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Is lying always a sin?

Sep 12, 2014

I have a friend who often has to tell lies as part of her work (she is an investigator). She asked me whether telling lies is always sinful, or whether certain circumstances, such as when your work depends on it or perhaps to protect someone, is lying still a sin?

Asked at 03:28 am on September 12th 2014

Dear Sammy:

As the well known moral principle says, the end does not justifying the means. The Catechism specifically mentions this principle in relation to lying.

“1753 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).”

The question of whether it is justifiable or not to lie in order to save an innocent person is one that has been a topic of debate for many centuries, and some moral theologians have argued that sometimes it is allowed. Generally, however, this has not been accepted and one contemporary opinion is that of Germain Grisez, as you can read here in point no. 6 of this section.

One solution is to try and use some kind of dissumulation in answering questions, in such a way that there is no direct lie, or someone can simply refuse to answer a question if it would be a breach of confidence or to protect someone.

The Cathechism says that there can be situations where the truth needs to remain private and it says.

“2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. the good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. the duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.”

Then, in no. 2491, the Catechism says:

“2491 Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. Even if not confided under the seal of secrecy, private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.”

Note, however, that this does not justify a direct lie.

Replied at 03:58 am on September 12th 2014