Revelation and faith, together with the conversation with God called “prayer,” initiate and maintain the interpersonal communion of the covenant (see DV 2–5, GS 19; CMP, 29.A). Similarly, the self-expressions which people exchange ground and build up human community: “Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level, it is the giving of self in love.”17 Thus, communication involves not only language but actions insofar as these communicate to others and, through being perceived and interpreted, affect interpersonal relationships.
All interpersonal relationships should be material for the kingdom (see GS 38–39). Moreover, many other responsibilities toward others presuppose and build on the fulfillment of responsibilities in communicating. So, these are among the first of one’s duties of Christian love toward others.
In some situations, such as communication through the mass media and letter writing, one party actively communicates and the other receives the communication; in others—dialogue or conversation—the partners alternate in playing both roles. But in either case, all involved have certain common responsibilities to fulfill if their communication is to serve the relevant goods.
a) All communication should be open to community. Every act of communicating and receiving communication tends to draw the parties into an interpersonal relationship or to carry on and perhaps deepen an existing relationship. If the acts are motivated by charity, they will be open to genuine community and will tend to establish or build it up. But, if partners in communication do not act in ways open to genuine community, that will be because their acts somehow are not loving. Either the other party is considered an enemy and genuine community is intentionally excluded (for example, family members engaged in a quarrel seek to defend their self-interests and hurt one another), or the other party is considered an inferior person and genuine community seems impossible (for example, those caring for children, the sick, the elderly, and so on try to keep them calm and manageable rather than seeking mutual understanding as a basis for cooperation); or, again, the other party is regarded as a mere means to some specific end, and genuine community is considered irrelevant (for example, an advertiser may seek only to motivate people to buy a product or service, whether or not that really is in their interest); or, finally, the other party is regarded with indifference, and genuine community seems pointless (for example, people who wish to keep their distance encounter one another at a party, while traveling, or in other situations where they are required to converse).
b) All parties to communication should submit themselves to truth. As creatures, human persons are utterly dependent on God. Their freedom and action presuppose realities whose meaning and value cannot be changed. Therefore, human fulfillment requires knowing and conforming to the truth, and especially to the truth about what is good. But since genuine community is cooperation in seeking common fulfillment, it depends on submission to truth. Consequently, since all parties to communication should be open to genuine community, they should submit themselves to truth. The alternative is pursuing what they want regardless of truth, caring about no common good beyond themselves, and so, while using means of communication, failing to promote genuine community.
c) In communicating, one should be pleasant and courteous. All communication should be open to community, and mutual good will and honor are essential for that purpose. Pleasantness in speech and manner manifests good will and the desire to please others. Marks of courtesy—polite words, gestures, and other actions—manifest not only respect for persons insofar as they are persons, but the honor appropriate for each in accord with his or her social status, the relationship of persons, and other circumstances (see S.t., 2–2, q. 114, a. 1). Hence, in communicating, people should always be courteous and pleasant (see Col 4.6), unless it is unavoidable to sadden others or there is some reason for not trying to please them.
Norms of etiquette, differing in various social and cultural milieus, define modes of expression and practices which, partly by their inherent characteristics and partly by social convention, are pleasant and courteous. Sometimes, to be sure, there are morally compelling reasons for violating them: conventions occasionally are inconsistent with truth or moral goodness, and unconventional behavior sometimes may be appropriate in efforts to reform sinful social structures. In the absence of any morally sound reason for acting contrary to the norms of etiquette accepted in one’s present social situation, however, a person ought to observe them, since this manifests good will and appropriate respect and honor for others. Unconventional behavior intended precisely to show hatred toward others or dishonor them gives offense which is hardly likely to be experienced as insignificant, and so is almost always a grave matter.
d) In conversation, the principles of dialogue should be observed. The principles of dialogue are conditions which must be met for conversation to further genuine communion. Dialogue requires clarity in expression, meekness and patience in the exchange, mutual confidence, and prudent consideration for one another’s characteristics and circumstances. Here “truth is wedded to charity and understanding to love.”18
All participants must respect one another as persons responsible to the truth and bound to act in accord with conscience. They should seek to come together in truth and to find grounds for willing cooperation. Each should assume that all have something to contribute, that all can benefit from what others have to give, and that all must judge for themselves what they can accept from others. Participants should presume that another’s communication is well intentioned, and each should try to grasp the elements of others’ communications in their total personal context, that is, in the light of all the factors which actually determine and limit their meaning. Each party should declare honestly and without compromise what he or she thinks true, while expecting and encouraging others to do the same; there should be no excessive eagerness to eliminate differences, since these must not be suppressed but transcended by means which respect responsibility to truth and personal freedom. Participants in a dialogue should treat differences and oppositions as important, and deal with them patiently.
e) One always should communicate with the appropriate care. Genuine communication can serve various good ends. It can aim primarily at establishing or carrying on interpersonal relationships, or, though open to community, it can be directed toward cooperation in pursuing particular technical goals or realizing goods such as knowledge and esthetic experience. Since circumstances affect whether and how well a communication succeeds, people deliberating about whether to communicate should consider the time, place, and other circumstances which would make communicating most effective.
Yet communication frequently occurs spontaneously and without its being directed to any good end. Such idle talk often imposes on others, and it always wastes time and offers an avoidable occasion for other sins. Jesus warns that “on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (Mt 12.36). So, a person should never engage in communication without directing it, either by habitual intention or actual deliberation, toward some good end—which, of course, can be the building up of community and friendship by simple sociability.
Most people sometimes are tempted to evade burdensome duties and escape pressing problems by taking refuge in pointless conversation, rationalizing this as sociability or a way of fulfilling some responsibility or solving some problem. Indecisive leaders, anxious to avoid commitment and conflict, often waste many people’s time in meetings which nearly all the participants recognize as useless. A person should be alert to the danger signs, for example, that more time than usual is being absorbed in conversation while work is piling up, or that repeated discussions are covering the same ground without making any progress.
f) Communication should respect community’s extent and limits. Without privacy, interiority and intimacy are impossible; so, privacy is necessary to develop and maintain the individual identities of persons and communities. Since communication directed to good ends serves community, all who engage in it should bear in mind the extent and limits of the community relevant to that communication. That includes maintaining the community’s privacy and protecting the secrets pertaining to other communities. The latter responsibility will be treated in detail (in C.2).
g) Everyone should bear in mind communication’s imperfections. Few attempts at communication succeed entirely. Natural limitations, errors, moral failings, and the defects of language and other media ensure that many communications will fail entirely or succeed only partially, and that partially successful communications often will lead to such great misunderstandings that those who attempted to communicate regret having done so. It is important to keep this fact in mind, for it should limit attempts to communicate, qualify confidence that a communication has been received, and color the interpretation of any response or action based upon it.
Since all communication should further community, a person should be appropriately receptive to efforts to communicate, but should resist abuses of communication.
a) Sincere efforts to communicate should be accepted and acted on. Others’ sincere efforts to communicate serve community: they either seek help in pursuing some good, offer some benefit, or both. Within the limits of time and energy set by individual capacities and prior responsibilities, a person should be open to further community, and that requires listening to others, attempting to understand what they wish to communicate, and appropriately taking it into account. Initially trusting others, a person should try to understand their motives. If they seem sincere, he or she should be ready to receive not only help, confirmation, and support, but also expressions of need, challenges, and demands to change.
In sincerely attempting to communicate, people give themselves, and a person accepts them with love only if he or she regards them as important, that is, really listens to and hears them. Sometimes that means agreeing with them, accepting what they offer, and giving what they ask; but, when that is not possible or right, really listening to others means at least considering their communication and allowing it to make whatever difference is judged appropriate, which usually at least includes some response to show that the communication was received and considered.
b) One should resist manipulation but not foreclose communication. It often happens that those addressing one appear not to care about community. They may seem to consider one an enemy or inferior person, or wish to use one as a mere means to their own ends, for example, a salesperson appealing to base or irrelevant motives. Then it is necessary to deal with the reality, take the apparent manipulation into account as a given fact, and not be credulous or susceptible.
At the same time, charity rules out passing ultimate judgment on those communicating in such ways and condemning them. Communication with them should not be entirely foreclosed. At a minimum, that requires being ready to accept a sincere communication if it eventually is made. Beyond that, unless there is some reason not to do so, people should respond to those who seem to wish to manipulate them by pointing out how their behavior is perceived and calling on them either to show that the perception is mistaken or to act differently.
c) Others should not be encouraged to communicate wrongfully. A person encourages others to communicate in three ways: by asking questions or otherwise inviting them to communicate, by willingly receiving their efforts to communicate, and by responding affirmatively. In all these ways it is possible to encourage others to communicate wrongfully. Expressing idle curiosity, for example, may encourage others to lie or reveal secrets that they should keep. Listening patiently, providing an audience, or responding affirmatively can encourage many kinds of wrongful communication, including blasphemy, sinful proposals, defamation, detraction, flattery, boasting, derision, salacious stories, gossip, and idle talk. At a minimum, an affirmative response to such communications should be avoided; they should not even be received unless this must be done incidentally to fulfilling some other responsibility; and, in the absence of some reason for not doing so, a person should let those who communicate wrongfully know how their action is perceived and should call on them to desist and repent.
d) One should be careful about what one takes from the mass media. In choosing what to receive from the mass media, people should consult available sound criticism and rating services (see IM 9). They should register disapproval of anything clearly and seriously offensive to Christian faith or morals while expressing appreciation for what is sound, constructive, and well done (see IM 14).19 Apart from specific objectionable content, television and radio programs are likely to mediate a world view incompatible with Christian faith and its implications.20 Researching the public’s motives and using technologies for manipulating them, many commercial producers seem interested only in maximizing profit by gaining as large an audience as possible and preparing it to receive and act on the commercial message.21 Publicly sponsored productions sometimes promote secularist ideologies and partisan political views. People either should abstain from viewing or listening to programs corrupted in any of these ways or should take care to do so critically and only occasionally, while counteracting their subconscious psychological influence by regular reading of Scripture, prayer, and meditation.
The professional skills, technology, and vast resources often devoted to communication through the mass media give it a level of technical excellence and impact beyond the reach of communication of other kinds: ordinary lectures and homilies, letters and memoranda, amateur productions, and so on. Therefore, people must make a special effort to take a critical approach to the messages conveyed by the mass media, while inappropriate standards, drawn from media, should not be applied to communications of other kinds. If the latter require of recipients more attention, patience, and effort to understand, they also contribute to interpersonal communion in ways the mass media will never replace.22
To communicate sincerely to others is to express oneself and give oneself in love. Since such self-expression and self-giving further genuine communion and so build up the kingdom, that good should be kept in view.
a) In communicating, one should strive always to be constructive. Since communication should be self-expression in love, only that should be communicated which will benefit others and build up genuine community. In every communication, one should try to manifest love, respect, and due honor, not only for those who are addressed but toward everyone mentioned: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12.10); “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4.29). Put negatively: one should not indiscriminately communicate everything to everyone and should never communicate anything maliciously to anyone. That which others are not likely to be able to receive and benefit from should not be communicated, nor should what will needlessly annoy or harm anyone, nor what will manifest secrets which should be kept, nor what is simply useless and time wasting.
b) In each and every communication, one should be truthful. Only truthful expressions really express oneself and allow others the access to oneself which genuine community requires. Hence, people always should communicate truthfully. Truthfulness is especially important for Christians, because they can spread the truth of the gospel and do their part in building up the kingdom only by testifying to truth, and their testimony will be more effective if absolute truthfulness in other matters puts their trustworthiness beyond doubt.
Since people communicate not only by words but by deeds, truthfulness is required not just in linguistic expressions but in all actions done with the intent of communicating something (see S.t., 2–2, q. 111, a. 1). For instance, Judas was untruthful by feigning friendship and loyalty after deciding to betray Jesus (see Mt 26.25, 49). Forgery, plagiarism, counterfeiting, and deceptive impersonation are only some of the many kinds of untruthful communication by deeds.
The importance of certain subjects provides additional and more serious reasons for truthfulness concerning them. For example, to enter into communion with God and abide in it, people need to know the truth about matters of faith and morals; therefore, untruthfulness about these matters gravely violates charity. Similarly, both love of neighbor and justice require truthfulness about matters which may influence important decisions and other matters in which falsity can cause someone serious harm.
c) Courtesy need not be incompatible with truthfulness. It might be objected that constructive communication requires courtesy, and courtesy can be incompatible with truthfulness, since good manners sometimes call for expressions at odds with a person’s actual feelings. For example, letters must be addressed “Dear so-and-so,” a “How are you?” must be answered “Very well, thank you,” and corrupt superiors must be addressed with deference and honor. However, such customary, polite usages give many expressions and practices meanings different from those they would seem to have to someone unfamiliar with the relevant requirements of etiquette: polite expressions do not correspond to feelings, but to the dignity of persons and the formal implications of the involvement of each in a social situation in accord with his or her place in the network of social relationships. Thus, even if polite expressions and practices involved untruthfulness at some earlier time, the established conventions now can be followed in truthful communication. For example, dinner guests can follow customary form in expressing appreciation for hospitality by saying that it was a “fine meal and enjoyable evening” even if they think the food was poor and the conversation boring. Indeed, such expressions and practices usually should be used for courtesy’s sake, and someone generally may use them appropriately even though foreseeing that, as a side effect, people unfamiliar with the conventions may be deceived.
d) One should strive to overcome self-deception and ideology. Unless people are honest with themselves, they hardly can be honest with others. The requirement of truthfulness in communication, therefore, demands that a person face up to the truth about himself or herself, and avoid self-deception and rationalization. Similarly, communities to which one belongs sometimes have their ideologies or communal rationalizations, and if one acquiesces in them, one is sure to communicate their falsifications rather than the truth. Hence, the effort must be made to overcome or resist not only personal but social evasions and distortions of the truth; for example, men should try to overcome the ideology which rationalizes domination of women, and women should try to resist radical feminism.
e) One should try to be accurate, clear, and reasonable. Good communication is hard work; laziness often tempts people to shirk it. Often, real communication is not the easiest way of achieving a desired objective; a person can be tempted to employ the easier expedient of manipulation. Thus, laziness and expediency lead to careless inaccuracy, exaggeration, lack of needed qualifications, stronger assertions than are warranted, and negligent failures to clarify one’s meaning—all of which defeat the purpose of communication, which should contribute to authentic communion among persons. Consequently, love of neighbor requires serious efforts to be accurate and clear. Likewise, those who seek genuine community must use only what they think are sound arguments pointing to true conclusions, and must propose only good reasons for doing what they believe right.
f) One should make good use of the media of social communication. The media of social communication can be and often are used to convey unsound arguments intended to gain people’s assent to certain positions (propaganda), to persuade them to act in desired ways (manipulative advertising), and so on.23 Through right use of the media, however, it is possible to multiply the good one does in communicating something worthwhile to communicate to many people (see IM 2). So, one should learn how to gain access to the media and use them in ways available to the public at large, for example, by providing suitable material, writing letters to editors and managers, and so on.24
It is important to contribute to the formation of sound public opinion on matters of social justice. Of itself, it does not benefit those who are neglected or oppressed to raise consciousness about their suffering. Yet this is an indispensable means of stimulating social deliberation and encouraging action, whether the action will mitigate suffering directly or lead to the necessary, more radical reform of sinful social structures.
Since communication is essential to cooperation and very important for building up every sort of community, it is an extremely valuable instrumental good. While sincere communications often express errors and seem to create problems, they also reveal aspects of situations which require attention if real progress is to be made and communion in the truth achieved. Moreover, indications that communication is not succeeding or is counterproductive usually call for renewing communication in a more thoughtful manner, rather than discontinuing or suppressing it. Consequently, those involved in every human association should begin with a presumption favoring freedom of speech and other modes of communicating.
Of course, like any instrument, communication can be abused, and even its right uses can have such bad side effects as to require some limitations. Nevertheless, apparent abuses of communication often turn out to be defects caused by factors other than bad will, and attempts to prevent bad side effects of one sort by imposing limits on communication are likely to have bad side effects of a different, and perhaps even worse, sort. Usually, therefore, it is better that necessary limits on communication be self-imposed by those involved in any association rather than established and enforced by authority. Therefore, people should support a strong, though rebuttable, presumption against inhibiting communication, not only in political society but in the family, the Church, and, indeed, in every community and relationship.
This presumption, however, must not be misunderstood. It is rebuttable, and should not impede safeguards of morally justified privacy and secrecy, or restraints on expression involved in immoral and socially damaging activities, such as the production and dissemination of pornography.25 Moreover, even within its proper limits, the presumption against authoritative restriction of communication establishes only a liberty, which individuals must use responsibly, not a right to communicate in careless and harmful ways.
Since communication should be a giving of self in love, it should establish and build up community among persons. Any manner of communicating, truthful or not, is wrong if it falls short in love and needlessly impedes or harms interpersonal communion. Contention and sowing discord do this directly. But true communion also is damaged indirectly, but no less seriously, if, in communicating about persons (oneself and others) and about groups (those to which one belongs as well as others), a person does not express the truth or expresses it without love.
Damaging communications about persons and groups bear upon their reputation and/or honor. Individuals need a good reputation to enter into community and participate fully in it. Communities need a good reputation to hold their members and function effectively for them, and also to enter into and participate fully in wider communities. Worthiness of honor and its due recognition, whether enjoyed by individuals or by groups, are nothing but the reality and mutual acknowledgment among individuals and communities of their same fundamental human dignity, their legitimate differences in status, and their true social value, a value following from their real gifts and accomplishments, especially their moral goodness and holiness. Thus, individuals’ and groups’ reputations and honor are important not only for themselves but for every community in which they take part.
Boasting, false modesty, and hypocrisy, which bear upon one’s own reputation and honor, violate the sincerity and openness with others that are so necessary for genuine community. Detraction, insult, and ridicule attack others in their reputation or honor. Flattery is a method of manipulating others for one’s own ends, in violation of true community.
a) Boasting, in itself a light matter, is more serious than it seems. Provided there is some reason for doing it, there is nothing wrong in calling attention to one’s genuine good qualities and accomplishments or the valuable possessions of oneself or one’s group (this is sometimes inaccurately called “boasting”). Boasting in a correct, but wide, sense involves doing the same thing out of vainglory—merely to win honor, without regard to the praise of God and the good of one’s neighbor (see S.t., 2–2, q. 132, aa. 1, 5). And it is boasting in the proper and strict sense to be less than perfectly truthful while engaging in self-glorification or the glorification of one’s community (see S.t., 2–2, q. 112, a. 1).
Boasting is a light matter in itself and even when the truth is stretched, though it can be grave if it springs from or is part of some mortal sin, for example, if it manifests gravely sinful pride or is part of an attempt to seduce someone or to compete unfairly for an important job (see S.t., 2–2, q. 112, a. 2; q. 132, a. 3). However, even boasting which is not a grave matter is more damaging to community than it seems, for it focuses attention on goods insofar as they are one’s own, rather than gifts of God to be used for the kingdom. Thus, it almost always fosters individualistic competition and status seeking rather than solidarity and service, and it arouses others’ envy without encouraging their emulation.
b) False modesty, in itself a light matter, also can be serious. The opposite of boasting in the strict and proper sense is false modesty: a person untruthfully belittles himself or herself. Personal false modesty can be part of a manipulative strategy to move others to respond with praise and honor or a device of the lazy to avoid using their gifts in service. False modesty about a community to which one belongs—for instance, exaggeration of the Church’s human defects—can serve as a rationalization for not fulfilling one’s responsibilities in the community or for rebelling against its authority. In itself a light matter, false modesty, like boasting, can be grave if it springs from or is part of some other act which is grave matter, for example, if it is used to evade a grave duty or to encourage schism.
c) Hypocrisy can be either a grave or a light matter. If those who lack virtue and holiness simulate what they lack, they practice hypocrisy, seeking by mere outward show to keep their reputation and to receive undeserved honor. As deceptive communication, all hypocrisy is at least venially sinful. The New Testament, however, condemns as a most grave sin a certain kind of hypocrisy: the pretense of sincere faith by those who sinfully reject or pervert Jesus’ gospel. While the enormity of their sin lay in their unbelief more than in their pretense,26 hypocrisy nevertheless can be a grave matter even without rejection of faith. For those who are role models, sinning gravely in ways others can observe, while hypocritically maintaining that their behavior is not sinful, clearly is grave matter, because it is scandalous. Hypocrisy also can be a grave matter because of an ulterior purpose, for instance, when it is part of a strategy of pursuing some status for oneself at odds with the common good or of manipulating and dominating others in order to use them for some selfish or ideological goal incompatible with the kingdom (see S.t., 2–2, q. 111, a. 4).
Still, even though a person may be guilty of other grave sins when sinning by hypocrisy, the hypocrisy itself is not a grave matter if the pretense of goodness has some reason compatible with charity, for instance, to avoid distressing loved ones or to avoid disgrace for one’s sins of weakness. Furthermore, manifesting a sincere aspiration and commitment to a holiness not yet achieved is not hypocrisy at all. Nor is it hypocritical to teach and support norms and ideals one believes true but fails to put into practice. A parent or a pastor who says, “Do not imitate my bad example, but instead live by my sound teaching,” does not commit the sin of hypocrisy but rather mitigates a possible sin of scandal.
d) Flattery and ingratiation also can be either grave or light. Praising and complimenting people truthfully, and in general trying to please them, are in themselves courteous and friendly acts which strengthen community and encourage others in what is good. But insincere praise, unwarranted compliments, and attempts to please which are not in order are sinful flattery and ingratiation. These sins can be grave—for instance, praising others’ grave sins (perhaps by saying how “courageous” they are to commit them)—or if the flattery and ingratiation are part of a grave sin (see S.t., 2–2, q. 115, a. 2).
Even when these sins are not grave, they manipulate people and feed their vanity, rather than establishing genuine community and calling others to authentic commitment to the goods to be served by cooperation. More specifically, those who are dominated often use flattery and ingratiation to gain favor and maintain a semblance of community with their unjust masters, whom they actually despise; whereas, love of neighbor requires those who are unjustly treated to admonish their oppressors (see 4.E.1) or at least to avoid obsequiousness, which only confirms oppressors in sin.
e) Contention and quarreling can be either grave or light matter. Sometimes truth and goodness require a person to disagree with others, to refute them, to challenge their proposals, and to say what offends them—and to do these things with a sharpness and precision which make clear what is at stake and how important it is. If what is necessary is done as gently and courteously as possible, the act really is loving and conducive to true communion. Some will call it “divisive,” but they are wrong.
Someone who falls short of this ideal through passion, not with respect to the substance of what is said but only with respect to the manner of saying it, sins by violating gentleness and courtesy but the violation in itself is only a light matter (see S.t., 2–2, q. 38, a. 1). Even so, the sin is serious insofar as it hinders genuine dialogue and is likely to provoke a defensive response, which easily evades truth and sound argument by dismissing what has been said as “uncharitable polemic.”27
The sins of contention and quarreling are another matter and are inherently more serious. They involve disagreement, challenge, refutation, and offense, not in the service of truth and goodness, but quite apart from them, and perhaps even directly against them. If contention is against truth or justice in an important way, it plainly is a grave matter (see S.t., 2–2, q. 38, a. 1). Likewise, quarreling is a grave matter if it manifests a real lack of charity, as when the intent is to bring contempt on someone (see S.t., 2–2, q. 116, a. 2).
Even the sins of contention and quarreling can be light matter, however, provided they do not express bad will toward opponents and are not opposed to truth or justice in any important matter. That often is the case, for instance, with barroom arguments and quarrels among children over petty issues, where any anger and hatred involve only transitory feelings. Still, even such contention and quarreling plainly have a negative impact on community, and often are the occasion of far more serious sins: fights in which real harm is done, infidelities, and so on.
f) Gossip provides a context for serious sins against others. It is a normal and valuable exercise of community for members of a group to exchange information about the personal doings and concerns of other members just insofar as doing so arises from love and contributes to cooperation and help for those in need. When it does not arise from love and merely serves curiosity, however, it is gossip: idle talk which treats those discussed as objects of astonishment, amusement, and so forth.
Gossip is sinful, for it is idle talk, not directed toward building up community. Still, it is light matter in itself, for although it does not spring from love, it need not, and often does not, manifest hatred or cause harm, but only wastes opportunities for more constructive conversation or other worthwhile activity. Nevertheless, simple gossip sometimes offers the occasion for serious sins of calumny and detraction, which constitute malicious gossip; whenever that danger is recognized, gossip should be considered a grave matter.
g) Detraction, which wrongfully sullies reputation, is of itself grave. Good reputation is the object of a basic human right (see GS 26). That individuals and communities often spend large sums of money—in law suits, advertising, and so on—to vindicate, promote, or acquire a good name shows how much they care about reputation and suggests how important it is. People need their good name in order to enter into and participate fully in various communities, and so to share in most human goods; while the good name of communities is important not only for analogous reasons but also for their relationship to their own members. So, any act that destroys or damages the reputation of an individual or community is important. Christians are warned: “Do not speak evil against one another” (Jas 4.11); and the sin of sullying another’s reputation is among those typical of pagans and of degenerate people of the end time (see Rom 1.30, 2 Tm 3.3).28
Detraction (also called “defamation”) is any act of communication that wrongfully sullies an individual’s or group’s reputation. It takes two forms: lying and communicating truths which should not be communicated. The former is called “calumny”; the latter is simply called “detraction.” Because of the good at stake and the violation of justice and love involved, all detraction, even that involving no lie, is of itself grave matter, although it admits of parvity of matter.29
Sometimes people engage in detraction—especially, but not only, calumny—precisely in order to sully the reputation of their victim. They may do this simply out of hatred; or they may do it for an ulterior end, such as gaining an unfair advantage. In either case, the detraction carries out an intention to cause the victim significant harm; thus, it violates love and does not admit of parvity of matter (see S.t., 2–2, q. 73, a. 2).
Sometimes, however, the detraction is indirect: people do not intend but only foresee the harm their wrongful communication will do to someone’s reputation and accept it. This sort of indirect detraction admits of parvity of matter when the foreseen harm is slight. For instance, to protect themselves, wrongdoers often not only lie but imply that witnesses against them are lying; their lies are calumnious, although not intended or expected seriously to harm the witnesses’ reputations. Again, for mere amusement and without intending harm, gossips often wrongly broadcast truths that hurt others’ good names, but in some cases the harm is slight.
h) Calumny—detraction by lies—is committed in different ways. While the lie constituting calumny can be a straightforward assertion, lacking and known to lack any basis in fact, often it is less blatant, but no less calumnious, and all the more effective in sullying reputation: something false is not asserted unqualifiedly but proposed as a suspicion (“I think the boss is taking kickbacks”); or something likely is asserted unqualifiedly (“The Admiral’s wife has been cheating on him”); or something with some basis in fact is exaggerated (“The Catholic Church always has persecuted her great theologians”); or a truth is communicated in an intentionally deceptive way, for instance, by omitting the context that would make it harmless (“He referred to his opponent as a ‘black beast’!” [when the phrase was used to translate bête noire]). Sometimes—for instance, in a letter of recommendation—where it is expected that those who merit praise will be praised enthusiastically, faint praise is used deceitfully to damage a reputation; in such cases, the faint praise is calumny.
Since moral character is central to good name, calumnies often concern alleged immorality. However, other defects can be the subject of calumny, for instance, untruthful criticisms of people’s professional competence or job performance can gravely damage their reputations even though no moral fault is imputed to them. In some situations, a person’s reputation can be harmed even by lies about something which is not truly bad but only despised by a certain circle; for instance, employees of a laxly managed organization can damage an unusually competent executive’s reputation by exaggerating his or her strictness in a complaint to higher management.
Calumny is committed on different occasions and in various media. Scholars can commit it in scholarly works, journalists in publications or broadcasts, politicians in campaigning, propagandists in publicly criticizing opponents, competitors in speaking confidentially about one another to those who will evaluate them, subordinates by whispering lies about authorities in order to undermine them, authorities in discrediting people who oppose them, and so on.
i) Sometimes truths that harm reputation should be communicated. As stated in paragraph (g) above, not only calumny but simple detraction—harming reputation by truths that should not be communicated—is sinful. The problem arises because people often do not respond appropriately to the truth about others: instead, they easily become excessively defensive, or lose respect, or draw unwarranted inferences. For example, an accurate account of the past crimes of a small businessman who has completely reformed will cause many not to trust him; publication of the transcript of a woman’s narration of her experience of being raped could diminish some people’s respect for her; a report that a candidate for public office once needed treatment for depression could lead many voters to the unwarranted conclusion that he or she would be undependable.
Reflecting on such cases, in which communication that harms a reputation is sinful, sheds light on cases in which the truth should be communicated even though harm to reputation is foreseen: here, others need to know the truth in order to be able to do what is appropriate. Whenever a person judges that, except for the foreseen harm to reputation, the damaging information should be communicated, he or she must judge whether in fact the obligation to communicate the information remains despite the side effect. If the conclusion is that it does, the individual can and should reveal to others what they need to know, without intending to harm the person whose reputation will be harmed.
Some sorts of cases typically require this. One knows someone is doing wrong, and tells someone else in confidence in order to enlist help in correcting the apparent sinner. One knows someone has committed a crime and reports it to the authorities. One knows an innocent person is accused of something and reveals who is guilty, in order to free the innocent from blame. One knows someone is professionally incompetent or does poor work, and warns others who might be badly served. One knows someone is making a major mistake—such as preparing to marry a person in ignorance of that person’s very serious shortcomings—and communicates what is known to prevent the mistake. Those who share authority over someone—parents over children, supervisors over employees, and so on—have information which others who share that authority need in order to exercise it properly, and so they compare notes and share their information. One knows about defects in a candidate for a public office rendering him or her less worthy or suitable for it, and makes them known to other voters.
j) Sowing discord is an especially serious form of detraction. Good repute in one another’s view has a special character for the participants in any emotionally close relationship, such as a friendship; here, things which might not affect reputation with others can matter greatly, while what might greatly affect reputation with others can make little difference. All the same, continuing closeness among friends and intimates depends on their continuing to enjoy good repute in one another’s eyes. Sometimes, however, people deliberately try by detraction to sow discord between or among friends or intimates, for example, to break up a marriage or alienate coworkers. One method is the poison-pen letter or anonymous telephone call; another is tale bearing—repeating to one person what another said about him or her.
While people often sow discord out of envy and hatred, sometimes they do so for the sake of an ulterior end. In either case, sowing discord directly attacks the goods of friendship, faithful companionship, and peace in intimate community. Therefore, it is an even graver matter than detraction otherwise is. Still, it is not sowing discord to communicate a truth which should be communicated, for example, the truth about a seducer to someone being seduced, in order to break up the immoral relationship.
k) Insult offends honor and signals a defect in community. An insult is a consciously offensive communication dishonoring and humiliating someone or some group. Insult bearing on moral qualities or sin is called “contumely” (see S.t., 2–2, q. 72, a. 1, ad 3). An insult can be used simply to express hostility, not precisely to dishonor, and an insult chosen precisely to dishonor can be used as a means to an ulterior end, for example, to elicit a violent reaction, to distract attention from something else, to lessen an authority’s effectiveness, and so on. In all cases, those who engage in insults show that they reject or do not desire authentic communion with those they insult.
Insults can be communicated directly to the persons or groups to be dishonored or to others in solidarity with them. Language can be used or, with or without language, gestures and actions. Even pointedly omitting customary signs of respect which are plainly called for can serve to insult.
Where there is some form of social stratification, it is not uncommon for those who dominate to make a practice of insulting their subjects, at least partly as a means of asserting superiority and demanding submission. Systematically dishonoring and humiliating someone with insults involving immodesty or bearing on his or her gender or sexual characteristics is a form of sexual harassment.30
l) Insult strictly so called is in itself grave. Although it admits of parvity of matter, an act of insulting is in itself grave. Since such an act never can be good, whenever it is foreseen that serious offense will be taken, an insult is not light matter. Again, insults are grave matters if they are precisely intended to dishonor someone or some group, whether the insult is chosen simply out of hostility or as a means to some further end (see S.t., 2–2, q. 72, a. 2). Thus, Jesus says that “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt 5.22).
Any practice of insulting, including that involved in sexual harassment, plainly is a more serious matter, other things being equal, than an isolated act of insulting. Moreover, insults very often are mixed with other sins against those offended: an attempt to dominate, violation of economic rights, physical abuse, immodesty, defiance of authority, and so on.
Angry people frequently insult others without reflecting and choosing to do so; even if the matter is grave, such acts lack the subjective elements required for mortal sin. Also, language and behavior insulting in some contexts sometimes can be used sinlessly in others to communicate a legitimate point or as humor. However, the latter possibility often is used as a pretext for rationalizing insult, especially but not only in the form of ridicule, under the guise of humor (“kidding”). This dishonest practice is especially common in families and other groups of intimates or close associates, where those who are dominant use it to express contempt for others or humiliate them.
m) Generally, one should suffer detraction and insult patiently. People whose reputation and honor are offended often become very angry, hate the offender, and are tempted to retaliate. Giving in to this temptation violates the Christian norms of meekness, mercy, and peaceableness, which require resignation, forgiveness, and efforts toward reconciliation with the offender.
While retaliation always is excluded, however, mere stoic silence in the face of such offenses can be inappropriate, and an active defense or response can be morally required. That is so, for instance, when responding actively might lead the offender to repent, or is necessary for the sake of the common good, or so that one will not be prevented from fulfilling serious obligations to others. When it is necessary to deal actively with detraction or insult, what is done should be limited by the good end in view, with preference given to action which is likely to restore harmony with the offender.
It is a basic norm of all communication that all parties submit themselves to truth (see 1.b, above). Lying and other deceptions are intentional untruthfulness: they express outwardly something at odds with one’s inner self and attempt to lead others to accept it. Thus, they divide the inner and outer selves of those who engage in them, contrary to their own self-integration and authenticity, while impeding or attacking the real community that truthful communication would foster, even when deception seems necessary. Therefore, lying and other deception in communication are always wrong.31
Although some lies are not seriously immoral, truthfulness, even when there is no question of grave matter, is more important than people usually realize. Untruthfulness often has cumulative consequences: habitual indifference to truth by individuals and erosion of trust in society. People begin by excusing lies to protect the innocent from malicious enemies and to safeguard inviolable secrets; they end, as experience plainly shows, immersed in disinformation and insincerity in every sort of public and private communication.
a) Untruthfulness is at odds with a Christian’s new life in Christ. In his deepening of the commandments, Jesus calls for such perfect truthfulness that oaths would be unnecessary: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5.37). Other New Testament teaching makes it clear that Jesus’ new way of life excludes untruthfulness and explains why:
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Lying is part of the fallen human condition, but not of the condition of humankind renewed in Jesus (see Col 3.9). As Jesus is truth (see Jn 14.6) and “no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Pt 2.22; cf. Is 53.9), so Christians are to live according to truth, putting aside whatever follows from ignorance of God’s truth and from hardheartedness. Christian love requires truthfulness with one’s neighbor “for we are members of one another”; the quality, and perhaps the very existence, of communion in the new covenant is at stake whenever one communicates with one’s neighbors.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. (Eph 4.17–25)32
b) Lying to enemies is incompatible with loving them. Although most Catholic theologians have considered the prohibition of lying a moral absolute, there is a lesser but significant school of thought holding that lying sometimes can be justified, particularly when it is a question of lying to an enemy, who has no right to the truth, in order to protect the innocent from harm.33 The classic example is: May a person not lie to a murderer who is seeking a potential victim?
It seems correct to hold that the Christian answer is no (see S.t., 2–2, q. 110, a. 3, ad 4). Since the truth is to be spoken with one’s neighbor, a person must not lie even to enemies, for enemies too are neighbors. Of course, silence is not lying, and enemies need not be provided with the truth of which they can be expected to make bad use. But even someone certain he or she was speaking with a person intent on committing murder would not be acting as love requires if, judging that person to be beyond repentance, he or she resorted to lying in an effort to save the potential victim’s life. Rather, treating as neighbors both the potential victim and the enemy would require not giving the information and, usually, explaining why: “I will not answer your question and help you do wrong; instead, for your soul’s sake, I ask you to repent of your wicked intent.” Such an answer might or might not succeed, but it is a work of hope, while lying is an act of desperation.
Some recent authors have used the historically factual example of agents of a totalitarian power who asked those in charge of an institution to identify certain children who would be sent off to a death camp. Was it not entirely right to protect the children by lying? Could that have been even a venial sin? Yes, it could have been a sin; objectively, it was not right.34 The appropriate Christian response would have been to refuse submitting insofar as it involved even the smallest sin, to resist injustice by every morally acceptable means, and to be prepared to die if necessary—preferably in place of those to be sent to the death camp, but even with them—in witness to the falsity of that ideology and to the truth of the gospel, which the ideology’s proponents sought to supplant.
It might be objected that, had it been feasible, it would have been morally acceptable and perhaps even obligatory to defend the children with force—if necessary, deadly force—against the agents of the totalitarian power (see 8.C.1.d–e); thus, it is paradoxical that it was not right to lie to them. This objection might be cogent if the malice of lying and killing lay exclusively in their injustice to those deceived or killed. But that is not the case; indeed, lying, while always wrong, does not always violate any right of those deceived. One cannot lie, however, without choosing the self-alienation which, opposed as it is to self-integration and authenticity, is sufficient to make lying wrong; but deadly force can be used to defend the innocent without choosing the death which, because it is opposed to life, makes intentional killing always wrong. Moreover, using deadly force in defense does not impede community as lying does. For attempting to deal with the agents of a totalitarian power by lying maintains a semblance of community based on false ideology and blocks the development of real community based on the common good. Indeed, the lies of the oppressed are an important element in their reluctant submission to an unjust regime which might well be unable to withstand united, courageous, and open resistance.35
c) Mental reservation with the intent to deceive is a lie. Catholic theologians in modern times envisaged situations in which secrets could not adequately be protected by remaining silent, rebuffing an inquiry, or distracting the inquirer. While most held that lying is always wrong, it was suggested that in such situations mental reservation might be used, that is, a person might employ an expression that would not convey what had to be concealed, while mentally qualifying its meaning in such a way that, if taken with that qualification, it would express truth. As understood by the speaker, the statement would express something in accord with what he or she actually had in mind; but as understood by the hearer, it would not manifest the secret the speaker was obliged to protect.
It seems, however, that mental reservation itself has two meanings.36
In one sense, it refers to expressions which can obscure the truth even if no one is deceived, and so can be effective without expressing an assertion believed to be false.37 The use of such expressions is not lying. Quick-witted individuals use ambiguity in this way. For example, a woman, attending an office party given by her employer and finding the entertainment offensive, politely excuses herself: “I am sorry I cannot stay for the rest of the evening, for I suddenly feel sick to my stomach,” thinking her excuse cannot be held against her but its ambiguity will not be missed. Moreover, many statements are generally recognized as ambiguous: “Mr. Jones is not available just now,” “Mrs. Jones is not at home,” and even, in certain contexts, “I don’t know.” Likewise, social conventions provide many expressions which, while always manifesting respect for persons, often mask actual sentiments (see 3.c, above).
In another sense, however, mental reservation refers to studied ambiguities which cannot effectively obscure the truth without deceiving, and so cannot be used without intent to deceive. Such a mental reservation depends for its success entirely upon the false sense of the expression, whose true sense remains irrelevant to the communication. Thus, it both expresses something at odds with what one has in mind and carries out the intent to deceive, and so is a lie.38
d) Not all deceptive actions are dishonest communications. Since actions are more ambiguous than words, an ambiguous action which probably will deceive others often at the same time signifies something that is true. For example, a young woman traveling alone who acts as if she is part of a family group both truthfully signifies that she is not receptive to advances by strangers and deceives those who might otherwise attempt to take advantage of her (see S.t., 2–2, q. 111, a. 1, ad 1). Again, a waiter who is politely pleasant to boorish, irritating customers, or a teacher who is grieving for a recently deceased parent but tries to smile cheerfully in class does not express his or her present feelings but does honestly manifest something else: the will to relate to others in an appropriate and constructive way.
Moreover, in some sorts of situation, no question of honesty arises: deceptive acts are done but are neither intended nor understood as self-expressive, since everyone involved understands, and perhaps even agrees, that deception may be practiced. In such cases, people can intend to deceive others without violating truthfulness; for example, there is no untruthfulness when entertainers create illusions, players in games bluff or opposing armies in war feint, and so on.
e) Lying to protect secrets should be unnecessary. Many examples meant to show that a lie (or a mental reservation) is necessary to protect a secret instead show the difficulty involved in rebuffing enemies. For example, a priest called to testify in court about something he was told under the seal of confession usually can protect the secret by a mental reservation which does not involve deception or by refusing to testify. However, he may suffer legal penalties unjustly imposed by a government that does not respect the inviolability of the sacrament of penance.
In some cases, a simple refusal to answer a question will reveal the answer. For example, suppose a priest agrees to testify on behalf of innocent people accused of a crime that they did not confess it to him; if he then refuses to comply with another defendant’s similar request, his refusal would reveal that individual’s secret. Such cases can and should be forestalled by consistently maintaining secrecy. If a priest always refuses as a matter of policy to talk about what he has heard or not heard in confession, his refusal to answer any particular question will not reveal any secret. But even someone who has failed to follow a sound policy about secrets can avoid revealing a secret by saying: “Hitherto I answered questions of that sort, but I have come to realize that doing so is not good, and so I have adopted a policy of refusing to answer any question of that kind. Therefore, I refuse to answer, and you can draw no conclusion from my refusal.”
Of course, priests and others morally bound to protect confidences can use legitimate mental reservations, that is, those that are effective even if they deceive nobody. For example, asked whether he knows that a woman has certain failings, a priest can say: “I have nothing to tell you about that aspect of her life” or “I really cannot say whether or not she has those failings” or, in some contexts, “I do not know”—all of which can express a refusal to answer with sufficient ambiguity that, without actually deceiving anyone, the priest probably can evade punishment for not answering. The regular use of such language to express ignorance as well as to hold back reserved information and reject prying questions maintains its useful ambiguity, so that it can continue to protect secrets effectively without actually deceiving questioners.
f) Lying and other deception in communication can be grave matter. While the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20.16; cf. Ex 23.1; Dt 5.20, 19.15–19), specifies a particularly noxious form of lying, not just perjurers but other liars can sin gravely (see 1 Tm 1.10, Rv 21.8). Thus, if someone deliberately deceives another about an important subject—for example, a matter of faith or morals, or something on which an important decision will be based—the lie or deceptive deed is a grave matter, even if the ulterior purpose is not to harm anyone, but to bring about something regarded as a greater good.39
Moreover, since lying is sinful in itself, a person never can be justified in accepting any bad side effect of a choice to lie. Therefore, if someone foresees that serious harm can result from his or her lie or deceptive deed, that deception is a grave matter, whether the serious harm foreseen is intended as an end, chosen as a means, or only reluctantly accepted.40
Further, the Golden Rule requires that the seriousness of harm to be expected from lies be evaluated from the perspective not of the liars but of those deceived and others affected. Liars often exaggerate the good their lying will do and belittle its harmfulness to others; but those who imagine they tell only “white” lies often judge that they themselves have suffered significant harm when others tell them similar lies.
Like other kinds of immoral action, lying is a mortal sin only if it is freely chosen in grave matter with sufficient reflection. Pathological liars perhaps lack freedom of choice in this area; small children certainly lack both freedom of choice and sufficient reflection; and many usually honest people sometimes lie, at least in certain sorts of situations, without deliberating.
g) Supposedly helpful lies manipulate others and often harm them. Sometimes people lie because they think it will help others and harm no one. For example, health care workers sometimes lie to a patient when they think the truth would be psychologically harmful or the lie helpful to the patient, and family members sometimes lie to one another to prevent the sadness or anxiety a truthful account of bad or threatening news would cause. Even when they are light matter, such lies are contrary to the goods which communication serves. Helpful liars manipulate those to whom they lie, usually overconfidently presuming that they know what in fact they cannot know: that those they try to deceive cannot deal with reality, cannot make good use of the freedom only truth can give, and will not suspect or even detect the deception, lose trust, and suffer more than if they had not been lied to. Indeed, because of their impact on freedom and/or the consequence of suspicion, supposedly helpful lies can cause great, even though unintentional, harm.
Such a lie plainly is grave matter if it deprives someone of an important truth to which he or she has a right, for example, when lying to a dying person is likely to prevent him or her from preparing for death. Still, in such a case, while the lie is grave matter, the liar usually does not foresee the possible harm, and so lacks sufficient reflection.
h) Humorous lies manipulate others and often offend their dignity. Many moralists think humorous (jocose) lies have little or no moral significance. This opinion may be based partly on a confusion between telling humorous fictional stories not intended to deceive anyone (these are not lies, and can be morally acceptable) and humorous lies properly so called. The latter do aim to deceive someone, although usually only temporarily, and generally in the context of playful mocking or teasing (“kidding”). For instance, someone first tells a credulous person something astonishing, embarrassing, or frightening but untrue, and by this deception provokes an emotional reaction; then the joker manifests the truth and at least implicitly ridicules the reaction.
Although the humorous lie usually is not a grave matter, its moral significance is obvious: like every other lie, it manipulates others. This fact also explains why humorous liars typically victimize people whom they regard as inferiors (and thus offend their dignity): adults often tell such lies to children, male superiors to female subordinates, the sophisticated to the simple, and so on.
i) Lying as a “lesser evil” is at best subjectively blameless. People often try to excuse or justify lying in a difficult situation by arguing that it was the “lesser evil.” This could have any of four meanings. First, offered by someone who thinks that lying sometimes is justified, the argument could be that the lie in question was morally acceptable. But, assuming the preceding arguments are correct, lying never is justified. Second, it could be a proportionalist argument that the norm prohibiting lying is subject to justifiable exceptions. But proportionalism is unacceptable as a theory of moral judgment (see CMP, 6). Third, it could be an argument that a venial sin of lying is excusable to avoid great harm. That is true if excusable means that, although the lying remains a sin, it is easily forgiven; but it is false if it means the moral evil of a venially sinful lie is less than any nonmoral evil, however great. Fourth, it could be an argument that the choice to lie was justified, inasmuch as the individual was perplexed in conscience, that is, he or she honestly thought the only alternative to lying was to choose some greater moral evil, such as violating a duty to keep a secret. This argument can be sound inasmuch as a choice made in perplexity can be subjectively blameless (see 5.I.3.d). Still, it is never objectively true that the only alternative to lying is to choose some greater moral evil, and so the person who was perplexed in conscience either failed to think of the morally acceptable alternative or mistakenly judged it morally evil.
17. Pontifical Commission for the Instruments of Social Communication, Communio et progressio, 11, AAS 63 (1971) 598, Flannery, 1:297; cf. GS 23.
18. Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, AAS 56 (1964) 645, PE, 271.82; the four requirements of dialogue are stated: AAS 644–45, PE, 81. The requirements are set out and explained more fully, but with a specification to a limited field, by the Secretariat for Nonbelievers, Humanae personae dignitatem, AAS 60 (1968) 692–704, Flannery, 1:1002–14.
19. See Pius XII, Miranda prorsus; AAS 49 (1957) 782, 787, 794, 795, 796, 801–3; PE, 260.67, 85, 125, 129, 133, 158–66. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response, 27; L’Osservatore Romano, It. ed., 17 May 1989, A.3; OR, 5 June 1989, 11, proposes a relevant norm: “The general public also needs to make its voice heard. Individually and collectively, concerned citizens—including young people—should make their views known to producers, commercial interests and public authorities.” While specifically concerned with the problem of stemming the tide of pornography and violence in the media, this norm is at least as binding in reference to media content at odds with truths of faith and requirements of social justice.
20. For a brief, scathing critique of both public and commercial broadcasting systems, see Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Aetatis novae, 1.5; L’Osservatore Romano, It. ed., 18 Mar. 1992, 4; OR, 18 Mar. 1992, 6. Also see William F. Fore, Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values, and Culture (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 15–71.
21. See Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: William Morrow, 1978), 134–53.
22. See Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Aetatis novae, 2.7, 4.16; L’Osserva~tore Romano, It. ed., 18 Mar. 1992, 4–5; OR, 18 Mar. 1992, 6, 8.
23. On manipulative advertising, see Eric Clark, The Want Makers: The World of Advertising: How They Make You Buy (New York: Viking, 1989), 59–124, 163–201.
24. By the same token, abuses of the media of social communication are likely to be a grave matter; thus, CIC, c. 1369, prescribes: “A person who uses a public show or speech, published writings, or other media of social communication to blaspheme, seriously damage good morals, express wrongs against religion or against the Church or stir up hatred or contempt against religion or the Church is to be punished with a just penalty.”
25. The United States Supreme Court’s jurisprudence regarding freedom of speech—see, for example, Michael Barnes v. Glen Theater, Inc. (21 June 1991), 115 L. Ed. 2nd 504–31—rather than regarding speech as an instrumental good seems to assume that it is valuable in itself. This assumption tends to absolutize freedom of speech to the detriment of other moral and social values.
26. See Wolfgang Beilner, “Hypocrite,” in Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology: The Complete Sacramentum Verbi, ed. Johannes B. Bauer (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 390–92.
27. See Germain Grisez, “Charity and Dissenting Theologians,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 80 (Nov. 1979): 11-21.
28. CIC, c. 220, prescribes: “No one is permitted to damage unlawfully the good reputation which another person enjoys.” Also see c. 1390.
29. A helpful study: Kenneth B. Moore, O.Carm., The Moral Principles Governing the Sin of Detraction and an Application of These to Specific Cases (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950).
30. This form of sexual harassment usually involves other wrongs as well, and not all forms of sexual harassment involve insult. Many involve either sexual assault (see 8.G.2) or immodesty (see 9.E.9.d). While any sort of harassment by definition involves a practice or systematic pattern of behavior, the single actions involved in harassment always are wrong in themselves.
31. St. Thomas argues that every lie is a sin: since linguistic expressions naturally signify what one has in mind, it is unnatural and wrong to use them to signify something at odds with what one has in mind (see S.t., 2–2, q. 110, a. 3). This argument often is taken out of context and criticized as a perverted-faculty argument. However, communication is a social practice directed toward self-expression and communion; and previous arguments (in q. 109 and q. 110, a. 1) make it clear that Thomas thought that abusing the practice violates both the integrity between one’s inner self and one’s expressed self, and the solidarity between one’s self and others.
32. This passage clarifies how sinners, by sexual immorality and other sins as well as lying, violate both their own integrity and genuine interpersonal communion, and thus become unauthentic when measured by the standard of truth in Jesus: see Markus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4–6, The Anchor Bible, 34A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974), 499–513.
33. See Boniface Ramsey, “Two Traditions on Lying and Deception in the Ancient Church,” Thomist 49 (1985): 504–33; Julius A. Dorszynski, Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1948), 15–37. The view that it can be justifiable to deceive an enemy who has no right to the truth sometimes but not always has been accompanied by a definition of lie which excludes such deception; see Michaël Ledrus, S.J., “De mendacio,” Periodica de re morali, liturgica, canonica 32 (1943): 5–58, 123–71; 33 (1944): 5–60; 34 (1945): 157–209.
34. Someone might argue that God commended lying in such circumstances by blessing the midwives who lied to Pharaoh (see Ex 1.18–21). The reason for the blessing, however, is that the midwives “feared God” (Ex 1.21); that was why they first acted with heroic virtue in grave matter by refusing to kill the innocent: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” (Ex 1.17). The midwives’ self-defensive lying was a distinct, subsequent, and entirely incidental act, whose venially sinful character would not have negated their heroism and merit in God’s eyes. In any case, the scriptural witness should be considered as a whole, and Old Testament examples from the perspective of New Testament teaching; see, for example, D. W. Wead, “Lie, Lying,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 3:128–29.
35. In this way, Adam Michnik, Letters from Prison and Other Essays, trans. Maya Latynski (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1985), 3–15, explains why he refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to Poland’s Jaruzelski government. In an introduction to Michnik’s book (xxx), Jonathan Schell sums up the approach of the Workers’ Defense Committee, which was the antecedent of Solidarity: “Its simple but radical guiding principle was to start doing the things you think should be done, and to start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.”
36. Innocent XI condemned a form of mental reservation (DS 2126–27/1176–77), called “strict” or “pure” (as against “broad”) mental reservation. The point here is to reject both strict or pure mental reservation and any broad mental reservation that involves speaking contrary to one’s mind with (at least a conditional) intent to deceive. There is no feasible way to compare the position defended here with the “traditional view on broad mental reservation,” since the Catholic moralists (approved authors) who accepted some such practice disagreed among themselves on exactly what it is and how far it licitly extends; see Dorszynski, Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood, 27–28, 61 (especially n. 84), and 68 (point 7 and n. 12). However, the position defended here certainly is more restrictive than treatments of broad mental reservation by some usually sound authors. See, for example, I. Aertnys, C. Damen, and I. Visser, C.Ss.R., Theologia moralis, ed. 18, 4 vols. (Turin: Marietti, 1967–69), 2:391–95.
37. St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 110, a. 3, ad 4, says it is permissible to hide the truth prudently under some concealment (“sub aliqua dissimulatione”), but, unfortunately, does not explain what that means. What he says could refer to the kind of expressions described here, and so proponents of more permissive accounts of mental reservation cannot claim his authority against the view taken here.
38. Two theological arguments that lying sometimes is permissible deserve brief replies. First, in trying to elude pursuers, various saints are said to have spoken with a mental reservation which could not have protected them had they not succeeded in intentional deception. For example, St. Athanasius, asked by those seeking him where to find Athanasius, is said to have replied: “He is not far off!” These examples, even if historically accurate, do not falsify the position taken here, because saints sometimes commit venial sins, not all saints have believed that lying is always wrong, and a saint who believed that lying is always wrong may well not have had a precise concept of lying, and so might have told a clever lie in a well-intentioned effort to dissimulate without lying. Second, Dorszynski, Catholic Teaching about the Morality of Falsehood, 69–72, 75, plausibly argues that conceptions of broad mental reservation typical of the approved authors allow speech contrary to one’s mind, and so make an exception to the norm forbidding lying. However, the issue concerns behavior which at worst is light matter for sin, and so there is no great difficulty in thinking that the approved authors go too far in their various theories of mental reservation.
39. In public discourse, such lying is widespread and very damaging. For example, in today’s world, more sophisticated and better informed people, not only proponents of totalitarian ideologies, often suppose that they may lie in public statements, media campaigns, and even scholarly publications (“simplify matters too complex for ordinary people to handle”) in order to lead the public to accept and support ideals, policies, and programs which those who think themselves more enlightened and/or expert judge to be good, right, and necessary. John XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram, AAS 51 (1959) 500, PE, 263.11, condemns this kind of deception: “Anyone who consciously and wantonly attacks known truth, who arms himself with falsehood in his speech, his writings, or his conduct in order to attract and win over less learned men and to shape the inexperienced and impressionable minds of the young to his own way of thinking, takes advantage of the inexperience and innocence of others and engages in an altogether despicable business.”
40. Among serious lies, one should notice that under certain conditions, lying to a prospective spouse can invalidate a subsequent marriage (see CIC, c. 1097, §1), and that lying by someone wishing to enter religious life can invalidate admission to a novitiate (see CIC, c. 643, §1, 4–5). Also, certain lies to Church authorities which injure another’s reputation and certain lies involving Church documents constitute the canonical crime of falsehood (see CIC, cc. 1390–91).