Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire


Most every person lies at some point in their life, but Scripture, St. Augustine and others note the damage done by telling untruths.

Generations of American schoolchildren have heard the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. "When George was about 6 years old," Mason Weems wrote in 1806, "he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! Of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way."

When Washington’s father saw that his tree had been cut down, he asked, "George, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?" The son answered, "I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."

This famous tale reminds us that everyone faces temptations to lie and that it is important to tell the truth, even when we find it difficult to do so. Georgetown University professor and noted author Jesuit Father James Schall observed that "lies cause great harm because truth is the basis of our relation to others, especially those closest to us."

The liar, says Washington’s father in a lesser-known passage of Weems’ work, "is looked at with aversion wherever he goes ... Oh, George! My son! Rather than see you come to this pass, dear as you are to my heart, gladly would I assist to nail you up in your little coffin, and follow you to your grave."

Scripture’s guidelines

As harsh as the words of Washington’s father may sound, his view of lying is an echo of Jesus’ teaching. Our Lord associates lying with the devil.

As harsh as the words of Washington’s father may sound, his view of lying is an echo of Jesus’ teaching. Our Lord associates lying with the devil: "When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies" (Jn. 8:44). Jesus, who came "to testify to the truth"(Jn. 18:37), expects his followers to be honest in their speech: "Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’" (Mt. 5:37).

St. Paul likewise exhorts Christians to "put away falsehood" and let every one speak truth to his neighbor (see Eph. 4:25). At the conclusion of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation tells us that the liar, among other sinners, "is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death" (Rev. 21:8).

The New Testament’s teaching on lying has deep roots in the Old Testament: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" is the eighth commandment of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:16). "The Lord hates . . . a lying tongue," according to the Book of Proverbs, for "lying lips are an abomination to the Lord" (Prov. 6:16-17; 12:22). The Book of Wisdom teaches that "a lying mouth slays the soul" ( Wis. 1:11).

Scripture’s advice on lying can be summed up in one Old Testament verse: "Refuse to utter any lie, for the habit of lying serves no good" (Sir. 7:13).

What is a lie?

Apart from Jesus and the authors of Scripture, the writers who have most influenced Catholic teaching on lying are Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

St. Augustine, who wrote two treatises on lying, makes clear that jokes are not lies and that not every false statement is a lie. If a math student, for example, honestly believes that two and two are five and shares that false belief with a classmate, the student is not lying. In order for a statement to be a lie, the speaker must both believe the statement to be false and intend to deceive another person.

Reflecting upon what Scripture, St. Augustine and Aristotle have to say about lying, St. Thomas Aquinas distinguishes between different types of lies. A lie, says Aquinas, can either exceed the truth or fall short of the truth; Aquinas classifies these two types of lies as "boasting" and "irony."

Aquinas also displays keen insight into the motives that lead us to lie. Sometimes, we lie because we wish to injure others; Aquinas calls this type of lie a "mischievous lie." At other times, we lie because we want to please others or help others; he calls these lies "jocose lies" and "officious lies." Aquinas writes that jocose lies and officious lies are less serious than mischievous lies.

Failure of charity

In presenting Catholic teaching on lying, the Catechism of the Catholic Church draws upon these two saints’ writings. After making St. Augustine’s definition of lying ("a lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving") its own, the Catechism discusses how lying offends against truth and charity:

Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. . . . 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. . . .

Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships. (nos. 2483, 2485-86)


Degrees of lies

The Catechism also teaches that some lies are more serious than others. "The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity" (no. 2484).

Commenting on this text, Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press and provost and professor of theology at Ave Maria University, explained that "in a court where one has sworn to tell the truth, an intentional lie is very serious. In a bar where one is recounting one’s past athletic exploits, it may be just an exaggeration, and recognized as such."

He said an example of a grave injury against justice and charity is if "my dying mother asks me if I’m able to come to see her one last time before she dies. I lie and say I’m in the hospital and unable to travel, when I’m in fact not."

Praiseworthy lies?

Is it ever good to tell a lie? At times, even Scripture seems to praise lying. "God dealt well"with the Hebrew midwives after they lied to Pharaoh about the newborn male children he wanted to kill (see Ex. 1:20).

The Bible also seems to uphold Jacob, Rahab and Judith as models of virtue, even though Jacob lied in order to receive a blessing, Rahab lied in order to protect the Israelites spying at Jericho and Judith lied in order to preserve her people from the enemy.

Commenting upon these passages, Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both write there is no such thing as a praiseworthy lie. Aquinas explains that when God praised the midwives for their fear of God and their goodwill toward their neighbor, and not for their lie. Judith likewise was praised for her desire to take heroic action to save her people, and not for her lie in doing so.

These two saints deliver a hard truth: that "it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger," as Aquinas writes. "Nevertheless, it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back," as Augustine says.

We are never obliged to divulge all the truth to everyone who asks. "I do not have to bare my soul to everyone in the world," said Father Schall, "and if I do, there is clearly something wrong with me."

Picking up pieces after lying

Catholic psychiatrists and psychologists offer reasons why trust in others is the
foundation of relationships and how we can restore it

For over 2,500 years, parents have told their children the story of the boy who cried wolf. Aesop’s original fable ("The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf") is remarkably brief:

A shepherd boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains.

The wolf, however, did truly come at last. The shepherd boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: ‘Pray, do come and help me; the wolf is killing the sheep’; but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.

There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.

This famous tale shows how lying can sever the web of trust that helps bind people together.

Our Sunday Visitor asked Catholic psychiatrists and psychologists to reflect upon the importance of trust and to discuss how to restore it once it has been broken. In addition, these professionals were asked for advice on two issues many of us face: how to speak the truth to others when it is hard to do so, and how to teach honesty to our children.

Importance of trust

Experiencing trust — first trusting our parents, and then gradually trusting a wider circle of family members, friends and acquaintances — helps us to overcome the self-centeredness that is part of the human condition because of original sin.

In May, Pope Benedict XVI commented on the Gospel passage in which Jesus asks Peter to lower his nets. "Jesus, a carpenter, was not a skilled fisherman, "said the pope. "Yet Simon the fisherman trusted this rabbi, who did not give him answers but required him to trust him."

Trusting Jesus is as essential to Christians today as it was to Peter 2,000 years ago. Just as our relationships with our fathers can have a profound impact on our relationship with God the Father, our experience of trust in the family affects our ability to trust in Christ.

Children learn to trust through their experience with their parents (or other primary caregivers) protecting and providing for them, according to Thomas LaBreche of Woodridge Psychological Associates in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.

Throughout our lives, our experience of trust affects "our ability or willingness to have and cultivate a relationship with God," said Dr. Carlos Solis, a Roseville, California, psychiatrist.

Experiencing trust — first trusting our parents, and then gradually trusting a wider circle of family members, friends and acquaintances — helps us to overcome the self-centeredness that is part of the human condition because of original sin.

"Deep within us, there exists a tension between our tendency toward isolation and our tendency toward community. Our ability to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and trust others underpins what direction we take on a daily basis," said Solis.

Being vulnerable

Carol Ann Worthing, a psychologist in Castle Rock, Colorado, concurs and notes how trust helps enrich us:

"The ability to trust in a relationship allows us to be vulnerable, which in turn contributes to a healthy self-image and a deeper and richer experience of our relationships. Trusting minimizes the need for defensiveness and deception."

Actions speak as loud as words in the process of building trust. "Of course, honesty is important to our relationships," said Ann Howe, director of the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Village of St. Joseph Counseling Services. "This is one of the cornerstones of trust, but trust is also built on love and consistency. We have to say what we mean and mean what we say in truth and love."

The failure to learn how to trust, said LaBreche, is a contributing factor to several conditions, including chemical and sexual addictions, gambling, reactive-attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorders.

Regaining trust

Restoring trust takes time once it has broken. Worthing advises those who are coping with a breach of trust to commit to honor one another, strive to rebuild their friendship, communicate in a defenseless and open manner, use effective listening skills discuss and work through issues instead of avoiding them maintain an attitude of humility, patience and perseverance.

When trust has been broken, it is important for the offended party to strive to forgive as Christ forgives, LaBreche told Our Sunday Visitor. He advises those who have been betrayed to ponder the Lord’s Prayer ("Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us"), to pray about Christ’s words on the cross ("Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do") and to understand that "anger ultimately hurts the one who is angry."

If trust has been shattered because one person in the relationship has acted in a dangerous, exploitative or shaming manner, LaBreche emphasizes that "trust is not re-established by remaining traumatically bonded."

After appropriate boundaries have been established, he advises both parties in the relationship to remember that "individuals who have been betrayed may show great distress when antecedent conditions similar to the initial betrayal are recreated. Consequently, avoiding the temptation for sin is a crucial factor is rebuilding trust."

Telling hard truths

Whether or not we have been in a marriage, friendship or other relationship in which there has been a serious breach of trust, at times we all face the dilemma of how to tell another a truth that is hard for them to hear. In these situations, our desire not to hurt others can tempt us to lie.

"The truth should often be draped in good will and presented as an offering in humility, with finesse and diplomacy."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "The golden rule [‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’] helps one discern, in concrete situations, whether or not it would be appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it" (no. 2510).

Besides being sinful, telling a lie in these situations can actually harm the relationship. "Lying to someone who most likely discerns the truth places the relationship in greater jeopardy than telling the truth with love and compassion, " Worthing told OSV. "The truth should often be draped in good will and presented as an offering in humility, with finesse and diplomacy."

When someone is in deep denial of a situation, however, a more direct approach is necessary, much like "a drug and alcohol intervention where many parties involved have blanketed themselves in denial," she said.

While advising those who are considering telling hard truths to examine their motives, Howe offers a caution. "In the present times, often saying hurtful things is considered being honest when in fact the intent is simply to hurt. Intentions do matter, and when the intent is to be loving, the words we speak tend to be soothing," she said.

At times, however, "Failing to confront in a Christ-like manner places the individual in an ‘enabler’ role," she added.

LaBreche lays out a foundational principle for these situations:

"If Christ would say it or do it, then I must say it or do it; if Christ would not say it or do it, then I must not say it or do it."


Jeff Ziegler. "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire." Our Sunday Visitor (September 2006).

This article is reprinted with permission from Jeff Ziegler and Our Sunday Visitor.


Jeff Ziegler writes from North Carolina.

Copyright © 2005 Jeff Ziegler

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.