I submit that (3) is something every Christian should affirm. If we affirm it, though, we also have to consider that there were circumstances in which Christ spoke in a very indirect way (Matthew 13: 10-13) and also cases where he appears to have used a broad mental reservation (John 7:8; Matthew 9:24). It follows that there must be a middle ground between speaking the truth in a completely straightforward and unambiguous way on the one hand, and lying on the other. And that middle ground is just what the natural law theorist intends to clarify with the distinctions made above. For those Protestants insistent on having some biblical warrant for every aspect of Christian morality, there you have it.
Some Catholic readers might nevertheless object to what has been said, noting that there have been Catholic theologians who have defended the practice of deliberately telling falsehoods in cases like the “murderer at the door” example, on the grounds that the person spoken to in such a circumstance does not have a right to the truth. Sometimes this position is presented as a defense of lying under certain circumstances. But sometimes (and as I noted a moment ago) it is presented as an alternative way to define a “lie” – falsehoods like the one in question, it is suggested, shouldn’t count. Now it is true that there has been debate on this matter in the history of the Church, especially in early centuries. (See the article on lying in the Catholic Encyclopedia for an overview.) But as I noted in my previous post on this subject, there are such serious problems with proposals of this sort that Scholastic natural law theorists and orthodox theologians have for centuries now tended to reject them. The more “hard-line” view associated with Augustine and Aquinas has, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “generally been followed in the Western Church, and it has been defended as the common opinion by the Schoolmen and by modern divines.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on mental reservation sums up the now standard view, “according to the common Catholic teaching it is never allowable to tell a lie, not even to save human life.”
The Magisterium of the Church seems recently to have reaffirmed this position, at least by implication. As theologian Mark Latkovic has noted:
Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez has observed: “Although most Catholic theologians have considered the prohibition of lying a moral absolute, there is a lesser but significant school of thought holding that lying sometimes can be justified, particularly when it is a question of lying to an enemy, who has no right to the truth, in order to protect the innocent from harm” (“The Way of the Lord Jesus,” vol. 2, Franciscan Press, 1993, p. 406).
These two ways of thinking are reflected in the editorial process involving paragraph 2483 of the Catechism, which was revised for the book’s second edition. The earlier (1994) edition stated that to lie is “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has a right to know the truth” (2483, emphasis added). This definition, reflecting what Grisez calls the “lesser but significant school of thought,” stems from the teaching of the 17th-century Protestant writer Hugo Grotius.
After the publication of the Catechism, many Catholic scholars wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) about this paragraph. They asked for rectification of the text, which had abandoned centuries of Catholic teaching by accepting the position of Grotius. Fortunately, the paragraph was revised; the 1997 edition eliminates the words “who has a right to know the truth” (see also 2484).
The obvious implication is that the Church does not wish officially to move away from the traditional theological position that whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant to whether something counts as a lie.