The name applied to a doctrine which has grown out of the common
Catholic teaching about lying and which is its complement.
According to the common Catholic teaching it is never allowable to
tell a lie, not even to save human life. A lie is something
intrinsically evil, and as evil may not be done that good may come
of it, we are never allowed to tell a lie. However, we are also
under an obligation to keep secrets faithfully, and sometimes the
easiest way of fulfilling that duty is to say what is false, or to
tell a lie. Writers of all creeds and of none, both ancient and
modern, have frankly accepted this position. They admit the
doctrine of the lie of necessity, and maintain that when there is
a conflict between justice and veracity it is justice that should
prevail. The common Catholic teaching has formulated the theory of
mental reservation as a means by which the claims of both justice
and veracity can be satisfied.
The doctrine was broached tentatively and with great diffidence by
St. Raymund of Pennafort, the first writer on casuistry. In his
"Summa" (1235) St. Raymund quotes the saying of St. Augustine that
a man must not slay his own soul by lying in order to preserve the
life of another, and that it would be a most perilous doctrine to
admit that we may do a less evil to prevent another doing a
greater. And most doctors teach this, he says, though he allows
that others teach that a lie should be told when a man's life is
at stake. Then he adds: "I believe, as at present advised, that
when one is asked by murderers bent on taking the life of someone
hiding in the house whether he is in, no answer should be given;
and if this betrays him, his death will be imputable to the
murderers, not to the other's silence. Or he may use an equivocal
expression, and say 'He is not at home,' or something like that.
And this can be defended by a great number of instances found in
the Old Testament. Or he may say simply that he is not there, and
if his conscience tells him that he ought to say that, then he
will not speak against his conscience, nor will he sin. Nor is St.
Augustine really opposed to any of these methods."
Such expressions as "He is not at home" were called equivocations,
or amphibologies, and when there was good reason for using them
their lawfulness was admitted by all. If the person inquired for
was really at home, but did not wish to see the visitor, the
meaning of the phrase "He is not at home" was restricted by the
mind of the speaker to this sense, "He is not at home for you, or
to see you." Hence equivocations and amphibologies came to be
called mental restrictions or reservations. It was commonly
admitted that an equivocal expression need not necessarily be used
when the words of the speaker receive a special meaning from the
circumstances in which he is placed, or from the position which he
holds. Thus, if a confessor is asked about sins made known to him
in confession, he should answer "I do not know," and such words as
those when used by a priest mean "I do not know apart from
confession," or "I do not know as man," or "I have no knowledge of
the matter which I can communicate."
All Catholic writers were, and are, agreed that when there is good
reason, such expressions as the above may be made use of, and that
they are not lies. Those who hear them may understand them in a
sense which is not true, but their self-deception may be permitted
by the speaker for a good reason. If there is no good reason to
the contrary, veracity requires all to speak frankly and openly in
such a way as to be understood by those who are addressed. A sin
is committed if mental reservations are used without just cause,
or in cases when the questioner has a right to the naked truth.
In the sixteenth century a further development of this commonly
received doctrine began to be admitted even by some theologians of
note. We shall probably not be far wrong if we attribute the
change to the very difficult political circumstances of the time
due to the wars of religion. Martin Aspilcueta, the "Doctor
Navarrus," as he was called, was one of the first to develop the
new doctrine. He was nearing the end of a long life, and was
regarded as the foremost living authority on canon law and moral
theology, when he was consulted on a case of conscience by the
fathers of the Jesuit college at Valladolid. The case sent to him
for solution was drawn up in these terms: "Titius, who privately
said to a woman 'I take thee for my wife' without the intention of
marrying her, answered the judge who asked him whether he had said
those words that he did not say them, understanding mentally that
he did not say them with the intention of marrying the woman."
Navarrus was asked whether Titius told a lie, whether he had
committed perjury, or whether he committed any sin at all. He drew
up an elaborate opinion on the case and dedicated it to the
reigning pontiff, Gregory XII. Navarrus maintained that Titius
neither lied, nor committed perjury, nor any sin whatever, on the
supposition that he had a good reason for answering as he did.
This theory became known as the doctrine of strict mental
reservation, to distinguish it from wide mental reservation with
which we have thus far been occupied. In the strict mental
reservation the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the
words which he utters, and the words together with the mental
qualification make a true assertion in accordance with fact. On
the other hand, in a wide mental reservation, the qualification
comes from the ambiguity of the words themselves, or from the
circumstances of time, place, or person in which they are uttered.
The opinion of Navarrus was received as probable by such
contemporary theologians of different schools as Salon, Sayers,
Suarez, and Lessius. The Jesuit theologian Sanchez formulated it
in clear and distinct terms, and added the weight of his authority
on the side of the defenders. Laymann, however, another Jesuit
theologian of equal or greater weight, rejected the doctrine, as
did Azor, S. J., the Dominican Soto, and others. Laymann shows at
considerable length that such reservations are lies. For that man
tells a lie who makes use of words which are false with the
intention of deceiving another. And this is what is done when a
strict mental reservation is made use of. The words uttered do not
express the truth as known to the speaker. They are at variance
with it and therefore they constitute a lie. The opinion of
Navarrus was freely debated in the schools for some years, and was
acted upon by some of the Catholic confessors of the Faith in
England in the difficult circumstances in which they were
frequently placed. It was, however, condemned as formulated by
Sanchez by Innocent XI on March 2, 1679 (propositions 26, 27).
After this condemnation by the Holy See no Catholic theologian has
defended the lawfulness of strict mental reservations.
Transcribed by Simon Parent
From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the
Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by
New Advent, Inc.
Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).
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