“Ask a Priest: When Asked a Question Should I Always Be Honest?”

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Q: If someone asks me a question about if I witnessed someone doing something, and my saying “Yes” could potentially cause repercussions and consequences, should I be honest or not? -J. [Editor’s note: The subject field of this e-mail read, “Should I be honest even if it creates a danger for another person.”]

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The answer to your question is not as easy as might be expected. Let me explain.

The Catechism in No. 2485 says, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” That would seem to be the easy response to your question. But things get more complicated.

A few paragraphs later the Catechism in No. 2488 says, “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional.”

Then comes No. 2489: “Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.”

The above paragraph is an important qualification. It seems to give people leeway in what and how they are to reveal. This paragraph is not condoning the telling of lies per se. But it does reflect what most people would say is common sense.

This is crucial because theologians have disagreed over the extent of the ban on lying. Some people say lying is never justified, period. Others would modify that and say that not everyone has the right to the truth. That last sentence in No. 2489 reflects that kind of thinking: “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.”

The classic example is the World War II case of the Dutch family that is hiding Jewish neighbors in an attic. The Nazis come knocking at the door and ask, “Have you seen any Jews in the area?” Is the Dutch family morally obliged to tell the truth and reveal that there are Jews hiding in their attic? Common sense would prompt most of us to say, No, of course not.

In your specific case, I cannot give a definitive answer because I don’t know enough of the circumstances. Your subject line mentions “a danger for another person.” If someone’s life or safety is at stake, you would want to consider No. 2489 of the Catechism where is mentions the “good and safety of others.”

Here you would want to ask: Does the inquirer have a right to that information? Would my revealing the information really put someone at risk?

Some moral theologians argue that at most we can withhold information but not tell a lie. That might work in theory, but it could be highly problematic in practice. In that wartime example, if the Dutch family tried to evade the question, that might raise immediate suspicions and prompt the Nazis to search the house. Would “being honest” be a fair price for the consequent arrest and death of the Jews? (For further reading see the article here.)

This, of course, is an extreme case that few of us will ever face. And there is certainly something to be said about honesty.

Yet even everyday life is full of situations where the “hard truth” is avoided for the greater good of charity. We thank Aunt Sally for her “nice lunch,” even though the squid soup left us nauseated. Or a woman turns down a male co-worker’s request for a date, saying that she is busy; in fact, she finds him unsavory because of his habitual rudeness.

Jesus himself leaned toward this kind of discretion. “‘I am not going up to this feast, because my time has not yet been fulfilled.’ After he had said this, he stayed on in Galilee. But when his brothers had gone up to the feast, he himself also went up, not openly but [as it were] in secret” (John 7:8-10).

Without knowing more about your situation, I could only invite you to consider the Catechism passages and pray about them. I pray that Our Lord leads you to make the right decision. God bless.

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