My mother had two rules for my sisters and me as we were growing up: never lie, and never make anyone feel bad on purpose. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that most of the lies I tell my mom are designed to keep her from worrying quite so much about me (i.e. to keep her from feeling bad), but that’s a post for another time. Despite my breaking at least one of them on the regular, I still think these are two pretty good rules to govern your life.
On the surface, knowing what is a lie and what isn’t seems to be pretty cut and dry. The first time I ever gave any real thought to the nuances of it, though, was in college, when we considered whether President Clinton’s now-famous claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” was actually a lie or not. Clinton eventually admitted to engaging in oral sex with Monica Lewinsky, but that wasn’t my professor’s point. He argued that in order for it to be a lie, not only must the statement be untrue, but the hearer must also have the right to the truth. Clinton made the remark at a press conference where he was addressing the American public. Did anyone there, or anyone aside from his wife really, have the right to know about such a private affair?
Putting that question aside, the Catechism teaches exactly what my professor did: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.” The Catechism continues on to say, though, that 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.” So at least I can take some comfort in believing that my heart is in the right place even if, as so often happens, my actions are not.
Since I can’t morally defend the lies I tell to my mother (though I wish she would stop asking questions to which she would not want to hear an honest answer), I would never advise anyone to do likewise. Unfortunately, Lisa Miller, the OMG! advice columnist at the Boston Globe‘s new Catholic publication Crux (the launch of which featured our very own Robert Christian), has done just that. A reader wrote in to ask if she should lie to her afflicted brother if it would bring him some comfort.
Miller’s advice was to lie to the brother. “In this case,” she writes, “the good of the lie outweighs the bad: you are acting generously and empathetically, qualities that will help your brother whether he can see it right now or not.” Now if this was the Globe‘s advice columnist, I would disagree with the advice, but I wouldn’t take exception to it. Seeing as this is a Catholic publication and that Miller identifies herself as an ethicist, however, I do. The Catechism actually uses lying itself as an example of how the ends cannot justify the means: “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.”
This was not the first time in Miller’s eight column career—some of which is very good—that I think she has given some poor advice from a Catholic perspective. A different reader asked if she could still call herself a Catholic if she didn’t hold all of the Church’s teachings. This is a difficult question, to be sure, but again I think her advice missed the mark. Miller’s advice boiled down to this: “Hold onto your Catholicism – as well as your conscience – and perhaps your leaders will follow you there.”
I know I’m going to lie to my mother again the next time she asks me if I’ve been out on a motorcycle, or have done one of the many other things I do that she doesn’t like. In so doing, I know I’m breaking the 4th and 8th Commandments. What if, however, I genuinely believed the Church’s teachings on those subjects to be wrong? Should I expect the Church to change thousands of years of teaching simply because I thought they were outdated? Unlike Miller, I don’t think I should, I don’t think the Church will, and I hope it doesn’t.
I would never presume to tell this reader that she wasn’t a Catholic, and would certainly never encourage her to find a different denomination. I expect a Catholic advice columnist, however, to be a little more faithful to Church teaching the next time she offers up her opinion under the guise of providing Catholic guidance.