You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Ex 20:16)
Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.” But I say to you, do not swear at all… (Mt 5:33)
The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. (CCC #2464)
Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) and is “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). What does this mean? First, it means that He Himself is the full revelation of all that is true. He is Truth itself and His life, death and resurrection reveals the deepest truths of humanity. Jesus Himself reveals to us what life is all about, what salvation is and who God is. He is the full revelation of the Father (Jn 12:45). Knowing Him is knowing Truth itself.
So what does that all mean, you ask? How is Jesus the Truth and the full revelation of the Father? At the risk of sounding like that is an unanswerable question, suffice it to say that this “mystery” is the entire goal of this chapter and this Commandment. Understanding Truth is our goal. This Commandment is not only about telling the truth and avoiding lies, it is even more so about seeking Him who is Truth itself and entering into the Truth in every way.
As Christians, we are called to live in the Truth. This means that as Christ Jesus lives in us and we in Him, we must speak and act in accord with all that is true. Discovering and living the truth are what fulfills our dignity as persons.
The Eighth Commandment calls us to be people of the Truth. We are to live lives of honesty and sincerity. Living a genuine life of integrity and truthfulness is essential to who we are. This Commandment calls us not only to avoid falsity, it also calls us to enter daily into the deepest and most profound truths of life, seeking to know and live these truths in their fullness.
As we come to know and live the truth, we are called to bear witness to that Truth; we are called to bear witness to our faith and to Christ Himself. This is done in many ways through our words and our actions. The witness of charity is a powerful sign of our commitment to the full truth of the Gospel.
One of the greatest forms of love is martyrdom. Martyrdom is a public witness of the love of God. It’s the ultimate statement that one loves God even more than life itself and is committed to the fullness of Truth, even if this witness requires the ultimate sacrifice. Throughout history, the Church has held up many martyrs for all to see. The blood of martyrs has become the seed of faith for many because of their ultimate witness to the Truth.
The Bottom Line: Offenses Against the Truth
There are many ways in which this Commandment is directly violated. Below are some of the most obvious ways identified by the Catechism.
Lying: Lying is pretty straightforward, or is it? Blatant lies may be straightforward, but there are forms of lies that are not as clear cut and not as obvious. Lying can be done in various ways. First, a lie is committed when someone intentionally and willfully falsifies the facts to one or more persons. This intentional and willful deceit is grave when that which is lied about is of a more serious nature. Any direct and intentional misrepresentation of the facts is grave matter.
However, sometimes we speak of “white lies” to identify those lies that are less serious but still lies. For example, if someone asked you if you like the meal they just cooked and you say it is “very good” even though it is not, this may be considered a “white lie.” Care must be taken to avoid even white lies. However, with that said, we are not automatically obliged to speak hurtful truths to others.
Lies can also be committed through the omission of facts. We call this a “lie by omission.” Omitting certain facts can, at times, be even more damaging than an outright falsification of facts because of the malicious and deceitful nature of this form of lie. For example, say a car salesman is trying to sell a used car and tells the potential buyer that the odometer has 75,000 miles on it. But he then fails to say that the odometer was actually taken from another car and put in this one because the car being sold actually has 150,000 miles on it. What he said is true: “the odometer has 75,000 miles on it.” But it is clearly a deception by failing to reveal that the current odometer is not the original odometer to the car.
Perjury: Perjury is a lie told under oath, typically in a civil court. Perjury is especially serious when the lie does damage to another. For example, if lying in a trial leads to the false conviction of a person, then the perjury is very grave. As mentioned above, a lie can also be an act of omission of facts. Therefore, if someone knowingly withholds facts in a civil proceeding or under oath, they sin. Even if they do not technically break the civil law of perjury by withholding essential facts, they still sin before God for their failure to reveal the whole truth.
The Good Name of Others: The Church has always seen the importance of a good reputation and the gravity of harming another’s good name. Harm can be done to another’s good name in many ways. Direct and malicious lies as well as the willful withholding of important facts that should be said are all included as sins against the Eighth Commandment. It is also sinful to reveal “truths” that should not be revealed.
The Catechism (#2477) gives a very clear explanation of these offenses against a person’s good reputation which is worth quoting in its entirety:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury (Cf. CIC, can. 220). He becomes guilty:
–of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
–of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them; (Cf. Sir 21:28)
–of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
Notice that there are three levels of sins against the truth identified. First, there are rash judgments. This tells us we ought not presume the worst. Rash judgment is something that may never be spoken but simply thought of interiorly. Even this does damage to another and is contrary to the truth.
Second, detraction is identified. This is speaking of something that is true to those who do not have a right to hear it. Gossip, for example, is a form of detraction. Even though what is said is true, it is still a sin against the Eighth Commandment since it is a truth that should not have been revealed to another.
Third, calumny is speaking something that is false and defamatory to another. This is the worst sin against the good reputation of another. When the good name of another is harmed in one of the ways mentioned above, reparation must be made. First, interior repentance must be made, but that is not enough. As far as possible, the sinner must do all that is reasonable and charitable to restore the good name of the person they hurt.
Boasting: Boasting, or bragging, may not at first be thought of as a sin—but it is. Similar to calumny and detraction, boasting is the revealing of things that are true about you in either a disordered way or in a prideful and self-gratifying way. It’s the act of attention-seeking and is contrary to the deepest truths of humility. Similarly, flattery of another is deceitful and a sin against this Commandment.
Do I Have A Right to Know?
In our day and age, we tend to think we have a right to know just about everything about everyone. Social media, especially, has opened up the daily lives of many people in such a way that personal privacy is often seen as unimportant. Below are some guidelines regarding the dissemination of information and the right to privacy.
Right to Privacy: The right to privacy simply means that not everyone has a right to know everything about us and our private lives. Even those who are public persons, such as politicians, deserve to have their private lives kept private.
One of the most obvious examples of this is the Sacrament of Confession. The seal of the confessional is absolute. This means that there are no conditions in which a confessor may reveal the content of a person’s confession. This is not just a sacramental law of the Church; it also reveals the God-given right to privacy. There are many things that only God has a right to know. There are other things that close family and friends should be made aware of in our lives. And there are only certain parts of our private lives that everyone should have a right to know.
When details of our private life must be known for the common good, it is permissible that these facts be shared. For example, if someone commits a murder in private, this action must be made public for the common good.
Professional secrets: There are many situations, of a professional nature, in which people have a duty to keep confidentiality. In these cases, the truth is not for public dissemination. For example, a medical doctor must keep medical records confidential. Or those in government may need to keep certain internal facts confidential so as to protect the good reputation of others or to protect the common good. As with many other examples, not everyone has a right to know everything about everyone or every situation. Keeping confidentiality in these cases is a requirement of the Eighth Commandment.
Media: The media is to serve the common good by the dissemination of the truth. They have an obligation to share with the public those things that serve the interests and good of all. However, their right to share the truth in a public way must be exercised in such a way that the rights of the individual and the inherent right to privacy are not abused.
Furthermore, the media has a duty to disseminate the entire truth, not just partial truths. One erroneous form of reporting is called “exclusionary detailing.” This is the commission of a “lie by omission” of certain facts, or the negligent failure to correct a misconception. When the media fails to present the full truth, or correct a misconception, then those within the media are guilty of breaking the Eighth Commandment.
The Upper Limit: Art, Beauty and the Pursuit of Truth
A final consideration has to do with the pursuit of the truth. The Eighth Commandment is not only about refraining from a lie; it is also about seeking Truth itself.
The Truth with a capital “T” is ultimately defined as a person, a divine Person. And that Person is Jesus Christ and all that He has revealed to us. Seeking the Truth means we seek Jesus Himself. First and foremost, this is fulfilled by choosing to enter into the Gospel and to seek the many truths of our faith. We break this Commandment when we are lazy in the deepening of our faith. We fulfill this Commandment when we seek the many truths of our faith and enter into them wholeheartedly.
Truth is also revealed in beauty. And beauty is discovered in many ways. Beauty is discovered in nature, in each person, in music, in sacred art, etc. Therefore, this Commandment calls us to seek true objective beauty.
Sacred art, for example, is a reflection of true beauty. Therefore, we have a duty to foster sacred art insofar as it is a reflection of true beauty. The arts, therefore, should be held up as an important part of society and the healthy development of culture and human life. But the arts can also be used for ill. Art, in and of itself, is a neutral means of expressing oneself as well as a means of expressing objective realities. For example, art can express the disorder of chaos and confusion, or it can express the order of Heaven or the beauty of nature. As Christians, we have a duty to use art for the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.
Once again, let’s look at the ways that the Eighth Commandment is broken in a mortal way so that we can also see the venial ways that this Commandment is broken.
Grave Matter: Any direct dissemination of false information could be considered grave when it brings with it grave consequences. This may be hard to define in certain terms, so it is ultimately left up to the particular circumstances.
Let’s offer one extreme example to which we will also apply the other two factors of mortal sin. Say a person is at work and comes across the fraudulent activity of another. Say that the fraudulent activity is that another employee has stolen money from the employer. The person who discovers the activity is then asked by the employer if he has come across any discrepancies. Since the employee who did the stealing is a friend, the person lies and says that the books look good.
This act of covering up the theft is a lie and is sinful. The person who discovered the stealing did have a duty to report it, and the cover up was a violation of the Eighth Commandment. In fact, it is fair to say that the lie committed in the cover up is grave matter.
Full Knowledge: If the person above who discovers the stealing knows with certainty that his friend stole the money, he is most likely guilty of also having full knowledge that a cover up is a lie. What sort of diminishing factors, if any, could actually have the effect of diminishing one’s personal guilt in the cover up? Two things come to mind: First, if the person is not fully convinced that the stealing took place, he may not be fully guilty of a cover up and, therefore, may not be fully guilty of lying if he fails to reveal what he knows. Second, if for some reason the person concludes that the stealing was “not that big of a deal,” he may not fully know that he has a duty to report it. Say, for example, the “stealing” is an act that everyone does and everyone knows that everyone does it. It is possible that this could confuse the person enough to conclude that this was not a big deal and that he does not have to report it.
In this case, as with all the Commandments, the confusion on the part of the person concealing the truth is not justified, but the confusion may be enough to lessen the personal responsibility to the point that it is no longer mortal sin, only venial sin. It doesn’t make it right to conceal the truth, or to lie, it only makes the personal actions less serious.
Complete Consent of the Will: Continuing with the example above, say that the employee finds his friend is stealing and confronts him. He offers a tearful sob story as to why he stole money and is very sorry. He begs the friend not to tell for the sake of his wife and children. As a result, his friend does twist the facts and lies to keep his friend from getting in trouble.
This is not justified, but the emotional situation and fear for his friend’s future may have the effect of lessening the moral responsibility of the lie he told. He should do the right thing and must avoid telling a lie, but the situation may be such that it is only a venial sin rather than mortal.
Venial Sin: The example above, as with the examples in previous chapters, reveals the complexity of sin and moral guilt. God sees all things and calls us to holiness of life even when it is difficult. With that said, God also sees the many factors that contribute to our errors in judgment and will judge accordingly.
Hopefully these reflections in the preceding chapters have helped to paint a picture of the moral life. Morality is something that has been revealed by God and must be sought on a daily basis. Sin can come at any moment. Therefore, we must always strive to build up virtue so as to build up proper defenses against sin and establish habits of seeking holiness of life.
Reread any chapter that stood out to you. Reflect upon it, pray over it and ask for God’s grace to live a good moral life. Morality is one of the three basic keys to holiness and happiness. The first key is faith (as explained in the first book of this series), the second key is worship (as explained in the second book of this series) and the third key is morality. Good moral living is the fruit of one’s life of faith and worship. Let your faith and worship transform you into a holy and morally upright person, and you will be eternally grateful for the good fruits this bears in your life and in the lives of those whom you are called to love and serve.
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