Discretion is Not Lying
By Father Kenneth Wasilewski
In the last column, I looked at some circumstances where some intentional deceit may not rise to the level of being considered a true lie or even be sinful. Such is the case, for example, when it is done as part of a joke. We also looked at the need to consider the harm done when assessing the gravity of a lie. 
There are, of course, other considerations to be mindful of when looking at issues surrounding lying and speaking truthfully. One such consideration deals with whom it is that is being spoken or otherwise communicated with. Sometimes our obligation to communicate what we know to be the truth is mitigated or limited by the person we’re communicating with. 
We all have a responsibility to speak the truth. But that doesn’t mean we always have a responsibility to share it — or to share all of it — even if someone asks for it from us. There can be any number of times when instead of sharing the truth, we have an obligation to guard it and keep it secret. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about such situations in sections 2488-2492. 
Some of these are quite obvious. For example, depending on one’s job, there might be times when someone becomes privy to confidential or private information that needs to be safeguarded. We can think of those who work in health care as a common example. They often have a strict duty to protect some of the information they learn in the course of their work. 
Health care frequently, if not nearly always, involves the revelation of very personal information. This information is necessary to be known if people are to receive the care they need. But this creates great vulnerability, hence the duty to protect that information. This duty is so serious that there can be far-reaching ramifications for even an accidental sharing of information that is meant to remain confidential. 
Similar responsibility exists in many other walks of life as well, including for those who are lawyers, counselors, soldiers, or politicians — to name a few. Even those in private industry may be bound to keep company or proprietary secrets at times. 
All of this is to say that knowing the truth about something does not mean that we have an obligation to reveal it or let it be known — either in whole or in part — even if someone requests or demands it from us. 
This reality gets to the heart of a very important consideration in truth telling. Namely, that not everyone who may want to know something has a right to know it. Even though this qualification is not always included in the definition of what a “lie” is, it nevertheless is to be understood as a part of the equation. 
I have a moral duty to speak the truth, but only to those who have a right to know it. And even then, there may be times when someone has a right to know some of the truth I know, but not all of it. At times, this can create awkward situations for those required to keep information confidential. But the harm done from an awkward situation is likely to be much less serious that an inappropriate divulging of private information. 
How one goes about keeping private information private can be both challenging and confusing. Sometimes simply remaining silent is enough. Sometimes stating that one isn’t free to offer that information is sufficient. 
And sometimes, it might be appropriate to respond with, as the catechism says, “discreet language.” What constitutes “discreet language” is a topic unto itself and is one where moral theologians often disagree over the extent that such language can be used or the moral boundaries that should exist. Because it is such a delicate topic and one where there is a good deal of disagreement — even among supposed “experts” — it will be discussed at greater length in a future column.