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Q: Is it always wrong in every case to lie? What about the so called 'little white lie?' I'm thinking of situations where you tell a person something you know is false to spare their feelings, when they're likely never going to know the truth anyway.
A: Our Catholic Faith teaches us that lying is an offense against the eighth commandment and is in principle always wrong. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbour into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity" (CCC 2485).
However, as your question suggests, there are some nuances to consider. For one thing, a lie might be mortally or venially sinful depending on the objective importance of the truth being obscured and on the seriousness of the potential harms that might come about because of the lie. A quick fib about eating the last piece of cake is obviously not on the same level as a lie in a business transaction that causes a family to lose their entire savings.It also might be useful to consider what a lie technically is.
As the catechism, referencing St Augustine, puts it: "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving" (CCC 2482). This means that not every untrue statement is a lie. To give some examples, acting and some jokes involve saying things that aren't true, but untruths uttered by an actor in a play or as part of the set-up for a clear punchline aren't intended to deceive and typically aren't misleading in actual fact. Likewise, inaccurate statements that come about from an honest mistake also are not lies, because there was no intention in such statements to distort the truth.
The catechism further specifies that: "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth" (CCC 2483). It should be noted that not everyone has the right to know the truth about every situation. In most cases it is not at all sinful to give an intentionally vague answer to a question that isn't the proper business of the one asking. For example, if a nosy coworker asks about a recent doctor's appointment you had, you have no obligation to share the details of your medical condition. "I'm fine, thanks," and a fast change of subject is morally licit.
Similarly, since we live in society and must be sensitive to the feelings of others, we don't always need to be brutally honest and outspoken in all our thoughts and opinions. So, it's fine – and even at times required by charity – to answer certain questions with diplomacy and tact, as long as we're not saying anything radically untrue in doing so. With 'little white lies,' I think a lot depends on the specific context, and whether the 'white lie' involves stating a literal untruth. Refraining from telling a sick person that they look terrible is not a lie, because staying silent in a scenario where you had no need or obligation to comment is not inherently untruthful. Saying a bride is beautiful on her wedding day – even if you secretly think she's rather average-looking – is also not really a lie, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder and can encompass elements beyond physical appearance.
Personally, I'm against telling white lies that are clear-cut falsehoods, even if they only concern trivial matters. Beyond the question of whether this is a sin, telling even small lies can cause people to lose their trust in us over time.
Author: Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News.
This article was published in the The Irish Catholic, Thursday, September 28, 2023. The Irish Catholic features articles of opinion, faith, prayer and catechism. It is published weekly. A subscription can be purchased at irishcatholic.com
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