Mental reservation

Question: As a product of Jesuit education, I learned that if someone is not entitled to know the truth, then it is permissible to lie in order that the truth not be revealed to them, especially if they will use that information to harm others. Is this a valid view?

Ed Siering, Muscatine, Iowa

Answer: If someone is not entitled to know the truth or facts about a certain situation, the clear moral reply to them is: “This matter is none of your business, and I will not answer your questions about this.”

We are not permitted to lie simply because someone is nosy, or we consider them unqualified or unworthy to know the facts of certain situations. A forthright refusal is what is called for, even if this requires a bit of courage to remind others not to pry into matters that do not pertain to them.

The thought that it is “OK” to lie in certain difficult situations emerges from a period of the last 500 years and from a methodology known as casuistry. The matter that you cite is often termed in that tradition “mental reservation.”

Mental reservation is an act wherein the person uses an equivocal expression to mislead the questioner, but which may in some very qualified sense be true. Thus, if a band of murderers, intent on killing Jones demands to know if he is in the house, the homeowner who knows Jones is in the house might say, “He is not here.” But in his mind, he means “here” in a different sense than the questioners would fathom. “Here” means to the homeowner, “He is not right here standing next to me,” or, “He is not here on this floor.” Thus, he qualifies in his mind what he means by “here” but does not disclose that to others.

But his purpose is to mislead, to deceive. And hence, I would argue that what we have here is a lie. But the mental reservationists seek to hold it is really not a lie since it is true in some highly technical sense.

My own concern (and that of others) is that this toys with the truth so that we can feel better or justify intentionally misleading others. My own approach is just to call it what it is, a lie, and then seek mercy from God who will likely understand that telling the truth to people bent on murder was a kind of no-win situation. They don’t deserve the truth, but that doesn’t make it “OK” for me to lie.

I would rather trust God and seek his mercy for lying than twist moral teachings so that I feel better. Again, I realize that many object to my rejection of a widely held moral assessment. But I cannot say I find it compelling.

Holy hygiene

Question: How do you handle a priest who coughs or sneezes into his hand and then gives Communion? Should he consider wearing gloves like food handlers do?

— Mike, via email

Answer: A certain middle ground is needed here. Surely priests and others should seek to use hygienic practices. But truth be told, bacteria are everywhere, and our immune system is usually up to the task of protecting us quite well. In fact, some exposure to germs is helpful to the immune system. In our times we are more aware of the need to sneeze in places other than our hands, but obsessive and compulsive concerns often cause unrealistic expectations in human interactions.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

Thus, a kind word to the priest is surely in order, but gloves and other such deployments are excessive and unnecessary.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.