Doctrine of mental reservation
The doctrine of mental reservation, or the doctrine of mental equivocation, was a special branch of casuistry
In applied ethics, casuistry is case-based reasoning. Casuistry is used in juridical and ethical discussions of law and ethics, and often is a critique of principle- or rule-based reasoning...

 developed in the late Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 and the Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

, and most often associated with the Jesuits.

Secular use

Mental reservation is a form of deception
Deception, beguilement, deceit, bluff, mystification, bad faith, and subterfuge are acts to propagate beliefs that are not true, or not the whole truth . Deception can involve dissimulation, propaganda, and sleight of hand. It can employ distraction, camouflage or concealment...

 which is not an outright lie
For other uses, see Lie A lie is a type of deception in the form of an untruthful statement, especially with the intention to deceive others....

. It was argued for in moral theology
Moral theology
Moral theology is a systematic theological treatment of Christian ethics. It is usually taught on Divinity faculties as a part of the basic curriculum.- External links :*...

, and now in ethics
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

, as a way to fulfill obligations both to tell the truth and to keep secrets from those not entitled to know them (for example, because of the seal of the confessional
Seal of the Confessional
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Seal of Confession is the absolute duty of priests not to disclose anything that they learn from penitents during the course of the Sacrament of Penance.-History:...

 or other clauses of confidentiality
Confidentiality is an ethical principle associated with several professions . In ethics, and in law and alternative forms of legal resolution such as mediation, some types of communication between a person and one of these professionals are "privileged" and may not be discussed or divulged to...

). Mental reservation, however, is regarded as unjustifiable without grave reason for withholding the truth. This condition was necessary to preserve a general idea of truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

 in social relations.

In wide mental reservation, equivocation
Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal logical fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense...

s and amphibologies
Amphibology or amphiboly is an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence. -Examples:*Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive...

 are used to imply an untruth that is not actually stated. In 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.

A frequently cited example of equivocation is a well-known incident from the life of Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius of Alexandria [b. ca. – d. 2 May 373] is also given the titles St. Athanasius the Great, St. Athanasius I of Alexandria, St Athanasius the Confessor and St Athanasius the Apostolic. He was the 20th bishop of Alexandria. His long episcopate lasted 45 years Athanasius of Alexandria [b....

. When Julian the Apostate
Julian the Apostate
Julian "the Apostate" , commonly known as Julian, or also Julian the Philosopher, was Roman Emperor from 361 to 363 and a noted philosopher and Greek writer....

 was seeking his death, the saint fled Alexandria and was pursued up the Nile. Seeing the imperial officers were gaining on him, he took advantage of a bend in the river that hid his boat from its pursuers and ordered it turned around. When the two boats crossed paths, the Roman officers shouted out, asking if anyone had seen Athanasius. One of the saint's followers shouted back, as instructed by Athanasius, "Yes, he is not very far off." The other boat hastily continued up the river, while Athanasius returned to Alexandria, where he remained in hiding until the end of the persecution.

Another anecdote often related to illustrate equivocation concerns Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi was an Italian Catholic friar and preacher. He founded the men's Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. St...

. He once saw a thief fleeing from a crowd, who then came upon the saint and demanded to know if their quarry had passed that way. Francis answered, "He did not pass this way," sliding his forefinger into the sleeve of his cassock, thus deceiving the murderer and saving a life. This anecdote is cited by the canonist Martin de Azpilcueta
Martín de Azpilcueta
Martín de Azpilcueta , or Doctor Navarrus, was an important Spanish canonist and theologian in his time, and an early economist, the first to develop monetarist theory.-Life:...

 to illustrate his doctrine of a mixed speech (oratoria mixta) combining speech
Speech is the human faculty of speaking.It may also refer to:* Public speaking, the process of speaking to a group of people* Manner of articulation, how the body parts involved in making speech are manipulated...

 and gestural communication.

Mentalis restrictio in moral theology

The 16th-century Spanish theologian Martin de Azpilcueta
Martín de Azpilcueta
Martín de Azpilcueta , or Doctor Navarrus, was an important Spanish canonist and theologian in his time, and an early economist, the first to develop monetarist theory.-Life:...

 (often called "Navarrus" because born in the Kingdom of Navarre) wrote at length about the doctrine of mentalis restrictio or mental reservation. Navarrus held that mental reservation involved truths "expressed partly in speech and partly in the mind," relying upon the idea that God hears what is in one's mind while human beings hear only what one speaks. Therefore the Christian's moral duty was to tell the truth to God. Reserving some of that truth from the ears of human hearers was moral if it served a greater good. This is the doctrine of strict mental reservation. A user of the doctrine could reply "I know not" aloud to a human interlocutor, and "to tell you" silently to God, and still be telling the truth (stricte mentalis).

Traditionally, the doctrine of mental reservation was intimately linked with the concept of equivocation
Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal logical fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense...

, which allowed the speaker to employ double meanings of words to tell the literal truth while concealing a deeper meaning. Navarrus, however, went beyond this, giving the doctrine of mental reservation a far more broad and liberal interpretation than had anyone up to that time. Although some other Catholic theological thinkers and writers took up the argument in favor of strict mental reservation, the concept remained controversial within the Roman Catholic Church, which never officially endorsed or upheld the doctrine and eventually condemned it.

The linked doctrines of mental reservation and equivocation became notorious in England during the Elizabethan era
Elizabethan era
The Elizabethan era was the epoch in English history of Queen Elizabeth I's reign . Historians often depict it as the golden age in English history...

 and the Jacobean era
Jacobean era
The Jacobean era refers to the period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of King James VI of Scotland, who also inherited the crown of England in 1603 as James I...

, when Jesuits who had entered England to minister to the spiritual needs of Catholics were captured by the authorities. The Jesuits Robert Southwell (c. 1561–1595) (who was also a poet of note) and Henry Garnet
Henry Garnet
Henry Garnet , sometimes Henry Garnett, was a Jesuit priest executed for his complicity in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Born in Derbyshire, he was educated in Nottingham and later at Winchester College, before moving to London in 1571 to work for a publisher...

 (1555–1606) both wrote treatises on the topic, which was of far more than academic interest to them. Both risked their lives bringing the sacraments to recusant
In the history of England and Wales, the recusancy was the state of those who refused to attend Anglican services. The individuals were known as "recusants"...

 Catholics — and not only their lives, since sheltering a priest was a capital offence. In 1586, Margaret Clitherow
Margaret Clitherow
Saint Margaret Clitherow is an English saint and martyr of the Roman Catholic Church. She is sometimes called "the Pearl of York".-Life:...

 had been pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea on the charge of harbouring two priests at York. When caught, tortured and interrogated, Southwell and Garnet practiced mental reservation not to save themselves — their deaths were a foregone conclusion — but to protect their fellow believers.

Southwell, who was arrested in 1592, was accused at his trial of having told a witness that even if she was forced by the authorities to swear under oath, it was permissible to lie to conceal the whereabouts of a priest. Southwell replied that that was not what he had said. He had said that "to an oath were required justice, judgement and truth", but the rest of his answer goes unrecorded because one of the judges angrily shouted him down. Convicted in 1595, Southwell was hanged, drawn and quartered
Hanged, drawn and quartered
To be hanged, drawn and quartered was from 1351 a penalty in England for men convicted of high treason, although the ritual was first recorded during the reigns of King Henry III and his successor, Edward I...

. More famous in his own era was Henry Garnet, who wrote a defense of Southwell in 1598; Garnet was captured by the authorities in 1606 due to his alleged involvement in the Gunpowder Plot
Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in earlier centuries often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason, was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.The plan was to blow up the House of...

. Facing the same accusations as Southwell, his attempts to defend himself met with no better result: later that year Garnet was executed in the same barbarous fashion.

The Protestants considered these doctrines as mere justifications for lies. Catholic ethicists also voiced objections: the Jansenist "Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal , was a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher. He was a child prodigy who was educated by his father, a tax collector in Rouen...

...attacked the Jesuits in the seventeenth century for what he saw as their moral laxity." "By 1679, the doctrine of strict mental reservation put forward by Navarrus had become such a scandal that Pope Innocent XI
Pope Innocent XI
Blessed Pope Innocent XI , born Benedetto Odescalchi, was Pope from 1676 to 1689.-Early life:Benedetto Odescalchi was born at Como in 1611 , the son of a Como nobleman, Livio Odescalchi, and Paola Castelli Giovanelli from Gandino...

 officially condemned it." Other casuists justifying mental reservation included Thomas Sanchez
Thomas Sanchez
Tomás Sánchez was a 16th century Spanish Jesuit and famous casuist.- Life :In 1567 he entered the Society of Jesus. He was at first refused admittance on account of an impediment in his speech; however, after imploring delivery from this impediment before a picture of Mary at Córdoba, Spain, his...

, who was criticized by Pascal in his Provincial Letters — although Sanchez added various restrictions (it should not be used in ordinary circumstances, when one is interrogated by competent magistrates, when a creed
A creed is a statement of belief—usually a statement of faith that describes the beliefs shared by a religious community—and is often recited as part of a religious service. When the statement of faith is longer and polemical, as well as didactic, it is not called a creed but a Confession of faith...

 is requested, even for heretics
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

, etc.), which were ignored by Pascal. Of the 26 theses condemned by Pope Innocent XI
Pope Innocent XI
Blessed Pope Innocent XI , born Benedetto Odescalchi, was Pope from 1676 to 1689.-Early life:Benedetto Odescalchi was born at Como in 1611 , the son of a Como nobleman, Livio Odescalchi, and Paola Castelli Giovanelli from Gandino...

, several were in Sanchez's works (see op. mor. in præc. Decalogi, III, vi, n. 15). One of them stated:
This type of equivocation was famously mocked in the porter's speech in Shakespeare's Macbeth
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare about a regicide and its aftermath. It is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and is believed to have been written sometime between 1603 and 1607...

, in which the porter directly alludes to the practice of deceiving under oath by means of equivocation.
Following Innocent XI's condemnation of strict mental reservation, equivocation (or wide mental reservation) was still considered orthodox, and was revived and defended by Alphonsus Liguori
Alphonsus Liguori
Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori was an Italian Catholic bishop, spiritual writer, scholastic philosopher and theologian, and founder of the Redemptorists, an influential religious congregation...

. The Jesuit Gabriel Daniel
Gabriel Daniel
Gabriel Daniel , French Jesuit historian, was born in Rouen.He was educated by the Jesuits, entered the order at the age of eighteen, and became superior at Paris.-Works:...

 wrote in 1694 a reply to Pascal's Provincial Letters, titled Entretiens de Cleanthe
Cleanthes , of Assos, was a Greek Stoic philosopher and the successor to Zeno as the second head of the Stoic school in Athens. Originally a boxer, he came to Athens where he took up philosophy, listening to Zeno's lectures. He supported himself by working as water-carrier at night. After the...

 et d'Eudoxe
Eudoxus of Cnidus
Eudoxus of Cnidus was a Greek astronomer, mathematician, scholar and student of Plato. Since all his own works are lost, our knowledge of him is obtained from secondary sources, such as Aratus's poem on astronomy...

 sur les lettres provinciales
, in which he accused Pascal of lying, or even of having himself used mental reservation, by not mentioning all the restrictions imposed by Sanchez on the use of this form of deception.

Kant and Constant

This type of untruth was condemned by Kant
KANT is a computer algebra system for mathematicians interested in algebraic number theory, performing sophisticated computations in algebraic number fields, in global function fields, and in local fields. KASH is the associated command line interface...

 in On a supposed 'right to lie’, who was debating against Benjamin Constant
Benjamin Constant
Henri-Benjamin Constant de Rebecque was a Swiss-born French nobleman, thinker, writer and politician.-Biography:...

. The latter claimed, from a consequentialist stance opposed to Kant's categorical imperative
Categorical imperative
The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as well as modern deontological ethics...

, that:
On the other hand, Kant asserted, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals , also known as Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals or Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, is Immanuel Kant's first contribution to moral philosophy. It argues for an a priori basis for morality...

, that lying, or deception of any kind, would be forbidden under any interpretation and in any circumstance. In Groundwork, Kant gives the example of a person who seeks to borrow money without intending to pay it back. The maxim of this action, says Kant, results in a contradiction in conceivability (and thus contradicts perfect duty) because it would logically contradict the reliability of language. If it is universally acceptable to lie, then no one would believe anyone and all truths would be assumed to be lies (this last clause was accepted by casuists, hence the reasons for restrictions given to the cases where deception was authorized). The right to deceive could also not be claimed because it would deny the status of the person deceived as an end in himself. And the theft would be incompatible with a possible kingdom of ends. Therefore, Kant denied the right to lie or deceive for any reason, regardless of context or anticipated consequences. However, it was permissible to remain silent or say no more than needed (such as in the infamous example of a murderer asking to know where someone is).


The doctrines have also been criticized by Sissela Bok
Sissela Bok
Sissela Bok, born 2 December 1934, is a Swedish-born philosopher and ethicist, the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners: Gunnar Myrdal who won the Economics prize with Friedrich Hayek in 1974, and Alva Myrdal who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982....

 and by Paul Ekman
Paul Ekman
Paul Ekman is a psychologist who has been a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions. He has been considered one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century...

, who defines lies by omission as the main form of lying — though larger and more complex moral and ethical issues of lying
For other uses, see Lie A lie is a type of deception in the form of an untruthful statement, especially with the intention to deceive others....

 and truth
Truth has a variety of meanings, such as the state of being in accord with fact or reality. It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character...

-telling extend far beyond these specific doctrines. Ekman, however, does not consider cases of deception where "it is improper to question" the truth as real form of deceptions — this sort of case, where communication of truth is not to be expected and so deception is justified, was included by casuists.

Social psychologist
Social psychology
Social psychology is the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. By this definition, scientific refers to the empirical method of investigation. The terms thoughts, feelings, and behaviors include all...

s have advanced cases where the actor is confronted with an avoidance-avoidance conflict, in which he both doesn't want to say the truth and doesn't want to make an outright lie; in such circumstances, equivocal statements are generally preferred. This type of equivocation has been defined as “nonstraightforward communication...ambiguous, contradictory, tangential, obscure or even evasive.” People typically equivocate when posed a question to which all of the possible replies have potentially negative consequences, yet a reply is still expected (the situational theory of communicative conflict).

The Irish Catholic Church
Roman Catholicism in Ireland
The Catholic Church in Ireland is part of the worldwide Catholic Church, the Christian Church with full communion with the Pope, currently Benedict XVI...

 allegedly misused the concept of mental reservation when dealing with situations relating to clerical child sexual abuse
Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland
The Catholic sexual abuse scandal in Ireland is a major chapter in the worldwide Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Unlike the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in the United States, the scandal in Ireland included cases of high-profile Catholic clerics involved in illicit heterosexual relations as well as...

, by the apparent disregard of the restrictions placed on its employment by moral theologians and treating it as a method that "allows clerics (to) mislead people...without being guilty of lying", for example when dealing with the police, victims, civil authorities and media. In the Murphy Report
Murphy Report
The Murphy Report is the brief name of the report of an investigation conducted by government of Ireland into the Sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin...

 into the Sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin
Sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin
The sexual abuse scandal in Dublin archdiocese is a major chapter in the series of sexual abuse cases in Ireland. The Irish government commissioned a statutory enquiry in 2006 that published the Murphy Report in November 2009....

, Cardinal Desmond Connell
Desmond Connell
Desmond Connell is a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. He is a former Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland. He was born in Dublin....

 describes it thus:
Cathleen Kaveny, writing in the Catholic magazine Commonweal
Commonweal is a American journal of opinion edited and managed by lay Catholics. It is headquartered in The Interchurch Center in New York City.-History:...

, notes that Henry Garnet in his treatise on the topic took pains to argue that no form of mental reservation was justified, and might even be a mortal sin
Mortal sin
Mortal sins are in the theology of some, but not all Christian denominations wrongful acts that condemn a person to Hell after death. These sins are considered "mortal" because they constitute a rupture in a person's link to God's saving grace: the person's soul becomes "dead", not merely weakened...

, if it would run contrary to the requirements of faith, charity or justice. But according to the Murphy Report:
Kaveny concludes: "The truths of faith are illuminated by the lives of the martyrs
Christian martyrs
A Christian martyr is one who is killed for following Christianity, through stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment. The word "martyr" comes from the Greek word μάρτυς, mártys, which means "witness."...

. Southwell and Garnet practiced mental reservation to save innocent victims while sacrificing themselves. The Irish prelates practiced mental reservation to save themselves while sacrificing innocent victims. And that difference makes all the difference."

See also

  • Taqiyya
    Taqiyya , meaning religious dissimulation, is a practice emphasized in Shi'a Islam whereby adherents may conceal their religion when they are under threat, persecution, or compulsion...

  • Ketman
    Kitman is the act of paying lip service to authority while holding personal opposition. It is a sort of political or religious camouflage, for the purpose of survival, in circumstances where open opposition would result in persecution...

  • Marrano
    Marranos were Jews living in the Iberian peninsula who converted to Christianity rather than be expelled but continued to observe rabbinic Judaism in secret...

  • Shifting ground fallacy
  • Lying by omission
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