The Catholic Letter

Catholic Explanations

There's No Such Thing as a 'White Lie'

zero impact on anyone's position, money, reputation, or other aspect of life, but accomplishes some positive good, or at least avoids some evil. Well, maybe it just avoids an inconvenience or embarrasment. But the point is, it allows us to avoid some discomfort but doesn't cause any discomfort for others.

But how does this scan, morally? Is such a lie really "white?" Is this really okay? And what about lies that have defiinite impact on others--such as preventing would-be ne'r-do-wells from finding the targets of their malice.

Throughout biblical history, we have had examples of God ordering acts which seem to violate His own rules. For example, He ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son. We know, of course, that God didn't allow the deed to actually go through; however, between the order and the moment when God's angel stayed Abraham's hand, Abraham's intent, although a voilation of what would later become the fifth command, was good and proper.

Certainly, then, there are times when a lie is equally good and proper?

After all, there are those who lied to Nazi soldiers to protect Jews. Police sometimes lie when interrogating suspects to elicit a confession. Detectives at all levels, from municipal to federal to international intelligence operations, go "under cover," telling lies to those around them so as to penetrate evil organizations and groups. Certainly these all fall into lies that are "white"--not necessarily because they are small but because they accomplish something good and whatever darkness might be associated with the notion of lying itself is washed from the act by the intent to which it is directed.

Not so fast.

The difference between the idea of God ordering (or approving) of one person killing another and that of God approving a lie is this: Control over life and death belongs to God, and it is His to direct. That can include directing it through others, without any violation of His nature.

However, falsehood is no part of God. It is completely and fundamentally contrary to God's very nature. Every aspect of Who God is eschews falsehood. That's why Satan is the "father of lies:" In his rejection of God he has rejected truth, which is at the very core of God. The idea that lying is in some circumstances "okay," or even the positively right thing to do is kind of like the idea that blasphemy or idolatry might, given the right circumstances, be called for. Regardless of the human consequences, giving to another that which is due to God is wrong. So it is with lying: Regardless of the human consequences of the lie (or regardless of whatever consequences are avoided by the lie), the act of lying fundamentally offends the very nature of God and is morally unjustified.

This is not to say that lying is the worst sin, only that lying is always offensive to God. The effect of circumstances on a person may affect the personal culpability for a lie. For example, they may create such a pressure of mental anguish in consideration of impending outcomes, that the person tempted to lie is no longer able to make right distinctions, or no longer has full access to his will to follow them. However, this possibility doesn't change the nature of the lie itself as a fundamentally disordered act, and one which, whenever performed with the consent of the will, is sinful.

Then what about all those other circumstances? Are we (Christians) to just reject the idea of lying to protect life? Lying to apprehend criminals? Lying to discover and expose organizations that would themselves strike blows at the Church itself?

As difficult as it is for a mind steeped in our modern culture to understand, the answer is "yes." We must reject and denounce as wrong and immoral all forms of lying in all circumstances. The reality of this notion of absolutism is perhaps nowhere more beautifully pointed out than in Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Part IV, which is reproduced at the end of this essay.

What, then, of the consequences of not lying in a society that relies on infiltration trickery to apprehend criminals? In a world in which deception seems sometimes the only way to prevent the deaths of many individuals? And, because the sad truth is that for most of us this is what it amounts to: in a world in which conveniences and favors rely so frequently on little associations and circumstances that nobody's going to bother checking anyway?

The hard answer, for those Christians who would remain ordered to God, the only true good, is this: If we cannot achieve those human goods to which we aspire, including those intimately related to human life and dignity itself, without participating in an act fundamentally contrary to the nature of God, then we must accept that God has, in His infinite wisdom, willed that we should grow closer to Him through the acceptance of a more burdensome path than that which we would have chosen.