Whether lying can ever be justified has engaged Christian moralists in discussion and lively debate since the time of St. Augustine more than 1,500 years ago.
Q. I am a caregiver for my elderly mother and also for another woman, who is 95. My goal in life, at this point, is to help my mother to be happy. (She was severely abused by my father, who later committed suicide.)
Sometimes I buy little gifts for my mother, and she always asks me how much something costs -- since she doesn't want me to spend a lot on her. Her mind is back in the days when things were much less expensive, so I resort to making up a price, smaller than the actual one. Is that wrong?
The other woman is selfish, mean and miserable. I know that I can only work part time for her or I would go out of my mind. (In fact, I have to take anti-anxiety meds when I am with her, or I couldn't do it at all.)
She often asks me to work extra hours, and I find myself making up stories to explain why I can't do it. (I had to do this at Christmas time, or else she would have ruined my family's holiday.) How badly am I sinning? (City of origin withheld.)
A. Your question -- or the answer, at least -- is more complicated than it may first seem. Whether lying can ever be justified (and the matter of "white lies") has engaged Christian moralists in discussion and lively debate since the time of St. Augustine more than 1,500 years ago.
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church would seem to take the more strict view -- that a lie is never justified.
Interestingly, the version of the catechism published in 1994 said that "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" (No. 2483) -- which offered some "wiggle room" for assessing the questioner's state of mind.
But in 1997, when the catechism was revised and the official Latin text was published, the part about "the right to know" was dropped and the text now says simply, "to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error."
In situations such as those you describe, the conflict is between abstract moral reasoning (being able to trust in the word of another is essential to human discourse) and the valid intuition that feelings should not be hurt needlessly.
Even the catechism itself hints at this struggle: No. 2488 -- opting for silence or discreet language rather than an outright untruth -- says, "The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it."
I would say that there is a way for you to honor both values. Rather than making up a false price, I would tell your mother that the gift you purchased for her was "reasonably priced, not expensive."
But I would be even more direct with your 95-year-old friend: Rather than fabricating a false excuse, tell her that you can't work the extra hours she wants because you have "other family responsibilities." (One of those responsibilities is surely keeping yourself sane.)
Q. Have the rules changed on the sacrament of baptism? Recently I attended a Catholic christening where neither the first nor middle name of the child being baptized was the name of a saint. The man who was the godfather practices no religion at all, and the godmother -- although baptized as a Catholic -- does not now practice her faith. Can you please explain? (Albany, New York)
A. The church's current Code of Canon Law (which has been in effect since 1983) does not require that a child be baptized with the name of a saint. The only stipulation (Canon 855) is that the name chosen should not be "foreign to Christian sensibility."
Prior to 1983, the church did require that the child be given a "Christian" name (e.g., "Faith" or "Christian") or the name of a saint. If not, a saint's name was added to the name chosen by the parents, and that second name was recorded in the parish baptismal registry as well. (In my own view, it is still preferable that parents choose a saint's name, because as the child grows that particular saint might serve as an inspiration and example.)
As to the religion of the godparents, a sponsor must be a practicing Catholic, 16 years of age or older and have already received the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation (Canon 874). Technically only one sponsor is required (Canon 873); so if one godparent were a practicing Catholic, the other "godparent" at the ceremony could be a baptized non-Catholic, but that person would then be listed in the registry as a "witness" rather than a sponsor.
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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr. Albany, New York 12203.
Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service