An clarification of right-to-truth moralities

While researching idolotry, I was struck by an argument STA gave for why one cannot pretend to worship an idol during a time of persecution:

For since outward worship is a sign of the inward worship, just as it is a wicked lie to affirm the contrary of what one holds inwardly of the truefaith so too is it a wicked falsehood to pay outward worship to anything counter to the sentiments of one’s heart.

A right-to-truth morality seems to excuse not just the Nazis-at-the-door but worship of idols in time of persecution, or, for that matter, a public oath of fidelity to any-evil-you please so long as we could save a life by taking it. But it’s hard not to take this as showing that right-to-truth moralities prove too much: your right to lie to the Nazis-at-the-door gets exercised with the same breath that can now take an oath to Baal.



  1. robalspaugh said,

    September 14, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    When my students fight me to the death over the NatD, I remind them that the Church who teaches this hard truth about lying died in droves for refusing to “fake” worshiping Caesar. It’s not like an ivory tower academic position: it’s our memory of what our fathers actually did.

    Almost all of them think the Christians were fools for doing so.

  2. September 14, 2016 at 9:10 pm

    This is a really good point; I wish I had thought of it a couple of years ago when I was out and about growling at the right-to-truth camp.

    And it makes sense that the two would be connected. There is a set of sins, which I tend to think of as the ‘sterile sins’, that have a huge number of connections and analogies with each other (not always the same connections and analogies, though) — lying, usury, contraception, and, of course, idolatry. I don’t think it has ever been fully explored how the moral theology of each of these relates to and reflects on all of the rest.

  3. Zippy said,

    September 15, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I find myself pondering how this might play into attempts to justify obscuring and avoiding uncomfortable truths from the Deposit of the Faith for ‘pastoral’ reasons.

    • September 15, 2016 at 10:11 am

      That might be the limit case of proving too much – just imagine what would follow from proving that the Magisterium could exercise a right-to-truth!

      • Zippy said,

        September 15, 2016 at 11:30 am

        I suppose the particular context would be to what extent a penitent has a “right to the truth” from his confessor; and at what point deliberate ‘pastoral’ omission or obfuscation of the objective requirements and gravity of the moral law on the part of a confessor becomes a lie.

  4. The Lambton Worm said,

    September 16, 2016 at 8:07 am

    I remember reading and liking MacIntyre’s lecture on Nazi-at-the-door truth-telling (Truthfulness, Lies, and Moral Philosophers), and from the ground of that I’d like to offer a possible starting-point for a response.

    It seems very plausible to me that the demand for truthfulness is most pradigmatically apparent in the context of those relationships in which trust and integrity is most especially relevant – in my dealings with others as friends, colleagues, fellow-citizens, and so forth. In such relationships the badness of falsehood seems to stem essentially from its aspect as a betrayal of the integrity or fidelity which the relationship rests on. Basing our account on this kind of concern seems to explain why, for example, dissimulating to prevent someone from discovering the preparations for their surprise party (assuming they like surprise parties), doesn’t seem to violate a virtue of integrity. These kind of relationships seem to be the ones in which we can see a ‘right to truth’ most naturally grounded.

    If you were to rat me out to the nazis at the door, I think I’d feel like you betrayed me a bit. That kind of truthfulness seems to undermine the most natural basis for its being a virtue.

    On the other hand, if you went out and publically swore oaths to Baal, then no matter what you said about it in private I, as your fellow believer, probably couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable about the true state of your soul; it seems that in most situations where the very survival of the Church as an entity is not at stake, it would serve the grounding relationships more to be truthful.

    And if we admit a relationship with God as an area in which one can excercise the virtues, then disavowing him publically seems very much like the relevant kind of betrayal. I’d feel a bit betrayed if my friends disavowed me publically.

    So, yeah, there’s work to be done, but I don’t think there is no available way to ground a ‘right-to-truth’ account so as to avoid these problems.

    If this is irrelevant to the kind of right-to-truth theorists this was directed at, I apologise and hope this will be useful anyway.


    • September 18, 2016 at 1:57 am

      If one disavows publicly his own dignity, or the others’ dignity, he has already disavowed God, and now does so in public too.
      Witnessing isn’t foremost or fundamentally a political commitment. If one betrays his fellow (who is fallible, etc.), one has already betrayed God.
      On the other hand, you as well as your friends belong to the public sphere. God doesn’t (although symbolic representations of his being might).
      We should also distinguish between logical principles, abstract principles that is, and psychological principles. From a logical standpoint, a betrayal makes room for another, etc., but in the moral life the behaviors are less predictible, and one can disavow a name, or a public commitment, but not a fellow. And vice versa, one can be very uncharitable, insensitive, dry, but also hold fast to his public commitment. I don’t believe we have an algebra for that. It is also likely that one can lie to the oppressors, and shelter a fellow, and not give up his public commitment.

  5. Josh said,

    September 19, 2016 at 5:42 am

    I don’t think you can just group the two scenarios together under a discussion of right-to-truth. The object in both cases amounts to being untruthful, but the intention is either linked to saving the lives of others or saving your own life. Denying your faith, which Thomas points out is the same as worshiping and idol, at the risk of martyrdom, is quite different then denying that you’re hiding innocent Jews to protect their lives. Also, commandments of relationship between God and man (1-3) are at least somewhat different than commandments between men (4-10). I would guess the right-to-truth argument is more like Thomas’ argument that it is lawful to steal through stress of need, since property owners do not have the right to property that others may need in times of necessity. You can steal but it’s not properly speaking, theft, so maybe you can speak falsehood without it being, properly speaking, a lie? I don’t know, but at least there are enough differences that I don’t think the right-to-truth argument proves too much in that it would be okay to deny your faith or worship idols in times of great danger or persecution.

%d bloggers like this: