Fr. John H. Stapleton
To lie is to utter an untruth, with full knowledge that it is an untruth. The untruth may be expressed by any conventional sign, by word, deed, gesture, or even by silence. Its malice and disorder consists in the opposition that exists between our idea and the expression we give to it; our words convey a meaning contrary to what is in our mind; we say one thing and mean another. If we unwittingly utter what is contrary to fact, that is error; if we so clumsily translate our thoughts as to give a false impression of what we mean, and we do the best we can, that is a blunder; if in a moment of listlessness and inattention we speak in a manner that conflicts with our state of mind, that is temporary mental aberration. But if we knowingly give out as truth what we know is not the truth, we lie purely and simply.
In misrepresentations of this kind it is not required that there be a plainly formulated purpose of deceiving another; an implicit intention, a disposition to allow our words to run their natural course, is sufficient to give such utterances a character of mendacity. For, independently of our mental attitude, it is in the nature of a lie to deceive; an intention, or rather a pretense to the contrary, does not affect that nature. The fact of lying presupposes that we intend in some manner to practice deception; if we did not have such a purpose, we would not resort to lying. If you stick a knife into a man, you may pretend what you like, but you certainly intended to hurt him and make him feel badly.
Nor has any ulterior motive we may have in telling an untruth the power to change its nature; a lie is a lie, no matter what prompted it. Whether it serves the purpose of amusement, as a jocose lie; or helps to gain us an advantage or get us out of trouble, as an officious lie; or injures another in any way, as a pernicious lie: mendacity is the character of our utterances, the guilt of willful falsehood is on our soul. A restriction should, however, be made in favor of the jocose lie; it ceases to be a lie when the mind of the speaker is open to all who listen and his narration or statement may be likened to those fables and myths and fairy tales in which is exemplified the charm of figurative language. When a person says what is false and is convinced that all who hear him know it is false, the contradiction between his mind and its expression is said to be material, and not formal; and in this the essence of a lie does not consist.
A lie is always a sin; it is what is called an intrinsic evil and is therefore always wrong. And why is this? Because speech was given us to express our thoughts; to use this faculty therefore for a contrary purpose is against its nature, against a law of our being, and this is evil. The obnoxious consequences of falsehood, as it is patent to all, constitute an evil for which falsehood is responsible. But deception, one of those consequences, is not in itself and essentially, a moral fault. Deception, if not practiced by lying and therefore not intended but simply suffered to occur, and if there be grave reason for resorting to this means of defense, cannot be put down as a thing offensive to God or unjustly prejudicial to the neighbor. But when deception is the effect of mendacity, it assumes a character of malice that deserves the reprobation of man as it is condemned by God. And this is another reason why lying is essentially an evil thing, and can never, under any circumstances, be allowed or justified.
This does not mean that lying is always a mortal sin. In fact, it is more often venial than mortal. It becomes a serious fault only in the event of another malice being added to it. Thus, if I lie to one who has a right to know the truth and for grave reasons; if the mendacious information I impart is of a nature to mislead one into injury or loss, and this thing I do maliciously; or if my lying is directly disparaging to another; in these cases there is grave malice and serious guilt. But if there is no injustice resulting from a lie, I prevaricate against right in lying, but my sin is not a serious offense.
This is a vice that certainly deserves to be fought against and punished always and in all places, especially in the young who are so prone thereto, first because it is a sin; and again, because of the social evils that it gives rise to. There is no gainsaying the fact that in the code of purely human morals, lying is considered a very heinous offense that ostracizes a man when robbery on a large scale, adultery and other first-degree misdemeanors leave him perfectly honorable. This recalls an instance of a recent courtroom. A young miscreant thoroughly imbued with pharisaic morals met with a bold face, without a blush or a flinch, accusations of misconduct, robbery and murder; but when charged with being a liar, he sprang at his accuser in open court and tried to throttle him. His fine indignation got the best of him; he could not stand that.
Among pious-minded people two extreme errors are not infrequently met with. The one is that a lie is not wrong unless the neighbor suffers thereby; the falsity of this we have already shown. According to the other, a lie is such an evil that it should not be tolerated, not one lie, even if all the souls in hell were thereby to be liberated. To this we answer that we would like to get such a chance once; we fear we would tell a whopper. It would be wicked, of course; but we might expect leniency from the just Judge under the circumstances.