The Eighth Commandment is concerned with the necessity of telling the truth. This topic is dealt with in a most interesting fashion in the Catechism: from the perspective of the obligation of the People of God to be witnesses of God before the world. Therefore, all our words and actions must be clear, unequivocal signs of the truth of God; failures in that regard “undermine the foundations of the covenant” (2464). The centrality of truth in the revelation of God to man is stressed. Indeed, even a cursory review of a biblical concordance turns up more than 350 entries for “truth” or related words.
And so, with this in mind, it should come as no surprise that Christ, the Word of God from all eternity, chose to identify Himself precisely as “the Truth” (Jn 14:6).
The importance of truth-telling is highlighted by some strong citations from Aquinas who grounds this obligation in the confidence human beings need to have in each other if they are going to live together; the text also locates this need in the dignity of the human person as “image of God,” the Source of all truth. When asked to witness to the truth, especially regarding one’s faith, the Christian will follow the example of Christ before Pilate as He proclaimed His mission on earth to be nothing less than “bear(ing) witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37). In this connection, an excellent discussion of martyrdom (which comes from the Greek word for “witness”) is given. Thus, we see that even as highly as a believer cherishes human life, testimony to eternal truth is a yet higher value. In referring to the Acts of the martyrs, the Catechism – in poetic and profound manner – speaks of these documents as “form(ing) the archives of truth written in letters of blood” (2474).
With the positive encouragement to live according to the truth now in place, we can consider offenses against the truth. Rash judgment (accepting as true without sufficient foundation the moral defect of one’s neighbor), slander (revealing the hidden faults of others to those who have no right to the information), and calumny (communicating untruths about another) are all sins against the Eighth Commandment; “detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor” (2479). The right to a good name is a fundamental right of every human being, and unjust attacks on it must be repaired through retraction and any other means which can help undo the damage of the original act, which reparation should be “moral and sometimes material” (2487). Flattery and boasting are also mentioned as inappropriate activities which compromise the truth and endanger human relationships.
Outright lying receives comprehensive treatment; its definition is given by St. Augustine as consisting in “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (2482); the text goes on to note that this means “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” (2489). The most “sacred” and “inviolable” of secrets is, of course, what is revealed to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance; the “seal of confession” is so absolute that a confessor who would violate that trust is automatically excommunicated (Canon 983.1). Efforts in various states and countries to eviscerate the seal of the confessional legally are most troubling and must be resisted when their first signs appear.
Other professionals have similar obligations, albeit to a lesser degree: military personnel, physicians, lawyers. Taking cognizance of media’s effort to pry into the private lives of public persons unnecessarily, the text condemns this as an unwarranted assault on their privacy and liberty.
The next section is concerned with “the use of the social communications media,” which must always be viewed as being “at the service of the common good.” Furthermore, this undergirds the conviction that “society has the right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity” (2494). All of this must stem from a deep “acknowledgment and respect for the other,” so that a genuine “free circulation of ideas” can occur without, however, falling into defamation or attempts to “manipulate public opinion.” The noble vocation of journalism – whether print or electronic – is clearly delineated; how much that is accepted and/or lived by contemporary practitioners of the art should be the subject of much soul-searching and debate within the profession (2495-8). The depths to which journalism has sunk since the promulgation of the Catechism would amaze its authors. Of course, this is the very reason why public opinion polls inform us of the incredibly low esteem most Americans have for the purveyors of the media and the equally low confidence they have that they are being told the truth.
Finally, we are brought to a reflection on “truth, beauty and sacred art.” Truth, we read, “is beautiful in itself.” This beauty was first revealed by Almighty God not in words but in the act of creation, whereby He began to convey the truth about Himself and our world. Quite logically, then, man (His image) “also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works,” a class of endeavor unique to man as it arises from his commitment to “truth and love for beings,” in imitation of the God of creation (2500-1).
Sacred art is an even more elevated form of the communication of truth when it performs its proper function, namely, “evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’ This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.” (2502).
Some further applications:
Human dignity is honored when our thoughts correspond to reality and when those thoughts, in turn, find concrete expression in our speech and actions. Lying diminishes the liar because he shows himself to be a person who lacks respect for truth, which is reality. Lying also demeans the hearer, for it assumes that the hearer is either unworthy of the truth or incapable of grasping it. It is in this light that Christ’s statement has the greatest significance: ‘The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). Truth liberates. Falsehood enslaves.
Calumny, detraction and rash judgment have a special gravity because the damage done is very difficult to undo. Untruths have their own lives once uttered and retractions are rarely heard by as many people as heard the original lie. Believers working in the media need to remember this point and to take its implications to heart.
Largely through activists of a previous generation like Ralph Nader, Americans have come to expect “truth in advertising” – a very legitimate demand. Here we can see most clearly how the words spoken should always correspond to the reality being described. In fact, “truth in advertising” could well serve as a model for truth-telling in general on the personal level. Its antithesis is hypocrisy: We pretend to be something we are not. Such pretension, like all lies, can be verbal or non-verbal, so that what we say or do not say, what we do or do not do, is calculated to lead another to a false conclusion.
Here I am also thinking of the need for “truth in advertising” for all too many would-be “Catholic” colleges in our country. Promotional ads and campus tours suggest one thing, while the reality is quite other. Distressing data emerges from numerous studies that show that young practicing Catholics with twelve years of Catholic schooling go to one of the “faux” Catholic colleges and lose their faith within the first semester. Herein we see the great service done by the Newman Guide to solid, authentic Catholic colleges: Parents, pay heed.
A mental reservation is likewise a good example of deliberating misleading another: “You must have had years of experience in this field,” suggests the job counselor. “I can’t begin to tell you the experience I’ve had!” comes the reply of the applicant. The reason he “can’t begin to tell you” is, of course, that he has had none. The interviewer, meanwhile, is led to believe just the opposite.
All that having been said, we must determine if the truth to be told would really be beneficial. For instance, if a child badly scarred in a fire asks, “Mommy, am I ugly?”,
an objective answer might call for an affirmative reply, but what good would be accomplished? Would the statement thereby enable the child to become more beautiful? In such circumstances, the child should gradually and gently be brought to appreciate the various kinds of beauty, the shallowness of every physical exterior, and the particular gifts he or she possesses. Saying that someone is ugly is not like saying someone is lazy. The former situation is generally irreparable; the latter can usually be changed by a frank admonition.
This entire discussion of the Eighth Commandment, however, may be rather useless for many people in modern society because they doubt that absolute truth exists or can be known. They echo Pilate’s cynical remark, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). What Pilate deemed a rhetorical question came in response to Christ’s words: ‘For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).
Some people cannot accept the existence of objective and absolute truth. Some think themselves to be Jesus or Napoleon or Julius Caesar; many of these are in psychiatric hospitals – or should be. A particularly disturbing phenomenon of late is the not inconsiderate number of people (including very young people and even children) who present sexual dysphoria. Parents, priests and Catholic school teachers cannot succumb to a false sympathy by entertaining such declarations. Reliable professionals in the mental health field need to be engaged, along with providing proper spiritual accompaniment.
The underlying problem in all this is a failure to understand that all truth is one and that it is grounded in God as its Source. No ultimate truths can be grasped except on the testimony of a higher Being, and that is why so many intellectuals (really, pseudo-intellectuals) today actually despair of ever knowing the truth, having already cast aside its Author.
The quest for truth is the history of the human race. Our uniqueness in creation, in fact, lies in our capacity to seek and to comprehend the truth. That search is in our nature, but it occurs most fruitfully under the impulse of grace as the Lord of Truth leads honest seekers to Himself (see Jn 14:6; 12:32).
Truth is a worthy goal in itself, but note that truth must then be used for worthy ends. The truths discovered in the science of genetics can help or harm. When the truth is used for evil purposes, it becomes in a sense a lie, because it ceases to be true to itself. The philosophy of Communism was/is a blend of profound truths and profoundly savage lies (especially in its denial of God), resulting in the denial of human rights. Thus do twisted truths achieve lies in the concrete.
Once we begin to appreciate the beauty of absolute truth, we respect the importance of every other smaller truth as well – because we see the interrelatedness of all real things. The innocent-sounding “white lie” is therefore swept under the carpet less easily and can be seen for what it actually is: a tiny chipping away at Reality and Truth.
When Jesus announced that He had been born “to bear witness to the truth,” He was not exaggerating for dramatic effect; He was offering Himself as an example for us. He knew that the truth, and only the truth, does make people free – free to live wholesome and integrated lives, as God desires.
2504 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (⇒ Ex 20:16). Christ’s disciples have “put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (⇒ Eph 4:24).
2505 Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.
2506 The Christian is not to “be ashamed of testifying to our Lord” (⇒ 2 Tim 1:8) in deed and word. Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith.
2507 Respect for the reputation and honor of persons forbids all detraction and calumny in word or attitude.
2508 Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving the neighbor who has the right to the truth.
2509 An offense committed against the truth requires reparation.
2510 The golden rule helps one discern, in concrete situations, whether or not it would be appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.
2511 “The sacramental seal is inviolable” (⇒ CIC, can. 983 # 1). Professional secrets must be kept. Confidences prejudicial to another are not to be divulged.
2512 Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, and justice. One should practice moderation and discipline in the use of the social communications media.
2513 The fine arts, but above all sacred art, “of their nature are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God” (SC 122).
Related at CWR:
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 1)” (Feb 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 2)” (Mar 2, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 3)” (March 10, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 4)” (March 17, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 5)” (March 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 6)” (March 26, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
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