Are little white lies okay to tell?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: Is it always wrong in every case to lie? What about the so-called little white lie? I’m thinking of situations where you tell a person something you know is false to spare their feelings when they’re likely never going to know the truth anyway.

A: Our Catholic faith teaches us that lying is an offense against the eighth Commandment and is wrong. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity” (CCC 2485).

However, as your question suggests, there are some nuances to consider. For one thing, a lie might be mortally or venially sinful depending on the objective importance of the truth being obscured and on the seriousness of the potential harms that might come about because of the lie. A quick fib about eating the last piece of cake is obviously wrong and a venial sin but not on the same level as a lie in a business transaction that causes a family to lose their entire savings.  However, be careful about attempting to justify lies or make excuses to yourself; keep in mind that the devil encourages sin.  We must form our consciences in accord with Church teaching.  A confessor will always help us with moral questions.

It also might be useful to consider what a lie technically is. As the catechism, referencing St. Augustine, puts it, “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (CCC 2482). This means that not every untrue statement is a lie. To give some examples, acting and some jokes involve saying things that aren’t true; but untruths uttered by an actor in a play or as part of the set-up for a clear punchline aren’t intended to deceive and typically aren’t misleading in actual fact. Likewise, inaccurate statements that come about from an honest mistake also are not lies because there was no intention in such statements to distort the truth.

The catechism further specifies 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” (CCC 2483). It should be noted that not everyone has the right to know the truth about every situation. In most cases, it is not-at-all sinful to give an intentionally vague answer to a question that isn’t the proper business of the one asking. For example, if a nosy coworker asks about a recent doctor’s appointment you had, you have no obligation to share the details of your medical condition. Similarly, since we live in society and must be sensitive to the feelings of others, we don’t always need to be brutally honest and outspoken in all our thoughts and opinions. So, it’s fine -- and even at times required by charity -- to answer certain questions with diplomacy and tact, as long as we’re not leading the other person to believe anything untrue in doing so.

Refraining from telling a sick person that he or she looks terrible is not a lie because staying silent in a scenario where you had no need or obligation to comment is not untruthful.  Beyond the question of whether this is a sin, telling even small lies can cause people to lose their trust in us over time.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].