St Augustine opens his book On Lying with a question, “Is it sometimes right to tell a lie? Can a lie ever be an honest, well-meant, charitable lie?”
When we ponder the question we should ponder with St Augustine the actions of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt in Exodus:
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
Did the Hebrew midwives sin when they told this lie to Pharaoh? Did the Hebrew midwives lie?
Many thousands of Jews were saved from the Holocaust by lies of this sort, many people helped hide Jews and paid with their lives, several diplomats issued thousands of passports permitting Jews to emigrate to avoid the death camps, and we all know the story of Oscar Schindler who lied constantly to the Nazis to save his Jewish workers.
St Augustine in his Retractions says he wrote this book to “inculcate the love of speaking the truth.”
The Catholic Catechism (CCC 2482) quotes On Lying to say that a “lie consists of speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving,” which in our translation is rendered, “a lie is any utterance whatever with will to deceive.” But we do know that the Hebrew wives intended to deceive Pharaoh, so we must ponder further.
St Augustine teaches us, “there is a difference between lying and being a liar. A man may tell a lie unwittingly; but a liar loves to lie, and inhabits in his mind the delight of lying.” Have you ever met or ever seen on TV someone who lies so much he can’t hardly say anything that is undeniably true?
Lying is hazardous to your soul, St Augustine quotes Wisdom of Solomon 1:11:
Beware of useless murmuring,
and keep your tongue from slander;
because no secret word will go unpunished,
and a lying mouth destroys the soul.
St Augustine’s treatise On Lying is more difficult reading than usual. There is some archaic usage, to speak leasing means to speak falsely, and pudicity means modesty or chastity. If you think I have misread any of his passages, let us know in the comments.
St Augustine dislikes lying as much as he dislikes liars, and if he is compelled to justify lying in any circumstance, he ardently wants the exception to be so narrow as to be unattainable as possible. Perhaps he fears that if he opens the barn door a crack a herd of cattle will barge through, such is our propensity to sin and deceive, as all sin involves deception. But God did bless and reward the Hebrew midwives for their actions.
What is always in the mind of St Augustine as he ponders this riddle? What should always be in all of our minds? “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” How is this possible? St Augustine teaches us that to love our neighbor we must truly love ourselves, we must Love God, but how can we truly love ourselves if we have a lying mouth that destroys our soul? “Good men should never tell lies.”
ST AUGUSTINE EXAMINES THE VARIOUS TYPES OF LIES
When someone says something that it is not true out of ignorance, believing that it is true, then this is not counted as a lie because there is no intention to lie.
The martyrs to the faith we in living memory of many Christians in St Augustine’s day. These early martyrs were glorified by the church when they were martyred for their faith, for their refusal to bear false witness against Christ and deny their faith. But what if the authorities also threatened to kill their father as well if they did not deny Christ? Should they deny Christ to prevent the murder of their father? These were hard choices the early Christians had to make.
Lying destroys our soul, so even if we think a lie is harmless, it harms our soul. Beware of lying, be cautious in telling white lies, do we prefer pleasing people over telling the truth? What about the person whose lies benefits someone rather than harms them? That sort of lie still damages the soul.
What about the Robin Hood argument? “What harm does it do to someone rolling in wealth who loses one bushel out of a thousand” to a thief who needs that one bushel to keep him from starving? You can be merciful to the thief, but he still sinned.
But “it is no sin if a man hide his property which he fears to lose,” but that is not really lying but discretion. This is especially true when you do not reveal where your neighbor’s treasure is hidden when asked by a thief. No harm is done when a thief is not tempted to thievery.
By the same logic the landlord that hid Jews in the attic and lied to the Gestapo when they knocked on his door asking where the Jews were hiding, he did not sin when he told them he did not know where they were, knowing they would be driven like cattle to the death camps. St Augustine teaches that this is not false witness because the Gestapo were not searching for witnesses when they knocked on the door looking for Jews, they were searching for betrayers.
In these last two circumstances St Augustine teaches that “the question is no longer about lying, but whether an injury ought to be done to any man.”
St Augustine teaches that we must “guard our chastity of mind, when we love our neighbor we guard our innocence and benevolence, when we Love God we guard our piety. Through innocence we harm no man, through benevolence we do good to whom we can, through piety we worship God.” This happens when we refuse to bear false witness against our neighbor, this happens when we learn to love to speak the truth of our neighbor, this happens when we do not seek to harm our neighbor, but rather seek to love our neighbor as ourselves.
 St Augustine, “On Lying,” In the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 3, translated by Rev H Brown (Boston: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994, first published 1887), pp. 457-477.