Every year the Christmas season provokes many critiques about the secularized nature of one of Christianity’s most important feasts. Among many insights provided by the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, one critique—although admittedly not the most important—he might bring to the table is this: Isn’t it wrong to be lying to our kids about Santa Claus?
Before we can answer this question, however, we must first see how St. Thomas deals with the morality of human acts in general. In the prima secundæ, question eighteen of the Summa Theologiæ, St. Thomas spells out his three criteria for an act to be morally good. For an act to be good it must have a good (1) object, (2) circumstance, and (3) end or intention. As we will see, if any one of these three criteria is violated, the whole act is likely bad.
Thomas starts by addressing the object, the most important of the three. The object pertains to the goodness or evil of the action in genus, i.e if the act is good or bad in itself, divorced from any intentions or circumstances. St. Thomas says that “the primary evil in moral actions [comes] from the object,” meaning that if an act is bad in its object, no intention or circumstance can ever make it acceptable. For example, murder—the killing of an innocent person—is evil in its genus according to both philosophy and the Fifth Commandment. God did not add a footnote saying murder would be allowed under certain circumstances.
Having determined the object to be good, St. Thomas tells us to next look at the circumstance. This includes where you are, who are you doing the act for, in what way you are doing the act, etc. St. Thomas says that even if the object of the act is good, there can be circumstances where it would be evil to do the act. For example, the object of giving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the homeless man is a good act, however, if the circumstance is that the homeless man is extremely allergic to peanuts, it would be a bad action to do.
Lastly, St. Thomas addresses the ‘end,’ or intention of the act. The end of an act is what the actor intends on doing by performing the act. Like circumstance, even if the object of an act is good, an evil end makes the whole act bad. For example, if you give a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a homeless man (who is not allergic to peanut butter) but did it so that your friends might see, you are doing a bad act. Even though the object is good, and a man was able to eat that day, you did damage to your own soul because you did it for an evil intention.
Understanding what makes an act good or evil, we can now apply this to Santa Claus. First, we must determine if it is indeed a lie to tell children about Santa Claus. Second, we must determine if lying is always wrong. Lying is defined in the Catechism as “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth" (2483, 1994 ed.). (Although in the 1997 edition the clause “who has the right to know” was dropped, for our purposes the analysis remains the same.) Santa Claus is indeed a lie because it (1) is not the truth, (2) has the intention to make children actually believe it, and (3) children have a right to know such basic truths. Secondly, lying is always wrong because it is evil in species. Going back to St. Thomas, he says later in question 110 that “a lie is evil in respect of its genus.” This is because, firstly, it “injure[s] man's relation to truth and to his neighbor” (CCC 2483), and, secondly, God prohibits it in the eighth commandment. Again, like in murder, God provided no footnote with an exception.
In sum, although I may not expect everyone to agree with this argument, the argument is at least worth considering. Just because something is popular or done by almost everyone does not mean that it must be acceptable. At the very least, this could serve as a great conversation starter at Christmas dinner!