Telling the Truth

“A lying mouth destroys the soul” (Wis. 1:11).

Lying has become a governing etiquette in an age that has abandoned most refinements of manners. This may be a result of the general philosophical confusion about truth, but a mental breakdown of culture is rooted in a deeper and more universal heartbreak, for the 20th century has not ended as people at its start expected. Those who promised a golden age and those who feared an apocalypse have jointly been disabused. We have a society of some who lost faith in faith and others who more wildly lost faith in faithlessness, and in the general whirlwind, “spin doctors” replace the venerable doctors of souls.

Press conferences and public debates have simply become verbal ballets for getting around the truth. In this they are like the Pharisees and Herodians approaching Christ on the subject of paying taxes to Caesar (Matt. 22:17). St. John Chrysostom (In Matthaeum homiliae, 70, 1) says: “Remark how astute they are, for they do not say, ‘Tell us what is right or suitable or permissible, but tell us what you think.’ Their purpose was to betray him and make him hateful to the authorities.”

Lying is a craft, but now it is called a high kind of virtuosity. We have had late experience of chief magistrates whose speech avoided accuracy of detail. Pundits, in their public disapproval of this, admired the sangfroid of it as something masterful. In the public forum disclosing the truth is now called a “gaffe.” Since lying is a sin, its contagion is an evil thing, but it is especially wicked when it influences people entrusted with justice to which virtue truthfulness is ordered.

Satan the Liar

The Prince of Lies, who has very much enjoyed the 20th century, is only a princeling; he is not a king. He cannot govern a heart that is not open to him. He is a degenerate father incapable of generation, for he is the “father of lies” (John 8:44). He works by indirection, pretending to tell the truth, and never more subtly so than when he says there is no truth or that an utter lie becomes true by the very uttering. Schools and tribunals have notoriously been his clay, but even the servants of Christ the King have yielded miserably in great numbers. The last 100 years have seen more fervent martyrs for the sake of truth than any other age, but they have been outnumbered by liars. Risking scandal, I recall clerics who told me sadly that in certain ecclesiastical institutions lying was an accepted policy and that liars when confronted would stare indignantly at the floor without apology. It was considered bad form to call a lie a lie. When Cain lied to God, he must have stared at the ground. “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother crieth from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). When the Savior called Satan the father of lies, he turned to the unbelievers: “Because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.” Because their perplexity was less with the truth than with truthfulness.

Confronted with lying even in those who are consecrated to the truth, the heartening fact is that when the Prince of Lies wants to twist the truth, he has to twist the Church the hardest. The Father of Lies disdains the body politic, but he hates the Body of Christ. The Liar tickles syllogizers, but he crucifies the Word. “Sanctify them through thy word; thy word is truth” (John 17:17). The truth is in the Church, which is why the world would die if the Church lied. The world will die anyway, for all things must pass away, but by a divine commission, the Church cannot die because she cannot lie. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). Yet it is possible, and can even be epidemic, for members of the Church to lie. In light of the great truth of the Church, any little lie shall pass away with all other perishable things but that does not defuse the danger. “White lies always introduce others of a darker complexion,” wrote William Paley in 1785 in his MoralPhilosophy.

What Honestly Is

Careful study of the moral manuals over the years could give the impression that honesty has a few simple definitions, followed by torrents of qualifications and difficult cases. Attention to tradition may even require this, for in matters of lying there are ways of measuring moral gravity that are as complex as the measure of physical gravity, and the pageant from Newton to modern particle physics is not more colorful than the procession from Clement and Cassian to Antoninus and Cajetan. As veracity is aligned with justice and fortitude, so it has to do with prudence and all under the mantle of charity. St. Bernard called prudence the guide of every virtuous habit. It helps to reconcile the tension between noble things, such as justice and mercy, meekness and fortitude, mortification and regard for the body, affection and chastity, and solitary prayer and social involvement.

Impatient critics may impute malice and hypocrisy to prudential phrasing of truths. They are to casuistry what fundamentalists are to the subtleties of creation. Charles Kingsley charged that lying was a prescription and policy of Catholic priests who consider “quibbles and reticence” to be “prudent and clever.” Newman, himself the target of liars, replied in holy anger against “People of shallow, inaccurate minds” who lack “mercy for the man who will define his thought and choose his language so subtly that the mass of his hearers will fail to perceive his distinctions.” Newman’s own mentor in logic, Richard Whately, knew the delicacy of the matter. Though estranged from Newman in Church controversies, Whately must have smiled when he wrote in a riff on Quintillian: “Honesty is the best policy, but he who acts on that principle is not an honest man.” His body is elegantly entombed in Dublin close by Jonathan Swift, the great carbuncular genius who set for his own epitaph, one of the finest inscriptions of the 18th century, a record of the “savage indignation” that tore his heart because of frauds: “Ubi saeva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit.” To Lord Bolingbroke, Swift was “a hypocrite reversed,” so honest that Swiftian whimsy confesses in Polite Conversation: “I love a liar in my heart.”

Hard as it is to be honest, there is a cause for the bad name that has tagged some casuistry. As a fundamentalist neglect of the subleties of creation does not legitimize the Darwinist’s neglect of the subleties of the Creator, so no deference to good intention relieves the soul of an obligation to truth. That means paying attention to Christ. A rectory kitchen I knew had a little sign in the kitchen reminding the priests that Jesus is present at every meal. The words were in needlepoint, decorated with images of flowers and demurely framed, but sometimes they could have an unnerving effect.

Certain social conventions prevent us from crushing each other with honesty about the human condition. Fair enough. We may scorn, accuse, and threaten to sue a man, but we address the letter as “Dear Sir.” Properly so. Each unwelcome invitation is declined “with regrets” and ambiguous correspondence must be signed “Sincerely.” No crime. A governor is “Your Excellency,” though he may be crooked enough to hide behind a corkscrew, and a wayward duchess remains “Your Grace.” I am making a civilized statement about social order and not a subjective estimation when I say “Your Honor” or “Mr. Justice” to a magistrate who has tossed all honor and justice out the window. Were John XII or Benedict IX to come back by time machine and upset the current decorum of the Vatican, he would still be “His Holiness.”

The Church decorously avoids imputing motives to deceivers when she says in “ecclesiastical-ese” that a statement “does not conform to the truth.” In matters less important than objective accountability, she herself does not disdain harmless impostures. There may come a time when the Holy Church decides against customs like granting titular sees and ex-officio doctorates in divinity, but these are the benevolent gratuities of an indulgent Mother, and while they stand, they may excite the reforming impulses only of the sullen.

Some forms of mendacity are not amusing (iocosum) or mitigated by intent (officiosum). Pernicious lies are abhorred by the Lord (Ps. 5:7). And by those who love the Lord. St. Paul had diplomatic skills as when he played Agrippa like a piano (Acts 25) but all for the cause of truth, never in denial of the truth. When he thought it timely, he called Ananias a whited wall (Acts 23:3), which loses something in translation. St. Peter’s letters are the epitome of pastoral love, yet in the instance of another Ananias he said bluntly “thou has not lied unto men but unto God” (Acts 5:3), whereupon Ananias “gave up the ghost.” That apostolic power, which seems to have declined since the first pope, could quickly downsize many of our institutions.

As for Paul’s prudence, he showed another of its facets in writing to Titus: “The Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies” (Titus 1:12). To us who bask in the mellow sunset of honesty, his words sound a bit sharp. In our afflicted period of the Church, dishonesty is the pup of presumption. Paul was more aware of divine wrath than we generally are, and his indignation was more supernatural than Swift’s sardonic humanitarianism. Our generation—which has lost its Catholic confidence, has built no Chartres, has written no Divine Comedy, and celebrates Mass with split infinitives—tends to think that the Day of Judgment will be a sensitivity session. The searing honesty of St. Paul is called “insensitive.” But that is the language of dentistry, not theology. In 1643, the skeptical Sir Thomas Browne tried to suburbanize the apostle’s invectives in Religio Medici: “St. Paul that calls the Cretans lyars doth it but indirectly, and upon a quotation of their own poet.” The apostle was alluding to an unnamed source known to all his hearers as Callimachus of the third century B.C., although Browne evidently had in mind a true Cretan, Epimenedes of the seventh century B.C., whom Callimachus paraphrased in the first of his six hymns. St. Paul does not quote what the same Callimachus wrote 56 lines later: “A red hot lie is the best kind.”

A contemporary of Callimachus may have been the author of Psalm 116 with its eleventh verse: “I said in my haste, All men are liars.” If he were completely correct, we should trust not even him. The psalmist admitted that he spoke under duress. There are honest men about, like the psalmist. Their poor cousins are more furtive, whispering the truth in private and brazenly saying opposite in public. Coyness is so pervasive even among the people of God that it seems eccentric to be embarrassed by it. Once the sons of Noah covered the nakedness of one man; now out of filial piety, the sons of the Church have to cover an entire nudist colony.

What Honesty Is Not

As the Holy Eucharist is “an offering in spirit and truth,” the Prince of Lies gazes at it like a Panzer division on a delicious border. Invasion of the Eucharist is his attempt to sacramentalize the Anti-Word. The scheme to usurp the liturgy is typically devilish when it works through vulgarities: singularity in place of ceremony, lack of gravitas, open levity, rhetorical hyperbole, banal applause for each other more heartfelt than sanctuses for God. These gaucheries in the sanctuary, these flattering solicitations of approval from perplexed spectators, by their very inanity in the presence of ineffable glory are lies against the Cross and false witness to the Resurrection. And when a cleric begins the liturgy in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he should not have to pause halfway through the homily to say, “Frankly…” Jesus did not use truths as interpolations. Unctuous hypocrites said to the Eucharistic Christ: “You make no distinction between man and man” (Matt. 22:16). And to these flatterers with eyes eloquent of mendacity, it was his worst crime. Not all who crucified Christ crucified him because “he made himself like God.” Some crucified him because in him God spoke man-to-man.

This astonishing revelation is the engine of all the Pauline discourses. Never in all his invocation of truth did St. Paul descend to cynical manipulation. He had an apostolate that he furthered by prudence, but he had no ambitions to promote by calculation. There is a form of calculation that is more pathetic for its pretensions to piety. In the guise of discretion it falls silent out of human respect and jealousy for one’s career. As a moral disease and unmanly demeanor, it tempts good souls to be honest in secret, like Nicodemus, lamenting lies and liars but asking not to be quoted. This is neither pure nor childlike. Especially poignant then is the title of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque, in which he says that the cruelest lies are often told in silence. The Liar whose name is Legion insinuates himself into our silenced hearts and smilingly whispers, “Entre nous…”

The new Catechism calls lying “the most direct offense against the truth.” The first version of the Catechism indulged the opaque rhetoric of personalist philosophy: “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.” The official text now says: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” Lying easily becomes a habit, like any underestimated sin, and such constitutes the pathological liar whom Pascal knew as one who “lies simply for the sake of lying.” A priestly confessor will indulge the helpless liar more gently than he will the cynics who lie so broadly that they have forgotten how the skill of lying is not being caught. At the threshold of a millennium, the bishop is the remnant echo and clarion herald of reality. St. Paul’s words to Titus about the Cretans were in a discourse on the need for bishops to be honest as ministers of the Gospel. An old axiom says a bishop will never have a bad meal, an uncomfortable bed, or hear the truth. It is only a bit dated in reference to the first two. The bishop, and his priests by delegation, are ordained to correct lies by telling the truth. So he is a special reproach to the Liar who would tempt him to dissemble for the sake of popularity.

In an environment torn by slander, distracted by gossip, and paralyzed by human respect, priests are under relentless pressure to hush the truth, and the weight is made heavier by thinking that such avoidance is a strategem of charity. Good manners should defeat impetuous candor, but manners do not really make the man. By all accounts, Lady Astor could be mannerly, but once she asked Stalin, “When are you going to stop killing people?” It may have been a moment of naivete, but the naivete was golden. Her question did not stop Stalin, but it made up for a lot of the very foolish things she said at other moments. Those who sit on the sidelines of the age’s great debates grinning knowingly like Cheshire cats, not volunteering a view and faulting those who do, may go through life innocent of criticism, but they are not innocent of the sin of omission. More than one saint has said that Hell is full of closed mouths.

If I am a liar, Pentecost will be my Purgatory, for on that day the Holy Spirit came to lead his Church into all truth. Confession rekindles Pentecost. The sacrament of Reconciliation, which is the sacrament of honesty, has quite evaporated and with it the two supports of truth in daily life: daily examination of conscience and fraternal correction. Whether dropping them led to a collapse of religious life or vice-versa is a question of the chicken and the egg, but they have gone. This has left a terrible chasm in the moral world.

Surrounded by so much ruined honesty at the brink of the new millennium, the faithful heart can feel like Esau whose brother has taken away his birthright by guile. If there is to be a consolation before the final consolation of all, it is this: Jacob lied in a big and vicious way and took his spoils, but when he abandoned fraud, he became Israel. Then began a great race and a great history for it, and when all hours and days came to the right moment, Christ called to Nathanael: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47) That chronicle of a nation is the biography of every soul that has risen up from deceit and confessed to the Lord who “is the Faithful and True Witness of himself” (Rev. 3:4). Jesus the Christ is not Diogenes the Cynic, searching the streets with a little lamp to find an honest man. He is the Light of the World, and in his presence, every human being either lies and dies or tells the truth and lives.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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