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Church History Forum: church doctrine

by Catherine Frakas 28 Dec 2001

church doctrine QUESTION from mark ford June 4, 2001 I was presented in a chrisitan chat room with the idea that the Church teaches a doctrine that its permissible to lie in order for the the church to protect itself. I have never heard of such doctrine and now can‘t recall the name this person used to describe it. Thought u may know of such a doctrine, its name , and probably its true intent. Keep the faith. I love this site yall do great work : )
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on June 5, 2001
Dear Mark,
The answer is no, the Church has no doctrine that says it is permissible to lie, under any circumstance. The name you most likely heard is the doctrine of equivocation, which, when legitimately applied, is not at all the same as lying.
First: Lying in General:
Sacred Scripture condemns lying in many places. See for example, John 8:44; 1 John 2: 21; Acts 5: 3 . Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) said that Holy Scripture forbids us to lie even to save a man's life.
The Fathers were divided into two camps, represented on the one hand by Origin, who in his Stromata, VI) quotes Plato’s Republic, claiming it is permissible for doctors and statesmen to lie occasionally for the good of their patients and for the common good. Origen cites the example of Judith, Esther, and Jacob in defense of his position,
and St. Augustine who took the opposite view, claiming it is never morally permissible to tell a lie. St. Augustine’s doctrine on this point is the prevailing one in the Church. In the expression of the Church it is an example of one may never do evil that good may come of it. This is in effect a condemnation of what is known as Utilitarianism, the idea theat the end DOES justify the means.
At this point it might be helpful to give Aquinas‘ definition of lying: a statement at variance with the mind.. Another definition might be a deliberate attempt to deceive.
The doctrine of equivocation essentially means one can give an equivocal (double-meaning or evasive) answer in order to protect a secret. It DOES NOT MEAN one can give information at variance with the mind, or that one can give equivocal information deliberately intending the false interpretation to be believed over and above the true one.
In the case where one is trying to defend a legitimately kept secret, St. Augustine taught that the plain truth must be told regardless of the consequences. To this end he pus forward a well-known scenario. A man is hiding in your house, and murderers want to kill him., They knock on your door and ask you if he is in the house. You may say that you know where he is, but will not tell: However, you may not deny that he is there.
The Scholastic St. Raymund of Pennafort, writing c. 1250, expands on this scenario. First, he says that you (the owner of the house) should say nothing if possible; and if this is not possible, then you may use equivocation , that is, an expression with a double or ambiguous meaning. St. Raymond cites Jacob, Esau, Abraham, Jehu, and the Archangel Gabriel as having made use of equivocations.
The doctrine of equivocation was brought forward as a means to preserve, among others, the seal of the confessional, as well as escaping other serious difficulties (such as the scenario of St. Augustine) without telling a lie. The doctrine was in time abused by theologians, however, to validate strict mental reservation. This abuse was corrected by, among others, the German Jesuit, Laymann (d. 1625).
For the sake of completeness, I will briefly mention another aspect of lying condemned by the Holy See,and mentioned above, strict mental reservation This quote is from the Catholic Encyclopedia: Lying :
Sometimes a statement receives a special meaning from use and custom, or from the special circumstances in which a man is placed, or from the mere fact that he holds a position of trust. When a man bids the servant say that he is not at home, common use enables any man of sense to interpret the phrase correctly. When a prisoner pleads Not guilty in a court of justice, all concerned understand what is meant. When a statesman, or a doctor, or a lawyer is asked impertinent questions about what he cannot make known without a breach of trust, he simply says, I don't know, and the assertion is true, it receives the special meaning from the position of the speaker: I have no communicable knowledge on the point. The same is true of anybody who has secrets to keep, and who is unwarrantably questioned about them. Prudent man only speak about what they should speak about , and what they say should be understood with that reservation. Catholic writers call statements like the foregoing mental reservations, and they qualify them as wide mental reservations in order to distinguish them from strict mental reservations. These latter are equivocations whose true sense is determined solely by the mind of the speaker, and by no external circumstances or common usage. They were condemned as lies by the Holy See on 2 March, 1679. Since that time they have been rejected as unlawful by all Catholic writers.
So in conclusion, we see that the Catholic Church never taught it is ok to lie, for any reason.
Thanks, Mark.
God bless, .
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