Q. I know that one of the Ten Commandments is, "Thou shalt not bear false witness." I can understand that it would be a serious sin to testify falsely under oath, but are all untruths sinful? How about "white lies," like when your elderly aunt asks you, "How do you like my new hat?" (A negative response would probably cause hard feelings and accomplish nothing of value; a positive response, while perhaps technically a lie, would engender happiness and do no one any harm.)
So where does one draw the line? Must the statement be harmful to someone to qualify as a breach of the commandment, however venial? Is there any need to confess such a white lie or exaggeration so long as it is harmless? (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)
A. Your question is a very good one and the answer is far more complicated than one might think. In fact, for the past 1,500 years, Christian moralists have debated what the right answer should be.
In the theological history of the church, two diverse opinions have been given. One comes from St. Augustine, who held that, "A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving." For Augustine, lying was always morally wrong, regardless of the circumstances. But for other theologians (Origen and John Chrysostom come to mind) the definition of lying was more nuanced, and it involved factoring in the questioner’s right to know the truth.
Where the difference shows most clearly can be seen in the case of whether Christians who were hiding Jews in their homes in Nazi Germany could morally lie to those seeking to find and execute them. For Augustine, the only legitimate response to the question of the Gestapo would have been either silence or the response, "I cannot tell you." But for a fair number of other moralists, because the guards had no moral right to know, the answer could simply have been, "No. There is no one here."
Even for those who take the absolutist position, of course, the gravity of a lie varies greatly with the circumstances. Lying under oath or when the untruth would cause serious harm to someone’s rights or reputation would be a grave sin. Lying to shield someone from embarrassment (as in the case of your aunt with the new hat) would be at most a venial sin, and you would be free to confess it or not.
Interestingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives evidence of the age-old struggle of moralists to sort this out. In the catechism published in 1994, section No. 2483 says that "to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth." But since 1997, when the catechism was revised and the official Latin text published, "the right to know" was dropped and that sentence now says simply, "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error."
Getting back to your aunt and her new hat, I would look for some equivocal language in an attempt to serve truth and charity. I might say something like, "I think the hat looks cute." (In my mind, the word "cute" admits of a range of meanings — from "attractive" to "quirky.")
Questions may be sent to Father Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.