In both versions of the Decalogue, the wording of the Eighth Commandment is the same: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20).
Throughout the Old Testament, the full meaning of this commandment includes both the prohibition against telling a lie and the precept of telling the truth. Thus, Lips that tell the truth abide firm forever; the tongue that lies lasts only for a moment. Lips that lie are abhorrent to Yahweh; dear to Him those who speak the truth (Proverbs 12:19, 19:22).
The Incarnation gave new depth to the Mosaic Law. Since Christ is Truth incarnate, He revealed truths that had never been known before. He also commanded His followers to proclaim these truths to the whole world until the end of time.
Obligation to Tell the Truth
Truth is the agreement of mind with reality. When what is in my mind agrees with what is outside my mind, I have the truth. Thus the existence of God is real. He really exists. When my mind knows this, I possess the truth. Again, there is a real earth of land and sea. When my mind knows this, I possess the truth. And so on regarding everything in existence. If what is on my mind inside of me corresponds to any reality outside of me, I have the truth. This kind of truth is called logical (Greek logos = mind) or mental truth.
There is another kind of truth called moral truth. This is the agreement of my speech, or what I say, with what is on my mind. So when I know something and I tell someone else what I know, I am telling the truth. However, if what I say disagrees with what I know, I am not telling the truth. And if I deliberately contradict in words what is on my mind, I am telling a lie. The simplest definition of a lie, therefore, is speech contrary to the mind.
We are forbidden by the natural and revealed law of God to speak, write, or in any other way communicate to others what is contrary to what we have in mind.
Consequently a lie is evil of its very nature. It can never be justified, for several reasons:
The divinely given power of speech is to enable us to share our thoughts with others, and they with us. To lie is to use the faculty of communication contrary to its divinely intended purpose.
The natural function of human conversation is to share. When others speak to us, we assume they are telling the truth. When we speak to others, they assume the same of us.
If the person who listens is not told the truth, he or she is being deceived. It is a sin of injustice to tell a lie. Everyone has a right to hear the truth whenever anyone speaks. We may not want to say anything, and our silence may be justified. But if we speak, we must tell the truth.
Every lie is an injury to the one lying. He is damaged in his own personal integrity, and he loses the respect of others, once they find out he did not tell the truth.
Human society is built on the mutual trust between people. Lying breaks down this mutual trust and weakens the bond of unity. This bond of unity is the truth possessed by each individual person and shared among those who belong to the human race.
We can only love what we know and whom we know. How can we know others, to love them, unless they reveal themselves in the deepest part of their being which is their mind? And how can others know us, unless we reveal ourselves by telling the truth?
A secret is the knowledge of something that may not be made known to others, or may be shared in confidence with only a few. Keeping secrets is part of human existence in society and has been recognized since the dawn of recorded history.
A natural secret must be observed by reason of the natural law. Thus, if the disclosure of something known would do harm or displease another, it should not be disclosed. A good general rule is that if there are things about myself that I would not want others to know, I should keep them secret from another person. Past sins committed, weaknesses of character, embarrassing information about someones family, humiliating mistakes made, illegitimacy, unpaid debts, past history of expulsion from school are examples of natural secrets. Depending on the seriousness of the matter, natural secrets may bind under mortal sin.
A promised secret is one that a person agrees to keep after some confidential knowledge has been received. It is assumed that there is no opportunity beforehand to decline receiving some secret information. Promised secrets normally oblige under venial sin.
An entrusted secret is obtained only on condition that the confidence will be kept; otherwise the information would not have been given. The promise in an entrusted secret may be explicit when I am formally asked beforehand to keep something confidential, and I agree. Or the promise may be implicit, as in the case of professional persons, like lawyers, physicians, counselors, religious superiors, or civil officials; they receive information from people who assume that their confidences will not be betrayed. It is not permitted to reveal secret knowledge unless there is a grave reason. Such would be serious harm to the one who has the secret knowledge, or to the person about whom something confidential is known, or to a third person, or to society in general. Entrusted or professional secrets are the most sacred, outside the seal of confession.
The seal of confession may never be broken under any circumstances. What is heard in confession binds the confessor absolutely. It also binds anyone who discovers what is confessed, unless it is freely reveled by the penitent outside of confession.
Canon Law has several provisions covering the seal of confession.
The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion
An interpreter, if there is one, is also obliged to observe this secret, as are all others who in any way whatever have come to a knowledge of sins from confession (Canon 983).
The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded
A person who is in authority may not in any way, for the purpose of external governance, use knowledge about sins which has at any time come to him from the hearing of confession (Canon 984).
The penalty for directly violating the seal of confession by identifying penitent and sin confessed, is an automatic excommunication. Only the Holy See can remove the excommunication (Canon 1388).
We may never tell a lie. But we are also obliged to keep secrets. How to resolve the dilemma? An approved way is by what is called mental reservation.
A legitimate mental reservation is to reserve in ones mind the real meaning of what is said, but allow the listener a reasonable clue that such reservation is being made. If a prudent person can gather the intended meaning from the circumstances, then it is a broad mental reservation. Broad mental reservations are not only permissible but may be obligatory.
A strict mental reservation provides no reasonable clue to the real meaning of what is said. Actually strict mental reservations are lies.
Defamation of Character
Good esteem is the opinion which people have about someones excellence. We all naturally want to be well thought of by others, and others want to be well thought of by us.
Defamation is the injury by word or actions done to a persons reputation or good esteem. There are, in general, two forms of defamation, namely, detraction and calumny. Both are sinful and gravely wrong when serious injury is done to a persons reputation.
In detraction, what is said about another person is true, but there was no real need to make the disclosure that harms the persons good name. Detraction becomes slander when done maliciously.
In calumny, what defames anothers reputation is not true. Calumny is therefore sinful both as lying and as an act of injustice to someone, because of the undeserved harm done to the persons esteem in the minds of others.
The New Testament has some strong language about judging other people. Be compassionate about judging other people, Christ tells us, as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge and you will not be judged yourselves (Luke 6:36-37).
Because this is so practically important, it should be carefully explained. We must immediately distinguish two kinds of judgments we can make about people. We can judge the morality of the actions, and we can judge the morality of the persons.
We have to judge whether a given action is objectively good or bad. If I see someone stealing or hear someone cursing, or know that someone is unfaithful to his or her married spouse, I spontaneously and justifiably recognize that such conduct is morally wrong.
But when I move from the external action to a persons internal responsibility for the action, I must pause. I may not make a rash judgment. A rash judgment would be made if I concluded, without strong evidence, that the person is guilty for doing something wrong. Finally, only God can read the human heart. Only He knows for certain whether and how culpable people are when they commit what is objectively sinful.
The rise of the modern media print, film, radio, recording, television, and computer have created moral issues that are deeply affecting the whole human race.
First we must state the basic principle: Only the truth may be communicated by the media. Therefore the first duty of those who use the media is to tell the truth. Lying is sinful whether done by one person to another, or done through the media that reach millions of readers, viewers, or listeners.
Consequently the main condition for the right use of the media is that those who control the media are willing to follow sound moral principles.
These principles begin with the obvious one of telling the truth. But there are other norms besides:
The media must be concerned to advance the common good of society and not only of some aggressive special interest group.
The ideas and information communicated must be within the limits of justice and charity.
There should be a wise balance between what is true, useful, and also personally appealing.
Among the areas that constantly reflect the Eighth Commandment is the field of advertising. The purpose of advertising is to sell or promote what is being advertised. Advertising is not only beneficial but necessary in the modern world. But it must be controlled by certain moral norms. Among these are especially the use of morally good means and the promotion of morally good products, services, or personalities.
One postconciliar statement of the Holy See brings out the gravity of the moral issues involved: People can get the impression that the instruments of communication exist solely to stimulate mans appetites so that these can be satisfied later by the acquisition of the thing advertised (Communio et progressio, 59).
The Catholic Churchs right to use the modern media for proclaiming the true faith and sound morality rests on the mandate she has received from her Founder. That is why the Second Vatican Council did not hesitate to declare: It is the Churchs birthright to use and own any of these media for the formation of Christians and for pastoral activity (Decree on the Means of Social Communication, 3).
The Catholic Church believes that Christ entrusted to her the fullness of divine revelation. She therefore realizes that the use of the media for evangelization and religious instruction is not an option but a serious moral obligation.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism