Lying: a Metaphysical Issue before a Moral Issue

The following article is a guest post from Dr. Janet Smith , professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.




  • Tom

    Dear Dr Smith

    Ok, I am not a theologian, but I just read your paper and St Thomas’: Question 110. The vices opposed to truth, and first of lying (

    In the current debate over what LiveAction (LA) did, there seems to be 2 camps. In the first camp, people say that LA did not lie. The second camp says, from what I gather, that not only LA lied, but their lies were as bad as any type of lies. Both positions are not compatible with what the Doctors of the Church are saying, it seems to me.

    A first pass reading Augustine and Aquinas points to similar directions on this topic, namely: 1) it’s a difficult subject 2) there is a qualitative aspect of lying, from which we have the question: is any form of lying by definition, a sin? The answer is yes (with the possible exception of jocular lying) 3) there is also a quantitative aspect, addressed at length, with the question: are all lies the same? The answer is no. There are lies with the intent to harm, that are grave sins (against faith, against a person physical and moral well being, for the sake of evil doing) and lies out of prudence, that are consider still sins, but lesser ones (lie to save one one’s life, well being or that of others). Of course, all sinning is to be avoided, but not all sins are the same. This third aspect was mentioned by some, but not explored in your paper, it seems to me.

    Some one in an other blog, mentioned entrapment causing an innocent person to sin, as a reason why LA people may have committed a grave sin. If this was only one instance, perhaps, but this was not the case. LA uncovered a repeated pattern of criminal conduct by PP. In addition, Ms Rose, on her website, stated that there are real cases of young women taking PP to court for being placed back into abusive situations, in addition to being forced to abort. So at most LA committed a lesser sin, it seems. It will up to LA people to explain their conduct in the confessional or on judgment day, but it’s between them and God (in my case, I face volumes of unambiguous sins, so this is does not apply to me).

    We have to also consider that our silence and inaction can be worse than what LA did, since silence while great injustice is committed can be far worse then a youthful prank used to uncover a truth.

    The issue of language, that you raise, is also important. But, to me, this gives further credence to St Thomas’ use of precise and truthful language. One wonders if Aquinas is really insufficient or are we seeing a resurgence of casuistry? Below are some modern examples of falsehoods (to humbly complement your list), that I think we are all at risk of doing, if we are not careful:

    Hidden agenda falsehood:
    The hidden agenda falsehood is when one asks for X using an appealing reason Y, but the primary motives are not stated, because they are less likely to be supported, and X is used primarily to support this unstated motive (Y gets some minimal support, as not to constitute an outright lie). For example, people in a parish say: ‘give us money because we want to help the poor’, but in fact the money is used to buy air plane tickets to go to Central American, for what ends up being an exotic parish retreat (with perhaps a puppet show, in the middle of the retreat, for local kids). So, out of $40,000 collected, most of the money (>90%) goes to fund a ‘spiritual family vacation’, for people that already earn 6 digit salaries. In addition, this “vacation” is used to recruit new unsuspecting travelers to an ecclesiastic movement (all the organizers are part of that movement), while donations to local parish causes dry up.

    Double speak falsehood:
    Double speak is a trick used by destructive cults and totalitarian regimes (cf: Orwell, loading the language, etc..). The idea is to weaken the language used in a group, by giving new meaning or consolidating meaning of words. In the Catholic Church, Charity, Faith, Obedience are all very important, but separate concepts. The now infamous 4th vow of the Legionnaires of Christ (sorry to bring this up) was created by equating Charity with Obedience. This was used for cover up evil deeds by the founder. When you speak of morality of deception, isn’t she equating opposite concepts, e.g.: virtuous behavior (implied by the word morality) with sin (deception)? This is a red flag, in my mind. Also saying that some forms of lying may be generally acceptable, as they may allow harmonious social living, sounds too much like what the Communist Party of China wants us to believe.

    Such types of falsehoods may have an original innocuous/officious intent (thought), but may eventually cause real scandal and cause people to loose faith, thus be grave in the end.

    As much as we think we can, in reality, we can not foresee the consequences of our lying. This is why, it seems to me, Doctors of the Church are so cautious about this. There will be exceptional circumstances, where precise and truthful language may be ill advised. In these rare cases, it will be between that person’s conscience and God. But still, our Faith tells to use language kindly and truthfully, in all things.

    Does that make sense or do I get an F for armchair theology?

    Thank you for your thought provoking and article.


  • freddy

    Thank you very much for an insightful and accessible article. Moral theologians really do need to hash this out if only to explain why the day-to-day lives of most Catholics regularly are at odds with the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
    God bless you.

  • KeyzerSoze


  • Angela

    Thank you, Dr. Smith, for clarifying many things for me, and verbalizing what is in my mind and heart. My friends and I have discussed the different views on this topic as posted in the The New Advent, and even the follow-up posts of the other writers, and we still are convinced that Dr. Kreeft’s opinion and your essay now, are more understandable and applicable to man’s situation in a real world. I am glad that it is God who sees what is in our hearts and who knows best our intentions as we go about interacting with others. Thank you for sharing your very helpful and inspiring insight with us.

  • Everett

    Very interesting reading Dr. Smith, thank you. I do think this is a valuable contribution to the discussion so that we can really focus in on having what approaches a unifying theory rather than a mishmash of opinions and emotions.

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