Ejiofor Asadu: No! There are rather necessary, unavoidable and difficult situations in which we are obliged by Christian charity, obligation to keep secret, safety, common good, etc., to conceal the truth from illegitimate inquirers without telling lies per se by using “silence” or “discreet languages”.
Meaning of lies: I would not go into a historical analysis of the meaning of lie but I would simply settle with St Augustine’s definition: A lie consists in speaking falsehood with the intention of deceiving. Both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Scripture forbid telling lies. In fact prohibition against telling lies is the 8th commandment of the decalogue: “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” The Bible generally demands truthfulness and condemns all lies, slander, calumnies and deceptions (Lev. 19:11; Jere. 9:3-9; Nahum 3:1; Zeph.3:13; Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:25; 1Pt. 2:1; etc). Ananias and Sapphira received immediate and severe punishment for telling lies to the Christian community (Acts 5:1-11). The Catechism of the Catholic Church also condemns lying as “a profanation of speech” which leads people into error (CCC 2485). Thus, objectively speaking, lying is morally objectionable and must be avoided. Truthfulness is a value and must be upheld both in speech and conduct. But how grave is the sin of lying? CCC 2484 answers thus, “The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.”
Difficult situations, truth and lie: Although every person accepts that truthfulness should be upheld while lying should be eschewed, not all accept an obligation to absolute truthfulness without any exceptions. The reason is that one may find himself in a situation in which the person who wants to know the truth has no right to it ( indiscreet inquirers) or when the person would likely abuse it or use it to harm ( ruthless intruders). For this reason, some theologians talk about legitimate concealment of truth. We look at some persons in the Bible who found themselves in difficult situations.
The Bible, Truth/Lies and Difficult situation: The Bible has accounts of some prominent persons who either told lies or surreptitiously concealed the truth when they found themselves in difficult situations in which telling the raw truth might have caused more harm than good. The Bible reports instances of clear lies and/or surreptitious concealment of the truth by Abraham (Gen. 12: 11-13; 20:2); Isaac (Gen. 26:7-11); Jacob (Gen. 27:18ff); Michal, David’s wife (1 Sam.19:13, 17); even David (1 Sam. 20:6, 28ff & 21: 1ff); etc. One thing common to all is that the Bible is silent about the moral value of their actions, it merely reports the historical facts in the lives of the above individuals without praising or condemning them. But surprisingly the lie told by the Egyptian mid-wives (Shiphrah& Puah) in order to prevent Pharoah from killing the male Hebrew children and to avoid being punished for not carrying out his order was explicitly commended as an act from the fear of God and in fact God was said to have blessed them (Ex.1:15-21). Some pregnant women in Nigeria who refuse to be delivered of their babies through CS still base their stand on the mere lie told by Egyptian mid-wives that the Hebrew Women delivered their babies before reaching the hospital! 😃. That is by the way!
From the above we see that we cannot understand our obligation to tell the truth by an exclusive reference to itself without relating it to other obligations such as love, good and safety of others, keeping of professional secrets, etc. Thus, the inquirer has the right to the truth but his right to the truth is not absolute, therefore my obligation to tell the truth is not also absolute. I would like to quote the CCC 2488 on this matter, “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.” Thus, a prudent judgment of concrete situations should tell us whether the inquirer has right to the truth he seeks. But does it mean we resort to raw lies when the inquirer has no right to the truth he seeks? Certainly no! CCC admonishes that we use silence or discreet language: “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.” (CCC 2489).
Theologians have tried to help us with “some discreet languages”:
Equivocation: When one does not say everything but only a part and uses an ambiguous word or expression which makes the inquirer to reach any conclusion of his choice. For example, someone calls you and asks you, “Are you at home?” But you would not like him to know that you are not at home, you could respond, “I am around.” Most likely the inquirer may conclude that you are at home but you never said that you are at home, it’s his own conclusion. 😃
Mental reservation: Consists in saying only a part of the whole expression while reserving the rest in one’s mind. For instance, if someone asks me about the truth I got from my professional duties which no one is supposed to know, I may respond, “I do not know anything about it”, but with the mental reservation, “that I am allowed to communicate to others.”
False Speech: the use of mental reservation and equivocations may not usually be safe means of concealing the truth because not all can readily find such alternatives and again one may encounter an intelligent inquirer or one trained in philosophy/theology. For this reason, some theologians ( not the Catholic Church), bring our mind to the fact that a lie is a false statement with the intention of deceiving which is different from a false speech which hides the truth and prevents its abuse with the intention of doing greater justice Accordingly, a false speech is not a lie because it doesn’t violate the right to know the truth; it has no intention of deceiving but rather doing a greater good and the inquirer has no legitimate right to know the truth.
NB: one can interpret Abraham’s concealment of the truth that Sarah was his wife from King Abimelek as equivocation or mental reservation or false speech depending on the angle from which one sees it:
▪In the culture of Abraham, the word sister or brother could mean sibling or any relation. So when Abraham said, “Sarah is my sister”, he meant that Sarah was related to him but king Abimelek understood that Sarah was his sibling. This is equivocation: the word sister in that context had more than one meaning and the king chose the wrong meaning.
▪One can also see it as mental reservation when Abraham said, “Sarah is my sister” i.e., related to him, if Abraham reserved in his mind, “but also my wife”. This interpretation is justified by the fact that when king Abimelek accused Abraham of telling him lie, Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. ” (Gen. 20:12-13)
▪Finally, what Abraham told the king could be seen as false speech from the perspective of his intention because Abraham had no intention of deceiving the king but rather of the intention of preventing his own death by an Eastern despot who could have killed him immediately in order to appropriate his beautiful wife Sarah!
Conclusion: From the above, we have come to realise that “you must not tell lies” and “you must tell the truth” may not always be a simple matter in some concrete situations. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us to use “silence” or “discreet language” to conceal the truth from illegitimate inquirers. The Church gives us general norms for guidance. It is impossible for the Bible or the Church to give answers to all individual cases. Therefore, a balanced and mature Christian is the one who uses the teachings of the Church as norms to help his conscience take decisions in concrete and real life situations.