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible in all that it asserts as true. The first edition of the CCC had to be emended, on the subject of lying, to remove from the definition (“To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error”) the provision “someone who has the right to know the truth.” Lying is still lying and is still immoral if you lie to someone who has no right to the truth that you are denying.

So it is possible that the current definition of lying is still erroneous, in making intention a seemingly essential part of the definition of an intrinsically evil act.

Despite the above uncertainty as to how we should understand these two assertions on lying by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is nevertheless clear that lying is intrinsically evil, and always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

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

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2 Responses to The Catechism on Lying and Intrinsic Evil

  1. Joshua says:

    Mr. Conte, lying is always a sin. But when does it become a mortal sin? If it’s not too much to ask, would you mind giving a brief description on the differences between slander and calumny? Thanks.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Any act is a mortal sin if one or more fonts is gravely contrary to the love of God and neighbor:
      1. a gravely immoral intention — such as to cause serious harm to someone by a lie
      2. a gravely disordered moral object — such as lying under oath, or lying about a very important matter
      3. if reasonably anticipated bad consequences (harmful effects) gravely outweigh any good consequences — such a lie that will result in an innocent person being sent to prison

      calumny:
      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03190c.htm

      slander is similar:
      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14035b.htm

      I’m not sure what the technical difference between the terms would be.

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