Clarity with Charity – A Meditation on the 8th Commandment

041113-pope-2The Eighth Commandment, You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, proclaims the splendor and the beauty of the truth. It is not often that we hear of the truth described in this way but consider how precious and essential a foundation the truth is for our lives. One of the dangers, when it comes to commandments is that we see them merely as prohibitions. So for example here, we might think, “OK, I’m not supposed to lie.” Well, yes, but the Commandment is more than that! It is an exhortation for us to love the truth, live the truth, and proclaim the truth. Let’s look at some of the implications and distinctions regarding this Commandment.

I. The first implication of the Eighth Commandment is that we should love the truth, for it is of God and that we should seek to live the truth in our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,

Christians must be dedicated to the truth and live according to it. The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His “faithfulness endures to all generations.”[Ps 119:90; Prov 8:7; 2 Sam 7:28; Ps 119:142] Since God is “true,” the members of his people are called to live in the truth. To follow Jesus is to live in “the Spirit of truth,” whom the Father sends in his name and who leads “into all the truth.”[Jn 16:13] To his disciples Jesus teaches the unconditional love of truth: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes or No.'”[Mt 5:37] (Catechism 2465, 2466).

So, we are to witness to it by word and deed. This is particularly the case with the truth of our faith, the truth which has set us free.

This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds. Witness is an act of justice that establishes the truth or makes it known. All Christians by the example of their lives and the witness of their word, wherever they live, have an obligation to manifest the new man which they have put on in Baptism and to reveal the power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at Confirmation. (Catechism 2472)

II. Put away falsehoodScripture bids us, Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:22-25) So the Eighth Commandment upholds the goodness and beauty of the truth, exhorts us to celebrate it and instructs that we must avoid all sins against the truth. There are numerous ways that the we can sin against the truth. It will be fruitful for us to consider them each in turn, along with some distinctions.

III. False Witness – Nothing can be so injurious to individuals as to harm their good name or reputation. Without a good reputation it becomes difficult for an individual to successfully relate to and interact with others whether it be for business or merely at a personal level. Clearly, to bear false witness against someone is to harm their reputation and we are forbidden to do so.

In the technical sense, false witness is something which takes place in a court of law and since it is under oath it is also called perjury.

But it is also often the case that false witness is given in daily matters through lies, half truths, exaggeration, and the like. Clearly our call to love the truth and to respect the reputation of others forbids us engaging in such activities.

Respect for the reputation of others also forbids us from:

  • A. Rash judgement – assuming without sufficient foundation the moral fault of a neighbor
  • B. Detraction – disclosing an other’s faults and failings without a valid reason to others who did not know them
  • C. Calumny – imputing false defects to another with the knowledge that they are false.

Yet it is also possible to offend the truth by

  • D. Inappropriately praising others
  • E. By refusing to correct them when it is proper to do so.
  • F. Flattery distorts the truth when it falsely attributes certain good qualities or talents to another. This is usually done to ingratiate oneself to individuals or for some other ulterior motive(s).

Such behavior becomes particularly sinful when it confirms another in malicious acts or sinful conduct.

IV. Lying A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving…Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.

By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord…The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him….he is a liar and the father of lies.” [Jn 8:44]….

By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity…

A lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision…Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust…and tears apart the fabric of social relationships. (Catechism 2482-2485)

Acts of lying are sins from which we must repent. Lying is also a sin that demands reparation. That is to say, since lying causes actual harm and real damage. These damages must be repaired. The actual truth must be made known to those who deserve to know it. The reputations of others which have been harmed by the lie must also be restored.

V. Is lying always so evil? The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. (Catechism 2484). Thus there are big lies and smaller ones. Nevertheless, it is always wrong to intentionally lie.

This includes so called “polite lies.” For example suppose a phone call comes in for someone in the household who has indicated a preference not to be disturbed just now. It is a lie to say, “She is not here.” Yet you could say, “She is not available now.” Other social situations are less simple! For example, if Mrs. Smith asks you, “Do you like my new hairstyle?” Suppose you do not. It is in fact wrong to say, “Yes, I like it.” Granted, we all feel a bit stuck in such situations! Perhaps we could answer truthfully but discreetly and say, “You look alright.” (Presuming that we do think so).

But wouldn’t it be nice if we actually felt secure enough either to indicate, charitably, our true feelings or to indicate our preference not to answer the question? Wouldn’t it be even nicer if our relationships with others were so based in sincerity and truth, that people both gave and expected honest answers? It is to this blessed state that the Lord points when he says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (Mt 5:37).

VI. What about secrets? – This reflection has thus far emphasized the goodness and the splendor of the truth as well as the importance of communicating that truth to others who need it. However, as the Catechism states:

The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional..Fraternal love…requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it. 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.

The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it…Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives.

Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights.

Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom. (Catechism 2488, 2489, 2492)

However, the fact that we are permitted, even obliged, to keep certain secrets and maintain discretion, does not mean that we are free simply to lie. For example we cannot say, “I don’t know anything about that” if we do. Neither can we make up false answers to requested information. When we must decline to give information that is properly to be kept secret, we must still remain truthful. We might say instead, “I am not free to discuss this matter with you now.” Or, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that.” Or, “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Occasionally we may need to be more direct and say, “This is a private matter and not for you to know.”

VII. Are all secrets sacred? – Thus secrecy and discretion are often proper. Here too however, absolutes must be avoided. Sometimes we are asked to keep secrets that we should not keep. For example, suppose someone confides in you that they intend to commit a serious crime, or bring harm to another? It would be wrong to keep such a secret.

Other things being equal secrets ought to be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it, or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. (Catechism 2491).

An exception to this is the seal of confession which may never be violated for any reason whatsoever: The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason. (Catechism 2490).

VIII. On the Manner of speaking the truth – That the truth should be celebrated and declared is surely an essential truth. However, one must not sever the declaration of truth from charity. An old Latin Motto says, veritatem in caritate (the truth, in charity). For the truth without love can bludgeon, or it can be something we use only to win an argument. Further, love without truth, is mere affirmation of others in often destructive tendencies, and really not love at all.

Yes, the truth should be spoken, but always in love. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). An older priest once told me, “If your people really know you love them, you can tell them almost anything, even the hardest truths, and they will accept it.

Further truth often has a time it is best revealed. Jesus said, I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. (John 16:12-13) Where there is time, we often do well to lead people patiently, to the deeper truths in stages.

IX. Final thought – Jesus has taught us that the truth will set us free (Jn 8:32). If this be the case then anything which distorts the truth leads to bondage. Thus the eighth commandment calls upon us to love the truth and to love one another by proclaiming the truth and witnessing to it in sincerity with mutual respect and love.

Here is an amazing illusion, a kind of visual “lie.” It is not a lie per se, since the illusionist makes it clear he is creating an illusion, and invites, dares, us to discover how he misleads our eyes. I must say this is a VERY good illusion.

16 Replies to “Clarity with Charity – A Meditation on the 8th Commandment”

  1. Wow ! This puts the lie to the saying * seeing is believing”!

    Anyway, a most interesting and thought provoking article on the eighth commandment. I should also add a
    very soul searching one as well. However, I seem to recall something called “situational ethics” which allows,
    for example, one to with-hold information when a life is in danger. Such as would occur if one were to hide an
    innocent person from those who would harm them. As often happened during WWII when people would
    hide persons of Jewish descent that were being hunted down by the Nazi police. Certainly under those
    circumstances, one would be permitted to feign ignorance if asked the whereabouts of such an individual.
    In times past, professionals were not always forthcoming about a terminal diagnosis, feeling that to tell
    a patient he would soon die from a terminal illness would be less than compassionate. and might cause additional anguish to the patient. Today, terminal patients are handled much differently. Were therefore all those in the past guilty of breaking this commandment?
    I never disclosed to my mother she had cancer. She died three weeks following her diagnosis. Did I do the
    wrong thing in failing to divulge the information? The doctor(s) never disclosed this information to her either.
    Now I feel guilty of breaking this commandment, even though I thought at the time I was doing her a loving
    kindness. At the time, I did not think it was necessary for her to suffer this additional stress, as I felt she
    was prepared all her life to meet her Maker. Now, all these years later, reading this blog, I wonder if what
    I failed to disclose to her was actually her right to know.

  2. My kid asked me, the other day, if it was okay that some person (I forget who), essentially lied, in order to hide some Jews during the War. My answer (I was not perfectly confident in it) was not compatible with the above. Makes me wonder.

    1. Been thinking about this comment for a couple of hours so this might be navel gazing but…IT seems the like perfect answer would be to say you can’t answer the question. Saying you don’t know when you do would be lying. The two reasons why someone would choose to say they don’t know are 1) it is safer to say you don’t know. The government (Gestapo) would presumedly decide to make you tell them what you know so you can reasonably assume that you rlife is in danger if you don’t lie; 2) to protect the Jews since the government would torture the information out of you and then be able to arrest the Jews. It seems like both possible outcomes would be ultimately justify the choice to lie whether it is self-preservation or protection of the innocent.

    2. According to Pope Paul VI (Humanae Vitae), “it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good”.

      It seems insane that anyone would offer the truth to murderers and thus be an accomplice to someone’s wrongful death or imprisonment. There were many religious and non-religious during WWII who hid Jews, knowing that God would honor and reward their actions.

  3. The eighth commandment is my greatest weakness. It’s really a tough one, even though it can sound easy on the surface, or at least not as serious as some of the other ones. Thank you for this.

  4. In the Old Testament, Rahab the harlot, clearly lies to save the Israelite scouts. In his Epistle, the Apostle St. James, gives this as an example of a good work.

    Recently, Lila Rose, feigned being an underage prostitute to get information about illegal practices by Planned Parenthood. I remember the uproar that caused.

    The gravity of a lie is judged by the harm done to the victim of a lie. If we tell a lie to keep someone from doing evil, who has shown a manifest intention to do evil, then I don’t see by the Catechism’s definition that that is a sin. For example, if a suicidal person had given me his handgun and demanded it back, openly stating that he intended to kill himself.

    1. I remember the “Lies and Lila Rose” flap very well … especially the “Catholic circular firing squad” that developed in the Catholic blogosphere. Christopher Tollefson had the best comment of all: “A movement built on truth shouldn’t win its victories by lies.”

      For my own part, I initially tried to resolve the tension by constructing a “just lie” theory. However, I was never able to persuade myself that Lila Rose’s “entrapment journalism” could be justified by such means.

      Peter Kreeft, for whom I have tremendous respect, argued that the “lying is always wrong” verges into Pharisaic legalism. However, there are two edges to the Pharisaic sword; one edge is an overly-strict, merciless interpretation, while the other consists of “finer detail” appeals to craft exceptions to the law’s reasonable demands. Consider Jesus’ condemnation of the practice of qorban as it comes up in Mark 7:10-11, which parallels Matthew 15:4-5: “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father and mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God” [qorban], he need not honor his father.’”

      The chief danger, it seems to me is that in our eagerness to morally protect a tactic that seems to work in our favor, we finesse Scripture, Tradition and the Catechism to death. It reminds me very much of the tactics the defense pursued in the Rodney King police-brutality trial: By stopping the damning videotape at various points during the replay, the lawyers created brilliant alternative explanations for certain events that, when taken together, succeeded in—if you’ll pardon the expression—turning black into white.

      It seems to me, then, that if a tactic’s morality is not granted all around, it’s best not to use it. We are engaged in a kind of war — a culture war — but as the Second Vatican Council declared in Gaudium et Spes 79 § 3, “The mere fact that war has broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties” (cf. CCC 2312).

  5. Refreshing after yesterday’s diatribes from catholic bloggers.

  6. Where does that put Live Action? If they are letting the world know the truth about Planned Parenthood through their own use of lies, is what they are doing justified? Why or why not?

    1. I think we discussed this a while back. At the end of the day, I won’t be quoted as saying lying is OK. However, to some degree I think we can and should distinguish big and harmful lies from lesser ones. Lying is a sin that admits of degree, and also, one’s culpability varies based on circumstances. The WWII example would surely be an example of likely zero culpability, in time of war and personal duress faced with a bad option and a worse one, who is to say that such a thing will come up at the judgement? It seems culpability is at or near zero. But don’t ask me to call it good, I’ll just say its understandable given the context.

      As for Live Action I would prefer she use rhetorical questioning rather than deception. For example she could enter a “clinic” and say, “I am here to be tested to see if I am pregnant. Now let me ask you, if I am, can I abort the child only if it is a girl? I think she could get the same info proposing a scenario rather than acting it out with deception. But here too, I am not sure. So lets just say, in a matter of life and death (which this matter is) I am more understanding of someone who lies, deceives or misleads in order to save life or disarm a foe. I am not sure how culpable they are. But again, don’t ask me to call the lie good. Lets just say it is understandable, but less so than the WWII example, since duress is not present and other less deceitful ways could perhaps be thought out. So, is it a lie? I think so, is it wrong, well its not good so…. But I really don’t think its the worst thing, and I am not going to lose sleep worrying over Lila’s moral status here. [Picture me Shrugging]

      1. “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

        Even if Lila went in to get a test, she would be intentionally misleading those at the clinic. Lila’s intention is not to save herself or harm someone else but to expose the murderous activities of Planned Parenthood. What does it take to get the American people outraged over this senseless slaughter?

        God has said, “Thou shalt not kill”. The crimes committed against millions of babies while the majority remains silent – the enormity of this sin – far outweighs the sin of someone posing as a pregnant woman to get information about abortion. No one will lose a life, but perhaps many lives will be saved.

        1. The police officer who pretend to buy drugs from the dealers or pretend to be a prostitute to get customers is doing his or her job for a good cause. They are trying to prevent crimes. I don’t think that God will punish them for lying.

  7. This is a very good discussion on the 8th Commandment and one that needs to be discussed more! Often times I think we forget this one and the importance of speaking in truth and charity because of all of the other moral issues, yet it is always good to call to mind the importance of love of neighbor especially in how we talk to and about one another….

    The only thing about this is on “polite lies” or white lies. I think that it really depends on the situation but in general I wouldn’t consider them sins because I wouldn’t consider them lies. I would say to the best of my judgment that white lies are really mental reservation in most circumstances. I put in quotes what Fr. Hardon’s dictionary says on mental reservation. My comments are below each part of the quote and after a dash (-) explaining why i think it applies to white “lies.”

    “Speech that limits the meaning of what is said but contains a reasonable clue to the sense intended. No lie is involved, because what is said really has two meanings.”
    -I would think that a white lie/polite lie really does have two meanings. If a friend asks “Do you want to go out to dinner tonight?” and you are very tired and do not want to you might respond “I am not feeling well.” Now, this is a normal and I would expect often used “white lie” but in reality it is vague enough to have two meanings. My friend could interpret this to mean that I am actually sick and cannot go out but at the same time I intend it to mean (and without lying in any way) “I am not feeling well [enough to go out]”

    “The two meanings are present either by reason of the words themselves or by reason of the circumstances.”
    -This is important. Words are really meaningless until we give them meaning. Therefore, in different situations words really mean vastly different things. So in context of a declining an invitation or complimenting someone,etc. the words “I am not feeling well” or “I am busy” or “Yes it looks good on you” mean totally different things than just what the dictionary says.

    “For a sufficient reason, it is permitted others to deceive themselves by taking the wrong meaning of what is said, and this remains true although the listener, because of his ignorance, does not know there is another meaning to what he had heard.”
    -In many social settings there would certainly be a sufficient reason. I’d also add that although the listener doesn’t really know the other meaning, he should be aware in many of these situations that another meaning could be intended (if I ask how do I look, I know that a “you look good” response could mean many different things and recognize that for politeness sake)

    Anyway, one last thought on lying to live action: I agree with the above comment overall and in my opinion there are many ways to speak to PP about abortion and expose them without lying at all. So “I might be pregnant and I don’t want a girl” could be mental reservation for a woman trying to expose PP. **might be** is vague enough and if the woman speaking isn’t planning to have any kids at the moment **don’t want a girl** is entirely true but PP might interpret this to mean abortion which is in reality where they need to be exposed.


    1. oops I meant to say lying to PP not lying to live action.

      I’d add that splitting hairs and playing word games isn’t the most important thing there…really exposing the evil of abortion is. Thats why the situation can be dicy but overall I don’t think its too hard to get around imho.

    2. Yes, ell that’s kind of my main point too, perhaps the question could be posed to PP and an answer extracted from them without necessarily lying to get the answer.

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