Sins of the tongue
Bearing false witness has damaging consequences. Thinkstock

Modern Westerners have a hard time grasping why ancients spent so much time “obsessing” (as we say) over the ultra-fine-tuned definitions of the Trinity or the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures. We want to deal with ideas in broad strokes. So we say things like, “As long as you believe in Jesus that’s good enough.” It can be a broadly generous thing to do. But it can also be a lazy thing to do since it does, after all, matter if the Jesus you believe in is God or not. Ancients understood that.


In the same way, we moderns also like our moral philosophy in broad, vague strokes. So while we acknowledge that “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is one of those “moral values” we should affirm, we don’t really want to make a thing about it. Indeed, we tend to say that if a lie is “well-intentioned,” then that’s all right. We don’t really see the big deal if you lie so that good may come of it. Our quick and dirty fallback for defending this breezy consequentialism is the hoary “Nazi at the door” scenario, where one is suddenly faced with the Gestapo looking for Jews in your basement, so you lie to save them. Since that is obviously OK, we say, I am likewise a hero for lying about being sick so I don’t have to visit my mother-in-law. Don’t want to hurt the old goat’s feelings, after all.

Yes. Well. Actually, it’s not even a slam-dunk that lying to Nazis is all that watertight a rationale. You see, the trick to saving Jews or anybody else you might be hiding from the bogey man is not the Noble Lie. Because the Gestapo is not going to say, “Oh! Sorry to bother you!” when you lie to them. They will search anyway. So don’t lie. Instead, hide your Jews well and then neglect to tell the Nazis all they want to know. Welcome them in. Offer them tea. Just neglect to mention the room behind the false wall. 

Why does it matter to distinguish between lying and withholding the truth from people who do not deserve it? For the same reason that it matters to have fine-tuned distinction about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ: because ideas have consequences. 

Once you grant that lying is something other than what the Catholic tradition has always said it is — namely, “the most direct offense against the truth” and something that “[b]y its very nature … is to be condemned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2483; 2485) — then it’s Katy bar the door. Anything and everything may be said “for the greater good” and the common coin of language becomes worthless. 

False witness

The most egregious form of lying is called calumny. It is the form of lying the Eighth Commandment has in view: bearing false witness against your neighbor, particularly in court.  

This commandment, like all the commandments, exists because there are moments in our lives when bearing false witness (or murder or theft or adultery) seems like the right thing to do. God has no commandments to obey the law of gravity. That’s because there are some laws you can’t help but obey. But moral laws are laws you can ignore if you choose — and then bear the terrible consequences since they, unlike gravity, generally pay out on a time-release basis. 

When we lie in order to destroy our neighbor, we may get away with it — for now. But the day will come when the lie catches up to us. And until it comes, we will live perpetually haunted by the guilt of what we have done and the fear of what will happen when we are discovered. Worse than that, we can often compound the first lie with more and more lies, reasoning that since the first lie was OK, all the subsequent ones are fine as well. In short, we can transform ourselves into something like devils, whose native language is the lie. That will not protect us from the consequences of our lies. It merely makes us unable to bear it when, as will inevitably happen, the truth comes crashing in on us and (if we do not repent) destroys us. So, Mark Twain’s advice is best: “Tell the truth. Then you don’t have to remember what you said.” 

Mixing in a bit of truth

In addition to lying about somebody, there is also lying to them. This can be tricky since people can have different notions of what constitutes a lie. For instance, telling a tale about something that never actually happened is not a lie, as long as all parties understand that we are engaged in the peculiar form of communication called “fiction.” So Jesus is not lying when he tells us about the Prodigal Son’s fictional adventures. It is only when one party speaks or acts against the truth in order to lead someone into error that lying is taking place. 

One dynamic that is often overlooked is that lying is usually most poisonous when it contains enough truth to make it believable. The devil, for instance, quotes Scripture in tempting Jesus. Similarly, one of the ways we Christians often labor to damage those we don’t like is via detraction. Detraction is different from calumny in that the things we say about another’s sins are true, but not something that everybody (or anybody) needs to know. It is against the sin of detraction that the seal of the confessional is erected. Because the sins revealed there are quite true, but nobody else’s business. If a priest reveals a penitent’s sins he is immediately excommunicated and can only have that excommunication lifted by the pope. That’s something for us to think about the next time we call our friend Mary and tell them the juicy and delectable news about John’s affair “so you can pray for him.” This evil speech is a form of lying for the same reason that the kiss of Judas was: It pretends to be love, but is in fact malice. 

Twin parasites

Another form of lying is flattery and its twin, boasting. These are parasites on the sins of vanity and, darker still, pride. Vanity is a much humbler fault than pride. Vanity cares intensely what you think of her. Pride does not care in the slightest what you think of him. Flattery seeks to batten on both in a plastic imitation of love. It says affectionate and affirming things, not because they are true, but because they seem best suited to manipulate the vain or curry favor with the boastful proud. Flattery may start out with speaking a few truths (just as the devil quotes Scripture) but it inevitably leads both the flatterer and his boasting victim into unreality and delusion. How deep can that go? Think of Hitler in his bunker, surrounded by yes men still flattering him as the Red Army is shelling them from within a few hundred yards. Flattery and boasting can, like all lies, radically disconnect us from reality — until reality comes smashing in at last. 

So what do we do if we have already sinned against the truth? Thanks be to God there is a remedy: go and make it right as best you can. Get to confession. Tell the truth to those you lied to (and about). Ask forgiveness. Then ask God to help you make sure you never do it again. The promise of Jesus Christ is clear: “If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” (1 Jn 1:8-9). That’s no lie. 

Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying blog at and is the author of “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Opening the Our Father and the Hail Mary” (OSV, $12.95), to be released in March.