Is it really wrong to cheat on exams? Isn’t it just ‘helping’ each other?

Dear Fr. Joe: A lot of my friends cheat on their exams and don’t see anything wrong with it. They feel they are just helping each other out. I really believe this is wrong, but do I have an obligation to turn them in?

This is an important question that affects a lot of students at all levels of education. I even have folks talking to me about people cheating at work in different ways. It’s tough to know what to do in these situations. The good news is that our Catholic faith gives us some solid underlying principles that can help us.

Your question about turning them in can be a really complex one – it’s one of those things where a simple “Yes, always” or “No, never” won’t really cover it. The best example I can think of comes from driving.

I’m one of those drivers who occasionally looks down at the speedometer and thinks, “Oh Lord!” Sometimes, I’m driving way too fast, other times way too slow. I know that both can be unsafe and cause problems for other drivers, and I genuinely feel bad when I catch myself driving off the speed limit or messing up lane changes, lights, whatever. I can’t think of one time where I broke the law on purpose, but I know I’ve done it.

Now, I’ve also encountered those whose driving was irritating and those whose driving was flat-out dangerous. I don’t call the police for most, but I certainly do report cars and drivers who are breaking the law so badly that they are putting lives in danger.

It’s more or less the same thing in this situation. You and I live in a broken world and, at times, participate in the brokenness with our sin and failings. As Catholics, we must never tolerate sin or excuse it, but, at the same time, we recognize that we can’t and aren’t even capable of confronting every sin that comes our way. We also know that there are times and situations where we must speak.

Whatever the situation that we are dealing with, the first step is always to talk to those whose behavior affected us. The first step is to go to those who are cheating and speak to them. This works best if it’s a friend. If none of the people involved are your friends, then you definitely need to pray about how to respond and even talk to your parents. I tend to lean toward the idea of staying out of it, unless proper authorities approach you and ask you about it.

So, what if proper authorities approach you and ask if you know about cheating? This one is simple: lying and/or covering up is never an option. If we are asked what the truth is, we must always speak the truth. I know this is hard, but it is important that we don’t allow other people’s sinful behavior to prompt us toward sinful behavior.

Now, what if you are not approached by proper authorities? What if you have a friend who is cheating? The first step is to approach that friend or friends (one at a time) and walk through it together. Don’t accuse; say something like “I noticed you have been struggling in class – are you OK?” If they are really struggling with a subject, offer to help. Take the time and guide them into understanding the topic better ... maybe even share why you like that particular topic, if you do. If it’s a subject you also find difficult, suggest you both go to a tutor.

If you find out they are having troubles at home or in a relationship or some other difficult thing, be sure and listen, guide them and offer to help, or get them the help they need. By doing this, you are helping to address the symptoms that prompt the sin and helping your friend in more than one way.

If it turns out they just don’t have any problem with cheating and think it’s just fine, share with your friend why you don’t cheat and why you think it’s important. Focus more on what they gain by not cheating than why cheating is wrong. Explain the importance and joy of using our minds to know and grow in knowing.

If they bring up the idea that cheating is really just “helping each other out,” you really want to address that. The truth is, most students know that cheating is wrong and throw the “just helping each other out” to justify it. You’ve got to challenge that thinking by pointing out this this is not the way to help. Helping each other out needs to happen before the test, not during. It doesn’t help anyone to give them what they didn’t earn (unless your name is Jesus). If people really want to help, they should form little communities within the school to study and work together before the test.

The key is that, when we help each other with shortcuts like cheating, we are providing a temporary solution to a problem: We’re putting a little bandage on a big cut. We end up setting someone up for failure in the future so that they can get a temporary reprieve from something. As you get older, you’ll be surprised at how many things you picked up in school come in handy!

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!

Send your questions to: “In the Know with Fr. Joe” FAITH Magazine, 1500 E. Saginaw St., Lansing, MI 48906 Or: