Note G. On Page 279.
Lying and Equivocation

{348} ALMOST all authors, Catholic and Protestant, admit, that when a just cause is present, there is some kind or other of verbal misleading, which is not sin. Even silence is in certain cases virtually such a misleading, according to the Proverb, "Silence gives consent." Again, silence is absolutely forbidden to a Catholic, as a mortal sin, under certain circumstances, e.g. to keep silence, when it is a duty to make a profession of faith.

Another mode of verbal misleading, and the most direct, is actually saying the thing that is not; and it is defended on the principle that such words are not a lie, when there is a "justa causa," as killing is not murder in the case of an executioner.

Another ground of certain authors for saying that an untruth is not a lie where there is a just cause, is, that veracity is a kind of justice, and therefore, when we have no duty of justice to tell truth to another, it is no sin not to do so. Hence we may say the thing that is not, to children, to madmen, to men who ask impertinent questions, to those whom we hope to benefit by misleading.

Another ground, taken in defending certain untruths, ex justâ causâ, as if not lies, is, that veracity is for the sake of society, and that, if in no case whatever we might lawfully mislead others, we should actually be doing society great harm.

Another mode of verbal misleading is equivocation or a play upon words; and it is defended on the theory that to {349} lie is to use words in a sense which they will not bear. But an equivocator uses them in a received sense, though there is another received sense, and therefore, according to this definition, he does not lie.

Others say that all equivocations are, after all, a kind of lying,—faint lies or awkward lies, but still lies; and some of these disputants infer, that therefore we must not equivocate, and others that equivocation is but a half-measure, and that it is better to say at once that in certain cases untruths are not lies.

Others will try to distinguish between evasions and equivocations; but though there are evasions which are clearly not equivocations, yet it is very difficult scientifically to draw the line between the one and the other.

To these must be added the unscientific way of dealing with lies,—viz. that on a great or cruel occasion a man cannot help telling a lie, and he would not be a man, did he not tell it, but still it is very wrong, and he ought not to do it, and he must trust that the sin will be forgiven him, though he goes about to commit it ever so deliberately, and is sure to commit it again under similar circumstances. It is a necessary frailty, and had better not be thought about before it is incurred, and not thought of again, after it is well over. This view cannot for a moment be defended, but, I suppose, it is very common.

I think the historical course of thought upon the matter has been this: the Greek Fathers thought that, when there was a justa causa, an untruth need not be a lie. St. Augustine took another view, though with great misgiving; and, whether he is rightly interpreted or not, is the doctor of the great and common view that all untruths are lies, and that there can be no just cause of untruth. In these later times, this doctrine has been found difficult to work, and it has been largely taught that, though all untruths {350} are lies, yet that certain equivocations, when there is a just cause, are not untruths.

Further, there have been and all along through these later ages, other schools, running parallel with the above mentioned, one of which says that equivocations, &c. after all are lies, and another which says that there are untruths which are not lies.

And now as to the "just cause," which is the condition, sine quâ non. The Greek Fathers make it such as these, self-defence, charity, zeal for God's honour, and the like.

St. Augustine seems to deal with the same "just causes" as the Greek Fathers, even though he does not allow of their availableness as depriving untruths, spoken on such occasions, of their sinfulness. He mentions defence of life and of honour, and the safe custody of a secret. Also the great Anglican writers, who have followed the Greek Fathers, in defending untruths when there is the "just cause," consider that "just cause" to be such as the preservation of life and property, defence of law, the good of others. Moreover, their moral rights, e.g. defence against the inquisitive, &c.

St. Alfonso, I consider, would take the same view of the "justa causa" as the Anglican divines; he speaks of it as "quicunque finis honestus, ad servanda bona spiritui vel corpori utilia;" which is very much the view which they take of it, judging by the instances which they give.

In all cases, however, and as contemplated by all authors, Clement of Alexandria, or Milton, or St. Alfonso, such a causa is, in fact, extreme, rare, great, or at least special. Thus the writer in the Mélanges Théologiques (Liège, 1852-3, p. 453) quotes Lessius: "Si absque justa causa fiat, est abusio orationis contra virtutem veritatis, et civilem consuetudinem, etsi proprie non sit mendacium." {351} That is, the virtue of truth, and the civil custom, are the measure of the just cause. And so Voit, "If a man has used a reservation (restrictione non purè mentali) without a grave cause, he has sinned gravely." And so the author himself, from whom I quote, and who defends the Patristic and Anglican doctrine that there are untruths which are not lies, says, "Under the name of mental reservation theologians authorize many lies, when there is for them a grave reason and proportionate," i.e. to their character—p. 459. And so St. Alfonso, in another Treatise, quotes St. Thomas to the effect, that if from one cause two immediate effects follow, and, if the good effect of that cause is equal in value to the bad effect (bonus æquivalet malo), then nothing hinders the speaker's intending the good and only permitting the evil. From which it will follow that, since the evil to society from lying is very great, the just cause which is to make it allowable, must be very great also. And so Kenrick: "It is confessed by all Catholics that, in the common intercourse of life, all ambiguity of language is to be avoided; but it is debated whether such ambiguity is ever lawful. Most theologians answer in the affirmative, supposing a grave cause urges, and the [true] mind of the speaker can be collected from the adjuncts, though in fact it be not collected."

However, there are cases, I have already said, of another kind, in which Anglican authors would think a lie allowable; such as when a question is impertinent. Of such a case Walter Scott, if I mistake not, supplied a very distinct example, in his denying so long the authorship of his novels.

What I have been saying shows what different schools of opinion there are in the Church in the treatment of this difficult doctrine; and, by consequence, that a given individual, such as I am, cannot agree with all of them, {352} and has a full right to follow which of them he will. The freedom of the Schools, indeed, is one of those rights of reason, which the Church is too wise really to interfere with. And this applies not to moral questions only, but to dogmatic also.

It is supposed by Protestants that, because St. Alfonso's writings have had such high commendation bestowed upon them by authority, therefore they have been invested with a quasi-infallibility. This has arisen in good measure from Protestants not knowing the force of theological terms. The words to which they refer are the authoritative decision that "nothing in his works has been found worthy of censure," "censurâ dignum;" but this does not lead to the conclusions which have been drawn from it. Those words occur in a legal document, and cannot be interpreted except in a legal sense. In the first place, the sentence is negative; nothing in St. Alfonso's writings is positively approved; and, secondly, it is not said that there are no faults in what he has written, but nothing which comes under the ecclesiastical censura, which is something very definite. To take and interpret them, in the way commonly adopted in England, is the same mistake, as if one were to take the word Apologia in the English sense of apology, or Infant in law to mean a little child.

1. Now first as to the meaning of the above form of words viewed as a proposition. When a question on the subject was asked of the fitting authorities at Rome by the Archbishop of Besançon, the answer returned to him contained this condition, viz. that those words were to be interpreted, "with due regard to the mind of the Holy See concerning the approbation of writings of the servants of God, ad effectum Canonizationis." This is intended to prevent any Catholic taking the words about St. Alfonso's {353} works in too large a sense. Before a Saint is canonized, his works are examined, and a judgment pronounced upon them. Pope Benedict XIV. says, "The end or scope of this judgment is, that it may appear, whether the doctrine of the servant of God, which he has brought out in his writings, is free from any soever theological censure." And he remarks in addition, "It never can be said that the doctrine of a servant of God is approved by the Holy See, but at most it can [only] be said that it is not disapproved (non reprobatam) in case that the Revisers had reported that there is nothing found by them in his works, which is adverse to the decrees of Urban VIII., and that the judgment of the Revisers has been approved by the sacred Congregation, and confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff." The Decree of Urban VIII. here referred to is, "Let works be examined, whether they contain errors against faith or good morals (bonos mores), or any new doctrine, or a doctrine foreign and alien to the common sense and custom of the Church." The author from whom I quote this (M. Vandenbroeck, of the diocese of Malines) observes, "It is therefore clear, that the approbation of the works of the Holy Bishop touches not the truth of every proposition, adds nothing to them, nor even gives them by consequence a degree of intrinsic probability." He adds that it gives St. Alfonso's theology an extrinsic probability, from the fact that, in the judgment of the Holy See, no proposition deserves to receive a censure; but that "that probability will cease nevertheless in a particular case, for any one who should be convinced, whether by evident arguments, or by a decree of the Holy See, or otherwise, that the doctrine of the Saint deviates from the truth." He adds, "From the fact that the approbation of the works of St. Alfonso does not decide the truth of each proposition, it follows, as Benedict XIV. has remarked, that we may combat the doctrine which {354} they contain; only, since a canonized saint is in question, who is honoured by a solemn culte in the Church, we ought not to speak except with respect, nor to attack his opinions except with temper and modesty."

2. Then, as to the meaning of the word censura: Benedict XIV. enumerates a number of "Notes" which come under that name; he says, "Out of propositions which are to be noted with theological censure, some are heretical, some erroneous, some close upon error, some savouring of heresy," and so on; and each of these terms has its own definite meaning. Thus by "erroneous" is meant, according to Viva, a proposition which is not immediately opposed to a revealed proposition, but only to a theological conclusion drawn from premisses which are de fide; "savouring of heresy" is a proposition, which is opposed to a theological conclusion not evidently drawn from premisses which are de fide, but most probably and according to the common mode of theologizing;—and so with the rest. Therefore when it was said by the Revisers of St. Alfonso's works that they were not "worthy of censure," it was only meant that they did not fall under these particular Notes.

But the answer from Rome to the Archbishop of Besançon went further than this; it actually took pains to declare that any one who pleased might follow other theologians instead of St. Alfonso. After saying that no Priest was to be interfered with who followed St. Alfonso in the Confessional, it added, "This is said, however, without on that account judging that they are reprehended who follow opinions handed down by other approved authors."

And this too I will observe,—that St. Alfonso made many changes of opinion himself in the course of his writings; and it could not for an instant be supposed that we were bound to every one of his opinions, when he did {355} not feel himself bound to them in his own person. And, what is more to the purpose still, there are opinions, or some opinion, of his which actually have been proscribed by the Church since, and cannot now be put forward or used. I do not pretend to be a well-read theologian myself, but I say this on the authority of a theological professor of Breda, quoted in the Mélanges Théol. for 1850-1. He says: "It may happen, that, in the course of time, errors may be found in the works of St. Alfonso and be proscribed by the Church, a thing which in fact has already occurred."

In not ranging myself then with those who consider that it is justifiable to use words in a double sense, that is, to equivocate, I put myself under the protection of such authors as Cardinal Gerdil, Natalis Alexander, Contenson, Concina, and others. Under the protection of these authorities, I say as follows:—

Casuistry is a noble science, but it is one to which I am led, neither by my abilities nor my turn of mind. Independently, then, of the difficulties of the subject, and the necessity, before forming an opinion, of knowing more of the arguments of theologians upon it than I do, I am very unwilling to say a word here on the subject of Lying and Equivocation. But I consider myself bound to speak; and therefore, in this strait, I can do nothing better, even for my own relief, than submit myself, and what I shall say, to the judgment of the Church, and to the consent, so far as in this matter there be a consent, of the Schola Theologorum.

Now in the case of one of those special and rare exigencies or emergencies, which constitute the justa causa of dissembling or misleading, whether it be extreme as the defence of life, or a duty as the custody of a secret, or of a personal nature as to repel an impertinent inquirer, or a {356} matter too trivial to provoke question, as in dealing with children or madmen, there seem to be four courses:—

1. To say the thing that is not. Here I draw the reader's attention to the words material and formal. "Thou shalt not kill;" murder is the formal transgression of this commandment, but accidental homicide is the material transgression. The matter of the act is the same in both cases; but in the homicide, there is nothing more than the act, whereas in murder there must be the intention, &c. which constitutes the formal sin. So, again, an executioner commits the material act, but not that formal killing which is a breach of the commandment. So a man, who, simply to save himself from starving, takes a loaf which is not his own, commits only the material, not the formal act of stealing, that is, he does not commit a sin. And so a baptized Christian, external to the Church, who is in invincible ignorance, is a material heretic, and not a formal. And in like manner, if to say the thing which is not be in special cases lawful, it may be called a material lie.

The first mode then which has been suggested of meeting those special cases, in which to mislead by words has a sufficient occasion, or has a just cause, is by a material lie.

The second mode is by an æquivocatio, which is not equivalent to the English word "equivocation," but means sometimes a play upon words, sometimes an evasion: we must take these two modes of misleading separately.

2. A play upon words. St. Alfonso certainly says that a play upon words is allowable; and, speaking under correction, I should say that he does so on the ground that lying is not a sin against justice, that is, against our neighbour, but a sin against God. God has made words the signs of ideas, and therefore if a word denotes two ideas, we are at liberty to use it in either of its senses: but {357} I think I must be incorrect in some respect in supposing that the Saint does not recognize a lie as an injustice, because the Catechism of the Council, as I have quoted it at p. 281, says, "Vanitate et mendacio fides ac veritas tolluntur, arctissima vincula societatis humanæ; quibus sublatis, sequitur summa vitæ confusio, ut homines nihil a dæmonibus differre videantur."

3. Evasion;—when, for instance, the speaker diverts the attention of the hearer to another subject; suggests an irrelevant fact or makes a remark, which confuses him and gives him something to think about; throws dust into his eyes; states some truth, from which he is quite sure his hearer will draw an illogical and untrue conclusion, and the like.

The greatest school of evasion, I speak seriously, is the House of Commons; and necessarily so, from the nature of the case. And the hustings is another.

An instance is supplied in the history of St. Athanasius: he was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued. On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian. They asked him, "Have you seen Athanasius?" and he told his followers to answer, "Yes, he is close to you." They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.

I gave another instance above, in reference to a doctrine of religion. The early Christians did their best to conceal their Creed on account of the misconceptions of the heathen about it. Were the question asked of them, "Do you worship a Trinity?" and did they answer, "We worship one God, and none else;" the inquirer might, or would, infer that they did not acknowledge the Trinity of Divine Persons.

It is very difficult to draw the line between these {358} evasions, and what are commonly called in English equivocations; and of this difficulty, again, I think, the scenes in the House of Commons supply us with illustrations.

4. The fourth method is silence. For instance, not giving the whole truth in a court of law. If St. Alban, after dressing himself in the Priest's clothes, and being taken before the persecutor, had been able to pass off for his friend, and so gone to martyrdom without being discovered; and had he in the course of examination answered all questions truly, but not given the whole truth, the most important truth, that he was the wrong person, he would have come very near to telling a lie, for a half-truth is often a falsehood. And his defence must have been the justa causa, viz. either that he might in charity or for religion's sake save a priest, or again that the judge had no right to interrogate him on the subject.

Now, of these four modes of misleading others by the tongue, when there is a justa causa (supposing there can be such),—(1) a material lie, that is an untruth which is not a lie, (2) an equivocation, (3) an evasion, and (4) silence,—First, I have no difficulty whatever in recognizing as allowable the method of silence.

Secondly, But, if I allow of silence, why not of the method of material lying, since half of a truth is often a lie? And, again, if all killing be not murder, nor all taking from another stealing, why must all untruths be lies? Now I will say freely that I think it difficult to answer this question, whether it be urged by St. Clement or by Milton; at the same time, I never have acted, and I think, when it came to the point, I never should act upon such a theory myself, except in one case, stated below. This I say for the benefit of those who speak hardly of Catholic theologians, on the ground that they admit text-books which allow of equivocation. They are asked, how can we trust you, when such are your views? but such views, as {359} I already have said, need not have any thing to do with their own practice, merely from the circumstance that they are contained in their text-books. A theologian draws out a system; he does it partly as a scientific speculation: but much more for the sake of others. He is lax for the sake of others, not of himself. His own standard of action is much higher than that which he imposes upon men in general. One special reason why religious men, after drawing out a theory, are unwilling to act upon it themselves, is this: that they practically acknowledge a broad distinction between their reason and their conscience; and that they feel the latter to be the safer guide, though the former may be the clearer, nay even though it be the truer. They would rather be in error with the sanction of their conscience, than be right with the mere judgment of their reason. And again here is this more tangible difficulty in the case of exceptions to the rule of Veracity, that so very little external help is given us in drawing the line, as to when untruths are allowable and when not; whereas that sort of killing which is not murder, is most definitely marked off by legal enactments, so that it cannot possibly be mistaken for such killing as is murder. On the other hand the cases of exemption from the rule of Veracity are left to the private judgment of the individual, and he may easily be led on from acts which are allowable to acts which are not. Now this remark does not apply to such acts as are related in Scripture, as being done by a particular inspiration, for in such cases there is a command. If I had my own way, I would oblige society, that is, its great men, its lawyers, its divines, its literature, publicly to acknowledge as such, those instances of untruth which are not lies, as for instance untruths in war; and then there could be no perplexity to the individual Catholic, for he would not be taking the law into his own hands. {360}

Thirdly, as to playing upon words, or equivocation, I suppose it is from the English habit, but, without meaning any disrespect to a great Saint, or wishing to set myself up, or taking my conscience for more than it is worth, I can only say as a fact, that I admit it as little as the rest of my countrymen: and, without any reference to the right and the wrong of the matter, of this I am sure, that, if there is one thing more than another which prejudices Englishmen against the Catholic Church, it is the doctrine of great authorities on the subject of equivocation. For myself, I can fancy myself thinking it was allowable in extreme cases for me to lie, but never to equivocate. Luther said, "Pecca fortiter." I anathematize his formal sentiment, but there is a truth in it, when spoken of material acts.

Fourthly, I think evasion, as I have described it, to be perfectly allowable; indeed, I do not know, who does not use it, under circumstances; but that a good deal of moral danger is attached to its use; and that, the cleverer a man is, the more likely he is to pass the line of Christian duty.

But it may be said, that such decisions do not meet the particular difficulties for which provision is required; let us then take some instances.

1. I do not think it right to tell lies to children, even on this account, that they are sharper than we think them, and will soon find out what we are doing; and our example will be a very bad training for them. And so of equivocation: it is easy of imitation, and we ourselves shall be sure to get the worst of it in the end.

2. If an early Father defends the patriarch Jacob in his mode of gaining his father's blessing, on the ground that the blessing was divinely pledged to him already, that it was his, and that his father and brother were acting at once against his own rights and the divine will, it does not {361} follow from this that such conduct is a pattern to us, who have no supernatural means of determining when an untruth becomes a material, and not a formal lie. It seems to me very dangerous, be it ever allowable or not, to lie or equivocate in order to preserve some great temporal or spiritual benefit; nor does St. Alfonso here say any thing to the contrary, for he is not discussing the question of danger or expedience.

3. As to Johnson's case of a murderer asking you which way a man had gone, I should have anticipated that, had such a difficulty happened to him, his first act would have been to knock the man down, and to call out for the police; and next, if he was worsted in the conflict, he would not have given the ruffian the information he asked, at whatever risk to himself. I think he would have let himself be killed first. I do not think that he would have told a lie.

4. A secret is a more difficult case. Supposing something has been confided to me in the strictest secrecy which could not be revealed without great disadvantage to another, what am I to do? If I am a lawyer, I am protected by my profession. I have a right to treat with extreme indignation any question which trenches on the inviolability of my position; but, supposing I was driven up into a corner, I think I should have a right to say an untruth, or that, under such circumstances, a lie would be material, but it is almost an impossible case, for the law would defend me. In like manner, as a priest, I should think it lawful to speak as if I knew nothing of what passed in confession. And I think in these cases, I do in fact possess that guarantee, that I am not going by private judgment, which just now I demanded; for society would bear me out, whether as a lawyer or as a priest, in holding that I had a duty to my client or penitent, such, that an {362} untruth in the matter was not a lie. A common type of this permissible denial, be it material lie or evasion, is at the moment supplied to me:—an artist asked a Prime Minister, who was sitting to him, "What news, my Lord, from France? " He answered, "I do not know; I have not read the Papers."

5. A more difficult question is, when to accept confidence has not been a duty. Supposing a man wishes to keep the secret that he is the author of a book, and he is plainly asked on the subject. Here I should ask the previous question, whether any one has a right to publish what he dare not avow. It requires to have traced the bearings and results of such a principle, before being sure of it; but certainly, for myself, I am no friend of strictly anonymous writing. Next, supposing another has confided to you the secret of his authorship:—there are persons who would have no scruple at all in giving a denial to impertinent questions asked them on the subject. I have heard a great man in his day at Oxford, warmly contend, as if he could not enter into any other view of the matter, that, if he had been trusted by a friend with the secret of his being author of a certain book, and he were asked by a third person, if his friend was not (as he really was) the author of it, he ought without any scruple and distinctly, to answer that he did not know. He had an existing duty towards the author; he had none towards his inquirer. The author had a claim on him; an impertinent questioner had none at all. But here again I desiderate some leave, recognized by society, as in the case of the formulas "Not at home," and "Not guilty," in order to give me the right of saying what is a material untruth. And moreover, I should here also ask the previous question, Have I any right to accept such a confidence? have I any right to make such a {363} promise? and, if it be an unlawful promise, is it binding when it cannot be kept without a lie? I am not attempting to solve these difficult questions, but they have to be carefully examined. And now I have said more than I had intended on a question of casuistry.

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