Christian author Corrie Ten Boom tells a story of the time her family, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, took in Jews and hid them in their cellar. When the Gestapo came a-calling, the kitchen table was pulled over the trapdoor. An office asked Corrie’s sister, Betsie, a direct question: “Are you hiding Jews in this house?”
Betsie’s Christian convictions forbade her from speaking a deliberate lie, even for a purpose as noble as saving the Jews. So she affected the most ironic tone possible and sighed: “Yes of course we are! Can’t you see they are under the table?”
“Don’t play silly games with us, woman!” snapped the officer, and moved on.
The Catholic moral tradition has always held ambiguous views about whether one must answer truthfully in all circumstances. The relevant commandment forbids “false witness”, which points to high-stakes situations such as courtrooms and oaths. The wider moral tradition considers questions of lying to ‘those who have a right to know the truth’.
When penitents come to me pained that they have lied to spare a friend’s feelings, I never tell them that doing so is permissible. Nor do I state that it is clearly sinful – but they have identified it as sin and they are the one who has mentioned it in confession. I counsel them to find creative answers which are not direct responses to the questions asked, or perhaps to respond with, “Do you want my honest opinion?” before proceeding.
I have to recognise that the English language is used in certain conventional but non-literal ways. “How are you?” is an invitation to give a stock response to establish conversation, not to offer a comment on my actual state of well-being. As for “How do I look in this dress?”, I won’t begin to analyse what that might actually mean! As an Aspie, it grieves me that language is used so cavalierly in non-literal ways. As a scientist, I note that sociolinguists such as Erving Goffman have documented how language is used in different contexts. As a Christian, I wonder if we are acting outside the Lord’s injunctions to be straightforward (Mt 5:37). The Lord is Truth Himself; surely Jesus would not speak thus! (Yet in some contexts, such as ‘cut off your sinful hand’ Mt 5:29-30, I recognise that he must surely be exaggerating for effect. The behaviour, not the hand itself, must be amputated.)
There will also be contexts where I haven’t realised that there’s a non-literal convention going on in the way others use language. And how does the fact I am a priest influence things? If a terminal patient asks “Am I going to die?” is it my duty to provide false hope, or to prepare a soul to meet its Maker quite imminently?
And then there was the time I appeared in court as a character witness. I swore to tell the ‘whole truth’. How did I know the accused? “I was his spiritual adviser, but I asked his permission to waive confidentiality when his lawyer asked me to appear.” For this 100% honest response the jury was sent out and I was lectured by the judge about proper speech in court; I had breached some rule about indicating that a witness had been in contact with the accused. Clearly the Court did NOT want the whole of the truth which I had just sworn on the Bible to provide!