Chesterton on Lying: Fresh Evidence

Deacon Jim Russell - LYing


“…the Church is always the only thing defending whatever is at the moment stupidly despised.”

—G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926]

“But every man is a casuist or a lunatic.”

—G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is considered by many Catholics to be among the towering giants of early-20th-century Catholic writers, if not the cream of the crop. It even appears that his cause for beatification/canonization is beginning. I jokingly associate him with one miracle already—the miracle of having written so very, very prolifically. How could one man write so much?

Therefore, it’s easy for individual readers like me to discover nuggets of Chestertonian prose previously unknown to us. This happened not too long ago when investigating how great Catholic thinkers have understood the morality of “lying” and its expression in Church teaching. I had completely overlooked Chesterton’s assertions as found in The Catholic Church and Conversion, a 1926 work that matter-of-factly happens to assert the permissibility of Catholics holding a view that sometimes so-called “lies” are in fact morally permissible.

Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism came at a time when Protestant and Catholic England remained embroiled in back-and-forth accusation and defense against prejudicial and stereotypical charges and countercharges regarding matters of faith and morals. Thus, the Protestant charge was that the “Jesuitical” priests of the “Popish” Church could not be trusted because in the worst moments of England’s conflicted faith history, Jesuit priests sent undercover to minister to the Catholics of England employed verbal deception to evade being captured and executed by the Anglican state. This gave rise to the Protestant prejudice against the “Popish” priest-as-liar. “Casuistry”—which in essence means viewing moral decision making more on a “case” basis (examining concrete cases to understand moral right or wrong)—was a specialty of the “Jesuits” and the English Protestant view was decidedly biased toward Catholics and their “casuistic” view of truth and truth-telling.

Chesterton’s 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion is his account of various aspects of his becoming Catholic. He surveys a variety of things affecting his journey of faith. He recognizes, he says, that “there is a state of transition that must be allowed for in which a vague Protestant prejudice would rather like to have it both ways.” He says regarding “these dying calumnies” that it is “necessary to some extent clear them away.” He says “let us consider the evidence of all these things being black, before we go on to the inconvenient fact of their being white.”

It is clear that Chesterton’s intention in writing is to reveal the false and assert the true regarding the many Protestant claims against “Popery”. The following passage is such an example:

 “A shade more plausible than the notion that Popish priests merely seek after evil was the notion that they are exceptionally ready to seek good by means of evil. In vulgar language, it is the notion that if they are not sensual they are always sly. To dissipate this is a mere matter of experience; but before I had any experience I had seen some objections to the thing even in theory. The theory attributed to the Jesuits was very often almost identical with the practice adopted by nearly everybody I knew. Everybody in society practised verbal economies, equivocations and often direct fictions, without any sense of essential falsehood. Every gentleman was expected to say he would be delighted to dine with a bore; every lady said that somebody else\’s baby was beautiful if she thought it as ugly as sin: for they did not think it a sin to avoid saying ugly things. This might be right or wrong; but it was absurd to pillory half a dozen Popish priests for a crime committed daily by half a million, Protestant laymen. The only difference was that the Jesuits had been worried enough about the matter to try to make rules and limitations saving as much verbal veracity as possible; whereas the happy Protestants were not worried about it at all, but told lies from morning to night as merrily and innocently as the birds sing in the trees. The fact is, of course, that the modern world is full of an utterly lawless casuistry because the Jesuits were prevented from making a lawful casuistry. But every man is a casuist or a lunatic.

“It is true that this general truth was hidden from many by certain definite assertions. I can only call them, in simple language, Protestant lies about Catholic lying. The men who repeated them were not necessarily lying, because they were repeating. But the statements were of the same lucid and precise order as a statement that the Pope has three legs or that Rome is situated at the North Pole.”

Go back and read that again, once or more. This is Gilbert Keith Chesterton acknowledging that:

1. The theory attributed to Jesuit “casuistry” included permitting “direct fictions” that paralleled the practice of Protestants.

2. The Jesuits’ casuistry had rules and limitations to “save as much verbal veracity as possible.”

3. The “modern world” had a “lawless casuistry because the Jesuits were prevented from making a lawful casuistry.”

4. “Every man is a casuist or a lunatic.”

5. The “general truth” that “every man is a casuist or a lunatic” was “hidden” by “Protestant lies about Catholic lying.”

Chesterton’s conclusion that “every man is a casuist or a lunatic” is extremely important. It is how Chesterton himself affirms the “theory” and the “practice” he mentions as being “very often almost identical.” It lets us know that, on this point regarding the use of so-called “lying” or “direct fictions,” Chesterton clearly affirms the existence of a “*lawful* casuistry” permitted as a theological opinion in the Catholic Church, one that does not exclude sometimes using “direct fictions.”

That is, the Protestant “lie” here was that the Catholic priest was an unbounded liar and Protestants weren’t. The Chestertonian “truth” here is that Protestants were really the unconcerned liars, while it was the “casuistry” of the Jesuits’ more careful case-by-case articulation of whether all so-called “lying” was sinful (concluding that it wasn’t in all cases) that expressed a desire to save “as much verbal veracity as possible.”

Bottom line: Chesterton attests to the history of the issue of lying in the Church—theological opinions that not all so-called “lying” was sinful were not only permitted but also put into practice in order to save lives and assure the Catholic faith in Protestant England.

What About Those “Chinese Torturers”?

Can I offer any additional corroborating evidence to support this claim? Well, Chesterton *himself* certainly can (also from The Catholic Church and Conversion):

 “I remember that when I was first on the Daily News, the great Liberal organ of the Nonconformists, I took the trouble to draw up a list of fifteen falsehoods which I found out, by my own personal knowledge, in a denunciation of Rome by Messrs. Horton and Hocking. I noted, for instance, that it was nonsense to say that the Covenanters fought for religious liberty when the Covenant denounced religious toleration; that it was false to say the Church only asked for orthodoxy and was indifferent to morality, since, if this was true of anybody, it was obviously true of the supporters of salvation by faith and not of salvation by works; that it was absurd to say that Catholics introduced a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie, since every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers; that it missed the whole point, in this connection, to quote Ward\’s phrase, \”Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper,\” for Ward\’s argument was against equivocation or what people call Jesuitry. He meant, \”When the child really is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese torturers really are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then only) be sure that you are right to deceive and do not hesitate to lie; but do not stoop to equivocate. Do not bother yourself to say, \”The child is in a wooden house not far from here,\” meaning the cupboard; but say the child is in Chiswick or Chimbora zoo, or anywhere you choose.\” I find I made elaborate notes of all these arguments all that long time ago, merely for the logical pleasure of disentangling an intellectual injustice. I had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of becoming a cannibal. I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should be done even to cannibals. I imagined that I was noting certain fallacies partly for the fun of the thing and partly for a certain feeling of loyalty to the truth of things.”

Take some time to reread this one, too. Let’s reformulate what is said into easier propositions and look at Chesterton’s response to them:

1. Proposed: “Catholics introduce a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie.”

Chesterton: False. “Absurd.”

Why does Chesterton say it’s a “falsehood” and “absurd”—because “every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers.”

2. Proposed: Catholics justify their right to lie by appealing to the quote attributed to W.G. Ward: \”Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper.\” “

 Chesterton: False. Protestants have “missed the whole point.”

Why? Because Ward’s argument had to do specifically with the so-called “Jesuitry” known as “equivocation,” wherein ambiguous but not false assertions are used precisely to avoid the objective “lie.” The “point” of Ward’s statement, according to Chesterton, is “do not stoop to equivocate” if you believe yourself “justified” in lying (so-called)—just “lie like a trooper”! Chesterton was saying that Protestants who merely use this quote as primary evidence of the  Catholic “sophistry” of permitting a man to “sometimes tell a lie” have missed Ward’s whole point about *equivocation* being unnecessary.

Fresh Evidence: The \”Money Quote\”

But wait—there’s more! This just in!

In the course of additional recent research on this subject, I’ve happened upon yet another Chesterton quote that is the real “money quote” for anyone interested in Chesterton’s take on the morality of lying. Nestled in the pages of his “All Things Considered,” tucked away in the portion labeled “Christmas,” Chesterton says this:

 “There is no ethical necessity more essential and vital than this: that casuistical exceptions, though admitted, should be admitted as exceptions. And it follows from this, I think, that, though we may do a horrid thing in a horrid situation, we must be quite certain that we actually and already are in that situation. Thus all sane moralists admit that one may sometimes tell a lie; but no sane moralist would approve of telling a little boy to practise telling lies, in case he might one day have to tell a justifiable one. Thus, morality has often justified shooting a robber or a burglar. But it would not justify going into the village Sunday school and shooting all the little boys who looked as if they might grow up into burglars. The need may arise; but the need must have arisen. It seems to me quite clear that if you step across this limit you step off a precipice.”

Beautiful! And plain as day. “All sane moralists admit that one may sometimes tell a lie” makes it crystal clear that Chesterton, like many other faithful Catholics of his day and ours, held the “less rigorous view” that differs from the Augustine/Aquinas absolute prohibition on directly asserted falsehood in all “cases” and situations.

As someone who has spent much time and energy on this moral question and the centuries-old debate surrounding it, which continues in our time, I find it very encouraging to know that the great Chesterton and I seem to think alike on many things, including this aspect of “sane” morality, which may indeed make us both “casuists”—but it saves us both from being “lunatics.”

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13 thoughts on “Chesterton on Lying: Fresh Evidence”

  1. Not so fast, Jim!
    The quotation doesn’t necessarily show that Chesterton adheres to the ‘less rigorous view’, if by that you mean the notion that the legitimacy of a lie depends on the other person’s right to know the truth.
    Why, for example, does he refer to it as doing “a horrid thing in a horrid situation”? If you take the less rigorous view, there is nothing horrid about lying to someone who does not deserve to know the truth (is it even defined as lying?)
    Isn’t it equally possible, based on the quotation above, that he holds the view of lying as a venial sin under extenuating circumstances?

    1. Hi, Zac–To answer your last question: no, the evidence does not comport with Chesterton concluding that all lying is at least venially sinful, because Chesterton is fully aware that one cannot do evil–even *venial* sin–so that good can come from it. Indeed, he speaks of being able to tell a “justifiable” lie.
      In the evidence I’ve seen so far, he does not speak of the Grotian “right to truth” argument, which is only one of several possible “less rigorous” views on the subject of lying. Other arguments can be made. The important takeaway, in my view, is that Chesterton–like Newman before him–attests to the permissibility of faithful Catholics accepting something other than the common teaching on lying articulated by Augustine/Aquinas.

    2. Hi Jim,
      That’s fair enough, though I still think it’s hard to reconcile the ‘horrid’ descriptor with alternative views on lying. Also, Chesterton’s description of ‘sane moralists’ shouldn’t be taken at face value, i.e. he uses the term ‘moralist’ in slightly disparaging ways elsewhere. But more importantly, I’ve just checked and it seems “All things considered” was first published in 1915, whereas GKC apparently did not convert until 1922. It’s possible that his views may have remained consistent into his conversion, but that’s not something we can take for granted.

    3. Zac–admiring your tenacity on this. First, as to “horrid,” let’s be clear about doing a “horrid thing in a horrid situation”: killing in self-defense, for example, is such a horrid thing, but it is not a sin. The “thing done” in such situations may well have negative (even destructive or “horrid”) effects, yet the “thing done” is not a sin.

      Next, regarding “sane moralist,” on the contrary, Chesterton uses the exact same term in another essay from “All Things Considered” (The Eatanswill Gazette): “Old Mr. Weller was a good man, a specially and seriously good man, a proud father, a very patient husband, a sane moralist, and a reliable ally.” Nothing disparaging there…
      As to the essay “Christmas” (in All Things Considered) being published before his conversion, indeed you’re right. But it’s quite obvious that the *other* source I mention above–The Catholic Church and Conversion–was published in 1926 and *after* his conversion. Which is when he states clearly: “every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers.”

      Seems consistent to me both pre- and post-conversion…

    4. Tenacity may not always be an admirable thing, but I appreciate the sentiment.
      I have to accept your correction on ‘moralist’. What I should have said, but struggled to express, was that his use of the term is equivocal. ie. a ‘sane moralist’ as opposed to a ‘modern moralist’, a ‘narrow moralist’, an ‘introspective moralist’, or even a ‘small and noisy moralist’. Elsewhere he describes a moralist as one who “insists that actions shall be judged not by their energy, but by their aim.” It seems to me that ‘sane moralist’ is a limited endorsement, much like the ‘sane man’, and he is using it to indict his opponents for their hypocrisy.

      As someone who accepts the teaching that lying is intrinsically wrong, albeit boiled down to the very mildest wrong in extenuating circumstances, I still think that Chesterton’s comments here are compatible with that interpretation. But even if that is not so, we still cannot teach people that lying is permissible, can we? That is something he covered explicitly in the 1915 text, and implicitly in the 1926 text with ““When the child really is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese
      torturers really are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then
      only) be sure that you are right to deceive”

      I think for those on my side of the fence, the inability to draw a clear, non-utilitarian line between permissible lies and impermissible lies, is the heart of the problem. Better to let casuistical exceptions be admitted as exceptions, than to generalise laws from them.

    5. “Better to let casuistical exceptions be admitted as exceptions, than to generalise laws from them.”
      Well then it would seem we ultimately agree on what kind of moral landscape seems preferable regarding this issue. My point has always been that each individual Catholic conscience must be considered free to determine how to address the casuistry of truth-telling and truth-withholding (even lying so-called) when dealing with the “exceptions.” For some, like you, one’s conscience is formed to conclude that all lying so-called would be wrong. But for another, who may be facing an unjust aggressor in a “horrid” situation, his conscience may, like Chesterton’s, be in conformity with telling a “justifiable” lie.
      As such, we shouldn’t be trying to “generalize laws” from *either* conscience, right? We should be avoiding labeling one moral choice as “sin” and another as “not sin.” Rather, we should be permitting one’s soul to act in accord with one’s conscience, admitting that the Magisterium permits us to do so.

    6. I guess it’s complicated by the two different contexts at play – what the Church allows, and what moral philosophy can affirm. The two are often side by side, but in this there is a disjunction. On abortion, contraception, euthanasia, sexual orientation, etc, we start from first principles and never allow extreme cases or consequentialist arguments to sway us. But when we do the same with lying, we reach this sticky point of extreme, life-and-death scenarios, and suddenly the whole moral philosophical enterprise is thrown into doubt. It’s a very peculiar situation. We usually rely on moral philosophy to inform our conscience, not the other way around.
      Ah well, there’s no real end to this debate in sight, but I’m sure you’ll agree, Deacon Jim, that if it leads us to delve deeper into our Chesterton collections, then it won’t be totally fruitless ; )

  2. Matthew 15:21-28. Christ tells a white lie in verse 24 below because He previously cured the Roman centurion’s servant in Matt. 8 wherein Christ notes the centurion’s foreign ethnicity by saying He has not found such faith in all Israel. Yet in verse 24 below, He implies His cure of the centurion’s servant broke the rules. White lies are Biblical from Solomon’s
    “cut the infant in half” to Judith’s leading Holofernes on; to Jehu lying to the Baal worshippers to Christ below with the Canaanite woman… ergo a rigorist view is odd Biblically and probably rooted in Aquinas and Augustine in their love of classical authors like Aristotle for Aquinas:

    The Canaanite Woman’s Faith.*
    Then Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
    And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
    But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”
    * He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
    But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
    He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children* and throw it to the dogs.”
    She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
    Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith!* Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

    The catechism is simply playing it safe given that the majority of mankind will stretch white lies too far in real life and will not use it as Christ did.

    1. Hi–thanks for the comment. I’d agree that the Scriptural evidence in both OT and NT is very very interesting and generally supportive of the “less rigorous” view in my opinion.
      As to the Catechism, I believe the CCC is doing the same thing the last universal catechism (Trent) did–and what universal catechisms are supposed to do–in the absence of magisterial sources, catechisms often rely upon the “common teaching” of Catholic theologians to propose a “safe” approach for the faithful while not intending for the faithful to consider it the “only” approach, since common teaching is non-magisterial and is changeable.
      Thanks again for commenting!

    2. I’ll bet every Cardinal in the CDF, if asked by a female relative at dinner whether they like her new recipe that puts Carolina Reaper peppers in ravioli….would say, “Yes, it’s nice but a bit hot for me”…translated means, “It’s so hot, I can’t taste anything on the table and I’m seeing double but thanks for the natural revelation into what hell is like”.

  3. Hello Deacon Jim, is there a short list of readings you would recommend for study on the problem of lying? I was interested to read the entry in the NewAdvent Catholic Encyclopedia. Does your understanding comport with that? Thanks!

    1. Hi, tamsin–I’ll try to pull together a short bibliography of sorts on this, but you certainly can’t go wrong with the New Advent CE article on lying and also on “mental reservation” for a clear thumbnail sketch on the subject. You can also look to Aquinas (in the Summa) and Augustine (his two treatises on lying at New Advent) for some “primary source” content, as they represent what is the “common teaching” as expressed in the Catechism as well.
      Another gem (I’ll try to find links to some of these) is Cardinal Newman’s appendix “On Lying and Equivocation” published as part of his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua.” Thanks! JR

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