instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, July 06, 2012

To tell the truth

Bl. John Henry Newman wrote Apologia Pro Vita Sua to counter charges against himself personally, and the Church generally, made by the Anglican priest Charles Kingsley, the first of which was:
Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be; that cunning is the weapon which Heaven has given to the saints wherewith to withstand the brute male force of the wicked world which marries and is given in marriage.
 In an appendix, he sums up the development of Catholic doctrine on truth-telling this way:
I think the historical course of thought upon the matter has been this: the Greek Fathers thought that, when there was a justa causa, an untruth need not be a lie. St. Augustine took another view, though with great misgiving; and, whether he is rightly interpreted or not, is the doctor of the great and common view that all untruths are lies, and that there can be no just cause of untruth. In these later times, this doctrine has been found difficult to work, and it has been largely taught that, though all untruths are lies, yet that certain equivocations, when there is a just cause, are not untruths.
In other words, and defining a "lie" as something that is necessarily sinful,
 Where, of course, the red circles bound the sinful acts. (Bl. John Henry goes on in some detail about the distinction between a play upon words, an evasion, and a common or garden equivocation.) (I might add that I've seen arguments to the effect that the "untruths" allowed by the Greek Fathers weren't all that different from the √¶quivocatio of St. Alphonsus Liguori, so it could be argued that the tradition really only varies from very rigorist to perfectly rigorist.)

Different theologians have different ideas about what constitutes a just cause, depending on their understanding of what makes lying sinful. If a lie is primarily a sin against justice -- that is, if it's object is to avoid giving to others something due to them -- then you could say that telling someone something contrary to what is in your mind is only a sin when they have a right to the truth; from there, you can develop a theory of when and how one loses the presumptive right to the truth.(It would be contrary to the Christian tradition, I'd say, to begin with the presumption that someone doesn't have the right to the truth.)

On the other hand, you might -- like St. Thomas -- regard telling the truth as a part of the virtue of justice, while also thinking that lying is sinful because it's unnatural. Then you would say that no cause justifies telling an untruth, because (pace Janet Smith) circumstances can't change the nature of speech. You might still, though, allow for certain equivocations, if you regard it as natural for words to signify more than one idea.