A recent online ad for Google depicts a nervous young man awaiting an interview in an executive suite. We see him anxiously trying out various opening lines, but they seem lame. He then spies a picture on the wall of a castle. He takes out his smartphone and captures the image, and, by the miracle of Google, discovers the name of the particular castle, and then quickly reads a bit. Just then, the executive enters. The young man greets the stern boss with a friendly, “Hello, I see you love such-and-such castle.” “Yes, do you know it?” the executive asks, and he replies, “Oh, yes, I love castles!” The executive visibly brightens, and the ad fades.
The young man here has lied, doing exactly what the Catechism says he should not do according to the eighth commandment, which “forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others” (2464). Yet the ad certainly portrays this maneuver as an ordinary part of life, little different than “embellishing” a resume or spouting off lines of a mission statement in an interview. Is it really lying? Considering the morality of the eighth commandment is particularly timely, in the light of Lance Armstrong’s national “confession” of his lies and Manti Te’o’s bizarre story of his apparently non-existent tragic “girlfriend.” Armstrong sought to justify his deception more or less on the grounds that “everybody’s doing it” – doping was wrong because it was “cheating,” which was “gaining an unfair advantage,” but there is no advantage sought if one is merely trying to keep up. Te’o’s story remains unclear, though presumably he was the victim of someone’s else elaborate online deception. But there was also some deception on his side, as his parents apparently told of Te’o and the girlfriend occasionally meeting, and the story’s real strangeness comes from the ease of bringing off elaborate lies using modern communications media. The (pre-Internet) Catechism sternly warms of the power of modern communications media, insisting that such communication must always be “at the service of the common good,” be “true and – within the limits of justice and charity – complete” (2494), in particular stressing the professional obligations of journalists (2497) and civil authorities (2498). The supposed liberation of media from the establishment has been lauded in many quarters; but the flipside is evident: now everyone possesses a power that can be used for manipulation and deception, not for communication and solidarity. My students’ research skills, which have certainly decreased, are actually more necessary than ever, in order to make judgments about “what to believe” in the flood of information at their fingertips. Stories tell of “online reviewers for hire,” spiking the near-ubiquitous “ratings” on so many websites. Are we more informed? Or, as the far-sighted Bill McKibben wrote in 1992 in The Age of Missing Information, do we have more information but less knowledge?
Like its treatment of property and sexuality, the Catechism’s treatment of the Eighth commandment is to shed light on an amazing human power – in this case, speech – which is a great gift from God, and even can be used in a way that imitates God, but which also has great power for evil if it is used wrongly. The telos, or aim, of speech is clear: it is truth, or more specifically, “bear[ing] witness to” the truth (2467). This inclination is grounded in nature – who does not want to know the truth? – but also in the very practice of human community – “Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another” (2469) – and the practice of faith – for ultimately the entire Christian faith rests on the truthful witness to God’s actions for us. As I sometimes say to my students, look, on the resurrection, either the disciples are big liars or they are telling the truth. No doubt the lying and covering up of the clergy abuse scandal has been a very large part of why people are distrustful of the Church. Hypocrisy remains the most popular charge against religious believers, a charge (whose merits in any case must be investigated) which testifies to the still-vital importance of integrity and truthfulness in the evangelization of Christianity.
Like the other areas, the Catechism spends considerable time outlining various “intrinsically evil acts” – actions which are “offenses against truth.” This section (2475-2487) is most interesting to discuss, because it involves so many actions which ordinary people consider (and do) on a regular basis. The “most direct offense against the truth” is “lying. 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” (2483). Here is an act description of considerable precision – even though the final phrase about “the right to know” is dropped in the second English edition of the Catechism. It is evident that the root problem of lying is relational – it is not so much about making factual errors, but about deceiving someone else. The issue of deception, and of the consequential harm inflicted on others, is crucial to all the acts denounced here. Other acts – calumny, boasting, irony, and flattery – are equally carefully defined, and give us much pause. Irony involves “maliciously caricaturing some aspect” of a person (2481). Flattery (also called “adulation”) “encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct” (2480). Calumny (or “gossip”) “harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (2477). Even more interesting, “rash judgment” and “detraction” are sins which involve believing in others’ moral faults “without sufficient foundation” or disclosing such faults “without objectively valid reason” (2477). Here the concern is “false speaking” in the sense of speaking too much or hearing without discernment. These cases make clear that the goal of speech is not simply accuracy, but justice and charity.
The importance of social solidarity is further emphasized in the “special sections devoted specifically to the communications media and to art. Both are powerful vehicles for communicating truth – but also for lying and deceiving. Hence, the responsibilities of media users and artists are elevated beyond ordinary speech. Social media – paralleling the careful critique of market economies in the prior commandment – can be abuse by “totalitarian states which systematically falsify the truth” (2499), but also through an excessive freedom when media is not overseen by laws which direct it toward the common good (2498). Various art forms are particularly powerful means of communication, moving beyond words and toward the divine: “to the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in which he has created” (2501). Art is thus compared directly to God’s ordering wisdom in Creation, which is clearly seen as the original source of what we mean by “beauty.”
The morality of truthful speech should get much more attention from Catholic moral theology than it does. Lying, deceit, and deception are not new phenomenon in human society. But a couple features of ordinary lives today call for much greater attention to these issues. One is the onslaught of directly-manipulative speech that permeates our lives. The fact is, among friends and neighbors, we expect and usually get truthfulness. At least, we roughly approximate these norms. But more and more of our speech is dominated by more “distant” forms of communication, which we rarely subject to significant scrutiny. I don’t just mean things like social media hoaxes or deceptive Facebook presentations. I mean things like advertising slogans, corporate and bureaucratic jargon, and political sound bites. The recent presidential debates, for example, seemed more interested in “gotcha” style points than in any investigation of the substance of policy claims. My students routinely say that politicians do not say true things – indeed, that they cannot do so. I remind them of the founding myth of Washington and the cherry tree; they roll their eyes. The problem here is not that people lie; the problem is a deeper acceptance of dominant speech patterns that are not about communicating truth and promoting solidarity at all, but rather are about manipulation. These are prevalent not just in advertising – they often dominant dysfunctional workplaces, schools, and even churches. They are often accepted (despite the apparent sin of “adulation”), simply out of fear, sloth, or an unwillingness to ask questions. The scariest thing for me, as a teacher, is when I discover how easy it has become for some students to incorporate manipulative speech (for example, evidently fake apologies) into their own modus operandi – into their ways of dealing with their friends, their romantic partners, their teachers, and (eventually) their bosses and customers. Speech is simply a tool to manipulate and get what I want out of a situation. Hence, the Googling of the castle on the wall…
But is that really so bad? Let’s be understanding: he’s not being hired for his knowledge of castles, but for some other job, and he has to do that job. The castle thing is just an ice-breaker, harmless as someone who makes conervsation about a shared sports passion or who says complimentary things about the portrait of the kids on a person’s desk. But is it? Even the Catechism says that “adulation” is only a “venial sin” if it merely “seeks to be agreeable, to avoid evil, to meet a need, or to obtain legitimate advantages” (2480). (Reminder: venial sin is still sin.) And indeed, is liking castles bad conduct in the first place? I’m still unclear about the distinction here, because, say with the shared sports passion, presumably you’re not “faking it.”
And this is the other feature of ordinary life worthy of comment: in a culture like this, there is an underlying hunger for honesty, for straightforwardness, for openness, for non-manipulative relationships – that is, what Charles Taylor has dubbed “the ethics of authenticity.” The Catechism never uses the term “authenticity,” but in a world of manufactured images, truthfulness can be very attractive. It can also be quite dangerous. But the fundamental hunger for it remains very strong. What many commentators were looking for (and didn’t find) in Lance Armstrong’s “confession” was exactly this: they wanted to see that this was not merely a staged event aimed at rehabilitating his image and career. They wanted to see that he really meant that he was sorry. That’s why, of course, he did it with Oprah, one of the true high priestesses of the culture of authenticity – but was she doing it to boost ratings on her sagging network? (I should say, to avoid the sin of rash judgment, that my knowledge of Oprah’s career and her activity suggests that she has considerable credentials for seeking authenticity, within the evident limits of the mass media she uses.) And in our politics – where cynicism runs so high – people continue to make certain kinds of judgments about authenticity that carry a great deal of weight. No doubt an inability to be anything other than who he is – an extremely privileged rich man – weighed down Mitt Romney’s campaign, just as broadly speaking most non-rabid-conservatives “like” Obama and think he is a decent man. Now, no doubt these judgments about authenticity can be misguided or at least very complex: Ronald Reagan, the actor-president, was a study in image-making, but (unlike Nixon or Romney) he actually believed in his image, and therefore came across as authentic. These cases should display for us the limits of using authenticity as a catch-all moral judgment.
But they also display how stubbornly we continue to believe in honesty and truthfulness as a key marker of morality, even in a culture of image and manipulation. This is a moral message which the Church would be do well not only to proclaim but to live.