On “Mental Reservation” and Examining Our Motives

Jun 1, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Let’s start this reflection with an apocryphal story, a story of St. Athanasius of Alexandria and the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate:

In the Fourth Century A.D., the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate was out to kill St. Athanasius. Athanasius escaped from Alexandria by boat and imperial officers were in hot pursuit up the Nile. Looking over his shoulder and seeing the Roman officers gaining on him, Athanasius used the precious moments of concealment provided by a bend in the river that temporarily hid his boat from the pursuers to work out a deception.  He ordered his boat to turn around and head downriver, toward the Roman pursuers.  When the two boats were near, the Roman officers called out, asking if anyone had seen Athanasius. Athanasius’ protectors yelled back (as instructed), “Yes, he is quite near.” The pursuing boat continued to forge up the river, while Athanasius went downstream, back to Alexandria, where Athanasius hid until Julian’s persecution ended.

Here, in this story, in Athanasius’ companions’ response to the imperial officers (“Yes, he is quite near”), we have an example of “mental reservation.”  Mental reservation.  A sticky topic.

Let’s discuss mental reservation.  You all know probably know what it is, even if you have not been aware of the specific term.

Definition of Mental Reservation

Mental reservation is a form a deception.  It is employed in those difficult situations in which one has to avoid lying but also is under moral obligation not to reveal the truth.  Mental reservation essentially an argument in moral theology that maintains that sometimes there are “deceptions (or lies) of necessity,” and emphasizes that when there is a conflict between justice and truthfulness, it is justice that should prevail.

Broad Mental Reservation

In broad mental reservation, one uses equivocations or ambiguities to imply something false that is not actually stated, as in the example of Athanasius’ companions above – the officers took the literal truth that they said to mean that the saint was just upriver, rather that sitting in the same boat.  In broad mental reservation, one restricts one’s meaning so that the listener might be able to figure out the true meaning, even if that is unlikely.

Debate has ensued over the centuries about broad mental reservation, especially broad mental reservation.  Some Catholic moralists, like St. Raymond of Peñafort and St. Aphonsus Ligouri tentatively addressed concept of mental reservation.  In his Summa in 1235, St. Raymond wrote:

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.

The idea is that when the speaker says “He is not at home” to the would-be murderer, he means that he is not at home for you to slay him.  The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on mental reservation concludes about broad mental reservation that:

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.

Strict Mental Reservation

In strict mental reservation, however, the one speaking adds some unspoken mental qualification to the words he says in order that what is spoke and what is unspoken, when brought together, make a true statement.  If Athanasius’ companion had replied, “We have no idea of the whereabouts of Athanasius [and then silently added “of Corinth” to mentally qualify their statement to mean an entirely different Athanasius], they would have engaged in strict mental reservation.  It is true don’t know exactly where Athanasius of Corinth is at the moment.  However, strict mental reservation is actually is a kind of lie, because there is no way the listener could reasonably determine what the silent mental qualification is.  The words actually uttered, on their own, are false.

The Catholic Church debated the morality of strict mental reservations for centuries, with theologians offering various interpretations of its moral acceptability.  However, in 1679, Pope Innocent XI condemned strict mental reservation as morally unacceptable, and it has not generally been proposed by theologian as lawful since then. Briefly put, strict mental reservations are lies.

For Further Study

I’ve read many articles in researching this area, in an attempt to distill down what might be most useful.  The most informative and interesting one was “On the Problem of Mental Reservation” by Dr. Sean Collins, in which he challenges all the discussion and parsing out of what is technically a lie and what is not – he dives deeper into the questions of causality and the participation and obligations of both the speaker and the listener to truth.

Let’s look at our motives

As a Catholic psychologist, I invite you to explore the motives behind what you say.  If you are feeling drawn toward using mental reservation or some other form of deception, can you pause and ask the question, “Why am I inclined to say this, in this way?”  Can you be open to really listening to the answer, even if it might be hard to listen to it?

When we seek, we find.  So many times, though, we have parts inside of us that don’t want us to touch the truth in given situations.  So we evade, we avoid, we skirt around, we slide by what is real, what is true.  And why do we avoid the truth?  It it because we love evil or darkness or falsehood.  Not generally.  We avoid the truth because we feel threatened, we feel unsafe, we feel we might be overwhelmed or incapacitated.  We don’t want to come into contact with our fear or shame or rage.  We choose not to see – and it’s not because of malice or bad intentions.

New directions

So that’s it for this series of reflections on lying and deception.  I’m glad to be done with it, and I’m open to new directions for these email reflections.  If you have a topic that you’d like me to address in these weekly reflections, email me at crisis@soulsandhearts.com with your idea.  And thank you reading these reflections.

The Resilient Catholic Community (RCC)

The RCC is all about being loved and loving with your whole heart — all of your being, every fiber of who you are, all your parts, all of you.  It’s all about resolving the human formation issues that have thwarted your capacity to be loved and to love.  To be vulnerable, to be connected rather than protecting yourself so much.

The RCC is all about overcoming the obstacles in the natural realm to a deep intimacy with God in the three Persons of the Trinity and with Mary our spiritual Mother.

And the RCC is all about restoration — recovering from being dominated by shame, fear, anger, sadness, pessimism, whatever your struggle is in the depths of your human formation. Are you interested?  Come find out more here on the RCC landing page.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S.  If you’re considering the RCC, reach out to me – I’m happy to talk with you about it.  My cell is 317.567.9594 and my email is crisis@soulsandhearts.com.

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