Lying is wrong. We know this, and our children are taught early on that one should never lie – but as we grow older we seem to take lying less seriously. The fact that we have terms like ‘white lie’ show how easy it is to forget that lying is objectively evil, and it damages ourselves and those around us.
It seems that whenever the objective evil of a lie is brought up, someone brings up a hypothetical situation in which lying would actually be a good thing. The common hypothetical is ‘What if during World War II you were hiding Jews in your house, and the Nazis came knocking on your door? Would you tell them the truth and let innocent people die? Or lie to save innocent lives?’
Recently, a listener called in to Go Ask Your Father™ with this very question. Monsignor Stuart Swetland responded:
“The problem with posing that hypothetical is that you look like you’re between a rock and a hard place. You have to either lie or turn over the innocent people hiding in your house. Then you’re in a situation where you are choosing between two evils. So, some say they would choose the lesser evil.
Well, who in their right mind would ever believe someone who would say something like that to them? They’re going to search your house anyhow. It’s not like they’re going to say, ‘Oh, OK. Since you’ve told us they’re not there, we’re not going to search your house.’ Of course they are.
And that is the situation you’re in. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s almost irrelevant. But the poser of the hypothetical isn’t looking at the big picture. The problem with that hypothetical, which really happened in the case of the Germans, is that Christians in Germany didn’t stand up to their evil and wicked regime, and say, ‘We’re not cooperating with you.’
When they came to the door, they should have said (and some of them did), ‘What you’re doing is wicked and evil. You are going to go to hell unless you stop killing innocent people. We will not cooperate with you in any way. We won’t fight for you, we won’t pay taxes, we won’t cooperate with you in any way.’
If the Germans did that, Hitler couldn’t have done anything. And that’s the thing we don’t see. We have to stop evil in its tracks. We can’t cooperate to the point where we say, ‘Well, as long as they’re not coming to get us, it’s OK.’ And that’s what too many Christians did at the time. They cooperated with the regime, and they fought in an unjust war – a war of aggression and extermination – which no German Christian should have gotten anywhere near.
We’ve canonized some saints who refused to fight in World War II. Germans and Austrians who refused to fight were canonized for good reason. That’s what every Christian should have done. We compromised way too much with too many regimes for too long on these kinds of things.
Praise God that we can give witness to the truth, we can give witness to the morality of the Church, we cannot compromise on moral truth. This is what the martyrs are made of. The martyrs are those who preferred to die than to commit a mortal sin. This is where we don’t take seriously enough the Commandments and the witness to the Word made flesh.
That’s why Christians can never lie, it’s a counter-side to the Word. It’s a violation of the 8th Commandment. It’s one of the things that is an objectively evil act that can never be made good, even in the most extreme circumstances. Because when one chooses to lie, one chooses to be a liar. You make yourself what you choose to be.
Now, everyone understands duress. Everyone understands the conditions where you literally have a gun to your head, and you don’t have perfect freedom. But if you want to know the objective answer to the situation, it’s no. You don’t do evil, even if you think good will come of it. Because it just makes you an evil doer.
That’s the problem all too often. We think compromising here, compromising there, compromising with this Commandment, compromising with that Commandment for the greater good is some smart way of getting out of problems. But we’re not addressing the real issue, which is the evilness of the regime that would put people in such circumstances.”
Listen to the full conversation below: