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Honesty is the best policy

First slide

So, Aaron Rodgers is in trouble.

Back in August, he was asked by reporters if he had received the COVID-19 vaccine. And his response was, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.” In his follow up, the quarterback spoke about how he was not going to judge “those guys” on the team who were not vaccinated, which of course implied that “those guys” were not him.

Now Rodgers, having tested positive for COVID-19, has acknowledged that he has not in fact been vaccinated against it. He insists, however, that he did not lie in that initial statement. He had been undergoing a COVID-19 prevention regimen that he believed was protecting him. That was the immunization he was referring to.

But the people listening didn’t know that. And it would appear he wanted it that way.

It’s a complex situation, wading into the controversial waters of pandemic, vaccine, Ivermectin, public figures, private medical decisions and teammates working in close proximity.

I have zero desire to wade into any of those questions.

What has piqued my attention is the broader questions about the nature of honesty and lying, namely this question: is it lying to say something that may be technically true, but is stated with the intent to mislead?

You may agree with what Rodgers did. You may disagree. But there is no doubt that, when he answered that question for those reporters, his intent was to create the impression that he was vaccinated. He used a vague word, “immunized,” that he knew to mean one thing, but wanted them to believe meant something else. And he followed it up with additional statements (“those guys”) that further reinforced the narrative. All to create the false impression that he was vaccinated without having to make any statement that wasn’t technically true.

Obviously, if Rodgers was completely honest, he would have said, “No, I have not received the COVID vaccine. I am allergic to the ingredients in two of the formulas, and I have concerns about the third. So, I am instead undergoing a preventative regimen that I believe provides me ample protection against COVID infection.” But there would have been consequences to such an admission. So, he opted to obfuscate.

But was it a lie?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its section on lying by quoting St. Augustine, “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (2482). Rodgers didn’t exactly do that. He spoke a partial truth with the intention of deceiving. Does that count? The catechism says, “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” (2484). So, by stating a partial truth and withholding the rest of the truth, do we act against the truth?

I say yes. The second part of that sentence holds the key: “ … in order to lead someone into error.” It all comes down to intent. Do I intend to cause someone to believe something that isn’t true? If so, I am lying, regardless of whether or not I can justify it by carefully parsing my words to form a technically true statement.

So yes, by this definition, Aaron Rodgers definitely was lying. As are we when we carefully craft a misleading statement that withholds part of the truth and then tell ourselves “well, it wasn’t really a lie.”

Of course, this leads to the next question: are there circumstances when it is okay to lie? Rodgers’ subsequent interviews seem to imply that his medical decisions were no one else’s business, and thus he was justified in making misleading statements. What about that?

The classic example in this regard is the hypothetical scenario of Nazis at the door, Jews in the basement. Do you answer honestly when they ask? Believe it or not, there are differing opinions on this. Some say a lie is a lie is a lie, and it’s a sin to lie to the Nazis just as it’s a sin to lie to your mother. I disagree. The catechism seems to agree with me: “The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language” (2489). In that situation, I would have no problem whatsoever with the discreet language of “Nope. No Jewish people here. No siree. You can move right along to another house now. Have a nice day.”

The Nazis intended harm to the Jews. Did the reporters pose a threat to Rodgers’ safety? Probably not. Were they invading his privacy? Some make that argument. But then, wouldn’t the “honest” response have been a simple refusal to answer, instead of deliberately misleading them? The problem is that, in answering the way he did, he broke any trust he may have had with the reporters — and the fans. Just as we do when we mislead our friends, our families, our co-workers and clients. Relationship is predicated on trust, which is predicated on truth. "Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another” (Catechism 2469). Without honesty, we cannot have trust. And without trust, we cannot have moral order. Nor can we have healthy relationships. Or live real love.

It’s not about Aaron Rodgers. It’s about you and me. And, for us, it all comes down to this. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Satan is the father of lies. When we choose to follow Christ and renounce Satan, we choose to live in truth. And growing in holiness means growing in honesty, in transparency.

It’s so easy to compromise, to tell little white lies. Honesty can be difficult. It can bring unpleasant consequences, as our friend Mr. Rodgers has discovered. But that momentary discomfort is worth the long-term benefit of remaining in him who is truth, and in retaining the trust of those around us.

Honesty really is the best policy.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021