The Problem with the Justification of Lying

The ordinary and universal Magisterium infallibly teaches that certain human acts are intrinsically evil; they are immoral due to the object of the act, apart from intention and circumstances. Intrinsically evil acts are irremediably evil; nothing can justify the knowing deliberate choice of any intrinsically evil act.

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.” CCC 1756

Pope Saint John Paul II: “But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior 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…. 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

Denial of the above teaching is heresy. And it is a particularly dangerous type of heresy because many gravely immoral acts are intrinsically evil. The denial of Church teaching that an intrinsically evil act is never justified by intention, nor by circumstances, nor by other acts committed in relation to that act, protects souls from grave spiritual harm and protects the Church and society from the harm that occurs when gravely immoral acts are committing frequently, by many persons, without repentance.

Lying

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]. Saint Thomas stated that lying is wrong by its very nature (“naturally evil in respect of its genus”), indicating that it is an intrinsically evil act [ibidem]. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that lying is intrinsically evil:

“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]

So we must place lying in the category of acts that are wrong due to their moral object: intrinsically evil acts. Lying is therefore never justified by a good intention (or purpose), nor by a dire circumstance.

Controversy

Some authors today have opined that lying is moral in a dire circumstance. Others have said that the act of lying should be defined such that speaking a falsehood is not a lie and not intrinsically evil, unless the speaker intends to deceive. Still others have said that the circumstance whereby a listener has no right to a particular truth, justifies a false assertion by the speaker.

Regardless of the explanation, the idea that lying is sometimes moral, or that the definition of lying must include a certain intention or circumstance, implies a rejection of the infallible teaching of the Magisterium on intrinsically evil acts. Even if we say that lying is always wrong, except in rare circumstances to protect innocent life, the result is that the teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts is contradicted in a very fundamental way.

Implications

Intrinsically evil acts differ from one another in many respects. Some intrinsically evil acts are venial sins, others are mortal sins. Intrinsically evil acts include such diverse behaviors as lying, theft, murder, rape, contraception, abortion, adultery, and unnatural sexual acts. The smallest white lie is an intrinsically evil act. But the horrific sins of slavery and genocide are also intrinsically evil.

How can such very different acts all be in the same category? Each act is wrong due to its moral object; in other words, each act is wrong by the moral nature of the act.

As a result, every intrinsically evil act is subject to the same basic principles of ethics. Every intrinsically evil act, whether venial or mortal, is immoral regardless of intention or circumstances. Nothing can justify the knowing choice of any intrinsically evil act.

The justification of lying — regardless of the scheme used — necessarily implies that every other intrinsically evil act can be justified in the same way. If lying is sometimes moral, due to a good intention or a dire circumstance or some other reason, then every other type of intrinsically evil act would also be sometimes moral, on the same basis. The justification of lying implies the justification of theft, murder, rape, contraception, abortion, adultery, same-sex marriage, racism, slavery, and genocide, at least in some cases.

Now you might answer me by saying, “Can’t we assert that lying is somehow different, and make an exception for lying, which we stipulate does not apply to other intrinsically evil acts?” No, we cannot. Pope Saint John Paul II explains why:

“The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason – we repeat – the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an ‘objective moral order’ and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.” [Veritatis Splendor 82]

The teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts applies to all intrinsically evil acts. It is would be abject heresy and also intellectually dishonest to say that some intrinsically evil acts are moral, some of the time, while other intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.

But it is already the case that some Catholics are seeking clever (or not so clever) ways to justify a number of intrinsically evil acts, including: contraception, abortifacient contraception, direct abortion to save the life of the mother, and unnatural sexual acts within marriage. This attempt to justify certain popular intrinsically evil acts is nothing other than an attack on “the existence of an objective moral order” with norms that are “binding without exception”, just as Pope Saint John Paul II said. And he is absolutely right that the rejection of the traditional teaching on intrinsically evil acts is a rejection of Biblical morality, of the Commandments, and of charity and all the virtues. If we cannot condemn, unequivocally, acts that are immoral by the very nature of the act, then the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium on morality quickly fall apart.

Lying is always immoral because intrinsically evil acts are never justified by intention, or circumstances, or other acts. And the same is true for every other type of intrinsically evil act. To say otherwise is to deny one of the most fundamental and essential teachings of Christianity on morality, on good and evil, and on the will of God.

If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus enough to accept that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, then he is not worthy to teach Faith.

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.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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