The Catechism of Trent
From these words we learn two truths. The first is that sins of the tongue are very prevalent, which is confirmed by these words of the Prophet: Every man is a liar, so that it would almost seem as if this were the only sin which extends to all mankind. The other truth is that the tongue is the source of innumerable evils. Through the fault of the evil�speaker are often lost the property, the reputation, the life, and the salvation of the Injured person, or of him who inflicts the injury. The injured person, unable to bear patiently the contumely, avenges it without restraint. The offender, on the other hand, deterred by a perverse shame and a false idea of what is called honour, cannot be induced to make reparation to him whom he has offended.
Moreover, as every man is bound to love himself, and is thus, in some sense, his own neighbour, it is unlawful for anyone to bear false witness against himself. He who does so brands himself with infamy and disgrace, and injures both himself and the Church of which he is a member, much as the suicide, by his act, does a wrong to the state. This is the doctrine of St. Augustine, who says: To those who do not understand (the precept) properly, it might seem lawful to give false testimony against one’s self, because the words “against thy neighbour” are subjoined in the Commandment. But let no one who bears false testimony against himself think that he has not violated this Commandment, for the standard of loving our neighbour is the love which we cherish towards ourselves.
It also not infrequently happens, that by favouring one party we injure the other. False testimony is certainly the occasion of misleading the judge, who, yielding to such evidence, is sometimes obliged to decide against justice, to the injury of the innocent.
Sometimes, too, it happens that the successful party, who by means of perjured witnesses, has gained his case and escaped with impunity, exulting in his iniquitous victory, soon becomes accustomed to the work of corrupting and suborning false witnesses, by whose aid he hopes to obtain whatever he wishes.
To the witness himself it must be most grievous that his falsehood and perjury are known to him whom he has aided and abetted by his perjury; whilst encouraged by the success that follows his crime, he becomes every day more accustomed to wickedness and audacity.
Holy Writ abounds not only with precepts on the subject, but also with examples which reveal the enormity of the crime. Aman, by a crime of his own invention, had so incensed Assuerus against the Jews that he ordered the destruction of the entire race. Sacred history contains many other examples of the same kind, which priests should recall in order to deter the people from such iniquity.
But of all sorts of calumnies the worst is that which is directed against Catholic doctrine and its teachers. Persons who extol the propagators of error and of unsound doctrine are guilty of a like crime.
Nor are those to be dissociated from the ranks of evil�speakers, or from their guilt, who, instead of reproving, lend a willing ear and a cheerful assent to the calumniator and reviler. As we read in St. Jerome and St. Bernard, it is not so easy to decide which is more guilty, the detractor, or the listener; for if there were no listeners, there would be no detractors.
To the same category belong those who cunningly foment divisions and excite quarrels; who feel a malignant pleasure in sowing discord, dissevering by fiction and falsehood the closest friendships and the dearest social ties, impelling to endless hatred and deadly combat the fondest friends. Of such pestilent characters the Lord expresses His detestation in these words: Thou shalt not be a detractor nor a whisperer among the people. Of this description were many of the advisers of Saul, who strove to alienate the king’s affection from David and to arouse his enmity against him.
Of this species of flattery the most pernicious is that which proposes to itself for object the injury and the ruin of others. Thus Saul, when he sought to expose David to the sword and fury of the Philistines, in order to bring about his death, ad dressed him in these soothing words: Behold my eldest daughter Merob, her will I give thee to wife: only be a valiant man and fight the battles of the Lord. In the same way the Jews thus insidiously addressed our Lord: Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and teachest the way of God in truth.
Still more pernicious is the language addressed sometimes by friends and relations to a person suffering with a mortal disease, and on the point of death, when they assure him that there is no danger of dying, telling him to be of good spirits, dissuading him from confession, as though the very thought should fill him with melancholy, and finally withdrawing his attention from all care and thought of the dangers which beset him in the last perilous hour.
God is also grievously offended by those attacks and slanders which are termed lampoons, and other defamatory publications of this kind.
To deceive by a jocose or officious lie, even though it helps or harms no one, is, notwithstanding, altogether unworthy; for thus the Apostle admonishes us: Putting away lying, speak ye the truth. This practice begets a strong tendency to frequent and serious lying, and from jocose lying men contract the habit of lying, lose all reputation for truth, and ultimately find it necessary, in order to gain belief, to have recourse to continual swearing.
Again it requires that no one pass sentence without a sufficient knowledge of the case. This was the sin of the priests and scribes who passed judgment on St. Stephen. The magistrates of Philippi furnish another example. They have beaten us publicly, says the Apostle, uncondemned, men that are Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privately.
This Commandment also requires that the innocent be not condemned, nor the guilty acquitted; and that (the decision) be not influenced by money, or favour, hatred or love. For so Moses admonished the elders whom he had constituted judges of the people: Judge that which is just, whether he be one of your country or a stranger. There shall be no difference of persons, you shall hear the little as well as the great; neither shall you respect any man’s person, because it is the judgment of God.
But as this Commandment chiefly concerns witnesses, the pastor should give them special attention. The spirit of the precept not only prohibits false testimony, but also commands the truth to be told. In human affairs, to bear testimony to the truth is a matter of the highest importance, because there are innumerable things of which we must be ignorant unless we arrive at a knowledge of them on the faith of witnesses. In matters with which we are not personally acquainted and which we need to know, there is nothing so important as true evidence. Hence the words of St. Augustine: He who conceals the truth and he who utters falsehood are both guilty; the one, because he is unwilling to render a service; the other, because he has the will to do an injury.
We are not, however, at all times, obliged to disclose the truth; but when, in a court of justice, a witness is legally interrogated by the judge, he is emphatically bound to tell the whole truth. Here, however, witnesses should be most circumspect, lest, trusting too much to memory, they affirm for certain what they have not fully ascertained.
Plaintiffs and prosecutors, on their side, are to be warned not to be led by the influence of love, or hatred, or any other undue motive into exposing anyone to danger through unjust charges:
To banish so great a sin, (the pastor) should add the mischievous consequences of lying; but since they are innumerable, he must be content with pointing out the chief kinds of these evils and calamities.
In the first place, he should show how grievously lies and deceit offend God and how deeply they are hated by God. This he should prove from the words of Solomon: Six things there are which the Lord hateth, and the seventh his soul detesteth: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that deviseth wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that uttereth lies, etc. Who, then, can protect or save from severest chastisements the man who is thus the object of God’s special hate?
Again, what more wicked, what more base than, as St. James says, with the same tongue, by which we bless God and the Father, to curse men, who are made after the image and likeness of God, so that out of the same fountain flows sweet and bitter water. The tongue, which was before employed in giving praise and glory to God, afterwards, as far as it is able, by lying treats Him with ignominy and dishonour. Hence liars are excluded from a participation in the bliss of heaven. To David asking, Lord! who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? the Holy Spirit answers: He that speaketh truth in his heart, who hath not used deceit in his tongue.
Lying is also attended with this very great evil that it is an almost incurable disease. For since the guilt of the calumniator cannot be pardoned, unless satisfaction be made to the calumniated person, and since, as we have already observed, this duty is difficult for those who are deterred from its performance by false shame and a foolish idea of dignity, we cannot doubt that he who continues in this sin is destined to the unending punishments of hell. Let no one indulge the hope of obtaining the pardon of his calumnies or detractions, until he has repaired the injury which they have inflicted on the honour or fame of another, whether this was done in a court of justice, or in private and familiar conversation.
But the evil consequences of lying are widespread and extend to society at large. By duplicity and lying, good faith and truth, which form the closest links of human society, are dissolved, confusion ensues, and men seem to differ in nothing from demons.
Those who excuse themselves by habit are to be admonished to endeavour to acquire the contrary habit of speaking the truth; particularly as those who sin habitually are more guilty than others.
There are some who adduce in their own justification the example of others, who, they contend, constantly indulge in falsehood and perjury. Such persons should be undeceived by reminding them that bad men are not to be imitated, but reproved and corrected; and that, when we ourselves are addicted to the same vice, our admonitions have less influence in reprehending and correcting it in others.
There remain two other classes of persons who seek to justify lying: those who say that they tell lies for the sake of amusement, and those who plead motives of interest, claiming that without recourse to lies, they can neither buy nor sell to advantage. The pastor should endeavour to reform both these kinds of liars. He should correct the former by showing how strong a habit of sinning is contracted by their practice, and by strongly impressing upon them the truth that for every idle word they shall render an account. As for the second class, he should upbraid them with greater severity, because their very excuse is a most serious accusation against themselves, since they show thereby that they yield no faith or confidence to these words of God: Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.