THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT : "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour"

Importance Of Instruction On This Commandment

The great utility, nay the necessity, of carefully explaining this Commandment, and of emphasising its obligation, we learn from these words of St. James: If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man; and again, The tongue is indeed a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold how small a fire, what a great wood it kindleth; and so on, to the same effect.

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 evil­speaker 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.

This Commandment Should Call Forth Our Gratitude

Hence the faithful are to be exhorted to thank God as much as they can for having given this salutary Commandment, not to bear false witness, which not only forbids us to injure others, but which also, if duly observed, prevents others from injuring us.

Two Parts Of This Commandment

In its explanation we shall proceed as we have done with regard to the others, pointing out that in it are contained two laws. The first forbids us to bear false witness. The other commands us to lay aside all dissimulation and deceit, and to measure our words and actions by the standard of truth, a duty of which the Apostle admonishes the Ephesians in these words: Doing the truth in charity, let us grow up in all things in him.

Negative Part Of This Commandment

With regard to the prohibitory part of this Commandment, although by false testimony is understood whatever is positively but falsely affirmed of anyone, be it for or against him, be it in a public court or elsewhere; yet the Commandment specially prohibits that species of false testimony which is given on oath in a court of justice. For a witness swears by the Deity, because the words of a man thus giving evidence and using the divine name, have very great weight and possess the strongest claim to credit. Such testimony, therefore, because it is dangerous, is specially prohibited; for even the judge himself cannot reject the testimony of sworn witnesses, unless they be excluded by exceptions made in the law, or unless their dishonesty and malice are notorious. This is especially true since it is commanded by divine authority that in the mouth of two or three every word shall stand.

"Against Thy Neighbour"

In order that the faithful may have a clear comprehension of this Commandment it should be explained who is our neighbour, against whom it is unlawful to bear false witness. According to the interpretation of Christ the Lord, our neighbour is he who needs our assistance, whether bound to us by ties of kindred or not, whether a fellow­citizen or a stranger, a friend or an enemy.' It is wrong to think that one may give false evidence against an enemy, since by the command of God and of our Lord we are bound to love him.

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.

False Testimony In Favour Of A Neighbour Is Also Forbidden

But if we are forbidden to injure our neighbour by false testimony, let it not be inferred that the contrary is lawful, and that we may help by perjury those who are bound to us by ties of kinship or religion. It is never allowed to have recourse to lies or deception, much less to perjury. Hence St. Augustine in his book to Crescentius On Lying teaches from the words of the Apostle that a lie, although uttered in false praise of anyone, is to be numbered among false testimonies. Treating of that passage, Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have given testimony against God, that he hath raised up Christ whom he hath not raised, if the dead rise not again, he says: The Apostle calls it false testimony to utter a lie with regard to Christ, even though it should seem to redound to His praise.

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.

"Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness"

All Falsehoods In Lawsuits Are Forbidden

This precept then prohibits deceit, lying and perjury on the part of witnesses. The same prohibition extends also to plaintiffs, defendants, promoters, representatives, procurators and advocates; in a word, to all who take any part in lawsuits.

False Testimony Out Of Court Is Forbidden

Finally, God prohibits all testimony which may inflict injury or injustice, whether it be a matter of legal evidence or not. In the passage of Leviticus where the Commandments are repeated, we read: Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not lie; neither shall any man deceive his neighbour.' To none, therefore can it be a matter of doubt, that this Commandment condemns lies of every sort, as these words of David explicitly declare: Thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie.

This Commandment Forbids Detraction

This Commandment forbids not only false testimony, but also the detestable vice and practice of detraction, ­­ a pestilence, which is the source of innumerable and calamitous evils. This vicious habit of secretly reviling and calumniating character is frequently reprobated in the Sacred Scriptures. With him, says David, I would not eat; and St. James: Detract not one another, my brethren.

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.

Various Kinds Of Detraction

But, to understand well the nature of this sin of detraction, we must know that reputation is injured not only by calumniating the character, but also by exaggerating the faults of others. He who gives publicity to the secret sin of any man, in an unnecessary place or time, or before persons who have no right to know, is also rightly regarded as a detractor and evil­speaker, if his revelation seriously injures the other's reputation.

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 evil­speakers, 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.

This Commandment Forbids Flattery

Among the transgressors of this Commandment are to be numbered those fawners and sycophants who, by flattery and insincere praise, gain the hearing and good will of those whose favour, money, and honours they seek, calling good evil, and evil good, as the Prophet says. Such characters David admonishes us to repel and banish from our society. The just man, he says, shall correct me in mercy, and shall reprove me; but let not the oil of the sinner fatten my head. This class of persons do not, it is true, speak ill of their neighbour; but they greatly injure him, since by praising his sins they cause him to continue in vice to the end of his life.

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.

This Commandment Forbids Lies Of All Kinds

In a word, lies of every sort are prohibited, especially those that cause grave injury to anyone, while most impious of all is a lie uttered against or regarding religion.

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.

This Commandment Forbids Hypocrisy

Finally, the first part of this Commandment prohibits dissimulation. It is sinful not only to speak, but to act deceitfully. Actions, as well as words, are signs of what is in our mind; and hence our Lord, rebuking the Pharisees, frequently calls them hypocrites. So, far with regard to the negative, which is the first part of this Commandment.

Positive Part of this Commandment

Judges Must Pass Sentence According To Law And Justice

We now come to explain what the Lord commands in the second part. Its nature and purpose require that trials be conducted on principles of strict justice and according to law. It requires that no one usurp judicial powers or authority, for, as the Apostle writes, it were unjust to judge another man's servant.

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.

Witnesses Must Give Testimony Truthfully

With regard to an accused person who is conscious of his own guilt, God commands him to confess the truth, if he is interrogated judicially. By that confession he, in some sort, bears witness to, and proclaims the praise and glory of God; and of this we have a proof in these words of Josue, when exhorting Achan to confess the truth: My son, give glory to the Lord the God of Israel.

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.

Lawyers And Plaintiffs Must Be Guided By Love Of Justice

Attorneys and counsel, plaintiffs and prosecutors, remain still to be treated of. The two former should not refuse to contribute their services and legal assistance, when the necessities of others call for their aid. They should deal generously with the poor. They should not defend an unjust cause, prolong lawsuits by trickery, nor encourage them for the sake of gain. As to remuneration for their services and labours, let them be guided by the principles of justice and of equity.

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:

All Must Speak Truthfully And With Charity

To all conscientious persons is addressed the divine command that in all their intercourse with society, in every conversation, they should speak the truth at all times from the sincerity of their hearts; that they should utter nothing injurious to the reputation of another, not even of those by whom they know they have been injured and persecuted. For they should always remember that between them and others there exists such a close social bond that they are all members of the same body.

Inducements To Truthfulness

In order that the faithful may be more disposed to avoid the vice of lying, the pastor should place before them the extreme lowness and disgrace of this sin. In the Sacred Scriptures the devil is called the father of lies; for as, he stood not in the truth, he is a liar and the father thereof.

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.

How To Avoid Lying

The pastor should also teach that loquacity is to be avoided. By avoiding loquacity other evils will be obviated, and a great preventive opposed to lying, from which loquacious persons can scarcely abstain.

Excuses for Lying Refuted

The Plea Of Prudence

There are those who seek to justify their duplicity either by the unimportance of what they say, or by the example of the worldly wise who, they claim, lie at the proper time. The pastor should correct such erroneous ideas by answering what is most true, namely, that the wisdom of the flesh is death. He should exhort his listeners in all their difficulties and dangers to trust in God, not in the artifice of lying; for those who have recourse to subterfuge, plainly show that they trust more to their own prudence than to the providence of God.

The Plea Of Revenge

Those who lay the blame of their own falsehood on others, who first deceived them by lies, are to be taught the unlawfulness of avenging their own wrongs, and that evil is not to be rendered for evil, but rather that evil is to be overcome by good. Even if it were lawful to return evil for evil, it would not be to­ our interest to harm ourselves in order to get revenge. The man who seeks revenge by uttering falsehood inflicts very serious injury on himself.

The Pleas Of Frailty, Habit, And Bad. Example

Those who plead human frailty are to be taught that it is a duty of religion to implore the divine assistance, and not to yield to human infirmity.

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.

The Pleas Of Convenience, Amusement, And Advantage

With regard to those who defend their conduct by saying that to speak the truth is often attended with inconvenience, priests should answer that (such an excuse) is an accusation, not a defence, since it is the duty of a Christian to suffer any inconvenience rather than utter a falsehood.

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.