Taken from the Catholic Universe – 15 September 2013
Chris Huhne, the disgraced former government minister who resigned following his conviction and subsequent jail sentence for perverting the course of justice over persuading his ex-wife to accept penalty points that he had incurred, came out with an astonishingly frank statement this week. Under pressure from the perennially brutal Jeremy Paxman with regards to his blatant and repeated public lies, he defended himself as follows:
“Anyone who tells you that they have never told a lie is lying, the reality that white lies, small lies help in certain circumstances and avoid you hurting other people’s feelings.”
I was torn between amusement at the delicious irony of a former politician’s impassioned and honest defence of untruths and an instinctive horror, recoiling at the notion that lies, no matter how small, can ever be anything other than pernicious.
Lying, in the context alluded to by Chris Huhne, can never be justified because its purpose is always to mislead and to put it in theological and philosophical terms, lying goes against the God-given purpose of speech, namely to assert a truth about reality in order to communicate or convey the concepts in one’s mind. St Thomas Aquinas therefore describes lying as ‘a statement at variance with the mind’ and the Catechism reminds us that it is a sin because ‘to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error’.
Though Chris Huhne may be correct in observing that most of us will at some point have told an untruth, as human beings we are called to rise above the lowest common denominator. The actions or thoughts of the majority determine neither truth or even morality, which is the main flaw in any democratic system. That many people might have told a lie, does not render the action acceptable. The only person whom lies can ever benefit is the person uttering them, even if they believe that they are doing so with good reason, such as to spare the feeling of another, or for the greater good, but the ends never justify the means.
It can be argued that in a few limited contexts we do not expect to hear the truth from another and not every literal falsehood is a lie. For example when someone asks ‘how are you?’ the response ‘fine thanks’ is a general pleasantry and not an attempt to deceive, but we’ve reached a pretty poor and dangerous state of affairs, if our cynicism to politicians is such that we always expect to hear untruths and thus they are therefore justified in misleading us.
Perhaps most disturbing is that Mr Huhne’s public apologia for lying seems to have been largely unremarked upon in the mainstream press, indicating that most of our political and media commentators are in agreement with him. A society that condones, accepts and even expects lies is one that is in grave danger and on a personal level, even the tiniest of lies can often spiral into tangled knots of deceit, angst and despair.
On the other side of the coin, this week has also seen Fr Ray Blake, a priest local to me in Brighton, slammed and vilified by the press both nationally and internationally for a searingly honest blogpost in which using the very same language as Pope Francis, he described the poor and homeless of his parish, which is right in the heart of the city and attracts many addicts, as ‘messy’.
In a shameless misrepresentation of his original post, which was a theological reflection upon how we are called to treat the outcasts in society, a local journalist, who was seemingly already irritated by Fr Ray’s thoughts on marriage and looking for controversy, picked up on a recent article in which the priest had expressed the very specific challenges posed by the homeless with stark candour, describing how he has to clean up blood, excrement and used needles on a daily basis.
Far from attacking the poor as widely reported, Fr Blake was in fact reflecting upon his own shortcomings; the homeless challenge him he said, they shake him out of his complacency, he doesn’t always find the mess and chaos easy to deal with, but this is no bad thing, and reflects the message of the Gospels. We are not called to live comfortable lives of compromise, but to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty, which Fr Ray and his parish team do, with a soup distribution apostolate that runs 365 days a year.
Rather than patronising the homeless, with a dewy-eyed romantic view, Fr Ray Blake expounded the issues surrounding their care with his typical mixture of forthrightness and compassion. To pretend that issues related to homelessness such as addiction and crime do not exist, does the very people in need of help a huge disservice. One can only assume that his words pricked too many consciences.
While Fr Ray Blake is now contemplating closing his blog as a result of the unfair press coverage surrounding his brave honesty, Chris Huhne is now reviving his career as a journalist and commentator, off the back of being a convicted liar.
I wonder what the avowed atheist George Orwell would make of the fact that in 2013, a Catholic priest would prove his maxim, “in a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.