Taken from THE CATECHISM EXPLAINED
Written by Fr. Francis Spirago; Edited by Fr. Richard Clarke, SJ
with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, New York, 1927
SECTION B: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT OF GOD
2. THE COMMAND AGAINST UNTRUTHFULNESS
God is truth itself; consequently He forbids every kind of falsehood, especially lying, hypocrisy, and flattery.
God is true (John iii. 33). It is impossible for God to lie (Heb. vi. 18). Our Lord says: "I am the way and the truth and the life" (John xiv. 6). Hence God commands: "You shall not lie" (Lev. xix. 11). "Putting away lying, speak ye the truth every man to his neighbor" (Eph. iv. 25). Let your conversation be upright and truthful, if you would show yourselves to be the children of Him Who is the Father of truth and truth itself.
1. He is guilty of lying who says what is not true with the intention of deceiving others.
Lying is a misuse of speech. Speech was not given to man in order that he might deceive others, but as a means whereby he might communicate to them his thoughts. The conditions under which lies are commonly told are these: Under stress of circumstances, to avert some evil from one's self or from others, as when St. Peter in the outer court of the high priest's palace said: "I know not the man" (Matt. xxvi. 72); in jest, to amuse others; or for the sake of injuring some one. as Jacob did when he deceived his father in order to obtain his paternal benediction (Gen. xxvii.). But to relate a fictitious narrative, or make use of a fable for the instruction of others is no untruth, for it is done without an intention to deceive. Our Lord Himself employed parables in teaching. A liar is like counterfeit coin, which appears to be what it is not.
2. Hypocrisy or dissimulation is acting a lie; we commit this sin when we speak or act differently to what we think and feel.
Judas kissed Our Lord in the Garden of Olives, as if he were His greatest friend, but he only did so to betray Him (Matt. xxvi, 49). King Herod said to the three kings: "When you have found the Child bring me word again, that I also may come and adore Him" (Matt. ii. 8). But he thought in his heart that when he knew where the Child was, he would have Him put to death. Those are hypocrites who make an outward profession of piety while in reality their lives are far from irreproachable. They are like Satan, who can assume the form of an Angel of light. To feign sanctity in this manner is worse than to sin openly. Some appear very devout in church, they cross themselves and smite their breasts, but all the while their thoughts are far away; they are dissemblers. The hypocrite is like a dunghill covered with snow, which hides what it really is. Our Lord compared such men to whited sepulchres, outwardly beautiful, but within full of foulness and dead men's bones (Matt. xxiii. 27); also to wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt. vii: 15).
3. Flattery consists in praising another immoderately to his face, against one's own conviction for the sake of advantage.
King Herod Agrippa was highly gratified by the flattery of the Tyrians and Sidonians, when they exclaimed; on hearing his oration: "It is the voice of a god and not of a man." But the Angel of the Lord forthwith struck him, and he was eaten by worms (Acts xii. 22, 23). Flatterers speak contrary to their conviction; they deride a man behind his back while they praise him to his face. The flatterer only seeks his own advantage. He is like the cat which purrs, and the dog which fawns on his master to get a piece of meat. Crafty people cringe to others if they think anything can be gained. Flatterers frequent the presence of the rich, for from the poor they get nothing; they are like the locusts which do not come in the winter, or where the land is barren, but they alight in cultivated places, where there is plenty for them to devour. Flatterers praise immoderately, i.e., they ascribe excellences to a man which he does not possess, or they exaggerate his good qualities and palliate his misdeeds. They are dangerous acquaintances, because they hide a man's faults, instead of endeavoring, as a true friend would, to correct them. It is a matter of indifference to them whether they do harm or good, if they only get themselves into favor; they are like a cook who cares not whether the dishes he prepares are wholesome or the contrary, so long as they are tasty and please the palate. Flattery feeds sin as oil feeds a flame; it is a nursery of vice. Isaias exclaims, addressing flatterers: "Woe to you that call evil good and good evil" (Is. v. 20). Let us therefore be on our guard, if anyone appears unusually complaisant and begins to praise us. Our Blessed Lady was troubled at the salutation of the Angel.
What are the Reasons that should make us Refrain from Untruthfulness?
1. The liar is like the devil and displeasing to God.
He who forfeits the confidence of his fellow-men causes a great deal of harm and is capable of committing all manner of evil deeds.
The liar resembles the devil, for the devil is a liar and the father thereof (John viii. 44). Remember how the serpent in Paradise lied to Eve. Liars are children of the devil, not by nature, but by imitation. The liar is displeasing to God. God is truth itself, and therefore He abhors the liar. Our Lord did not speak as sharply of any one as of the Pharisees. And why? Because they were hypocrites (Matt. xxiii. 27). From every class of sinners He gave an example of one who was saved; e.g., Zacheus among usurers, the good thief among highwaymen, Magdalen and the Samaritan at Jacob's well among profligate women, Saul among persecutors of the Church, but not one single individual among liars and hypocrites did He mention as having sought and found pardon. Many a time God punished liars severely; witness Ananias and his wife Saphira, who for their falsehood fell dead at St. Peter's feet (Acts v.) and Giezi, the servant of Eliseus, who was struck with leprosy for his lies and avarice (4 Kings v.). "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord" (Prov. xii. 22). The liar forfeits the trust of his fellow-men. The shepherd who cried "Wolf" when no wolf was near, found he was not believed when his flock was really attacked; his comrades had been so often deceived that they did not heed his cries. A liar is not trusted when he speaks the truth; he is hated by God and man. Liars often do a great deal of harm. The spies who went to view the Promised Land deceived the Israelites by their false report, and alarmed them so that they blasphemed God, wanted to stone the two spies who spoke the truth, and clamored to return to Egypt. See what mischief those men wrought: God declared His intention to destroy the people (Numb. xiii.). Jacob deceived his father and obtained his blessing fraudulently; his brother Esau threatened to kill him and Jacob was obliged to take to flight. "He that hath no guard on his speech shall meet with evils" (Prov. xiii. 3). The liar falls into many other sins. "Show me a liar and I will show you a
'thief." Where you find hypocrisy, you find cheating and all manner of evil practices. A liar cannot possibly be God-fearing. The Holy Spirit will flee from the deceitful (Wisd. i. 5). All the piety and devotion of one whose words serve to conceal, not to express his thoughts, is a mere sham; do not associate with such a one, lest he corrupt you with his ungodly ways. "Lying men are without honor" (Ecclus. xx. 28). "The just shall hate a lying word" (Prov. xiii. 5).
2. The pernicious habit of lying leads a man into mortal sin and to eternal perdition.
Lying is in itself a venial sin; but it can easily become a mortal sin if it is the means of doing great harm, or causing great scandal. He who indulges the habit of lying runs no small risk of losing his soul, for God withdraws His grace from those who deceive their neighbor. "The mouth that belieth killeth the soul" (Wisd. i. 11). A thief is not so bad as a liar, for the thief can give back what he has stolen, whereas the liar cannot restore his neighbor's good name, of which he has robbed him. "A thief is better than a man that is always lying; but both of them shall inherit destruction" (Ecclus. xx. 27). A lie is a foul blot in a man (v. 26). The soul of: the liar is like a counterfeit coin, stamped with the devil's effigy; when at the Last Day, the Judge shall ask: "Whose image is this?" the answer will be "the devil's; " and He will then say: "Render unto the devil the things that are his" (St. Thomas Aquinas). The Lord will destroy all that speak a lie (Ps. v. 7). Liars shall have their portion in the lake burning with fire (Apoc. xxi. 8). Our Lord uttered a terrible denunciation of the Pharisees because of their hypocrisy (Matt. xxiii. 13).
Lying is consequently forbidden, even if it may be the means of effecting much good.
St. Augustine says it is just as wrong to tell a lie for your neighbor's advantage as to steal for the good of the poor. Not even to save one's own life or the life of another, is a falsehood justifiable. St. Anthimus, Bishop of Nicomedia, would not allow the soldiers who were sent to arrest him, and who were enjoying his hospitality, to save him by a lie; he preferred to suffer Martyrdom. We must not do evil that there may come good (Rom. iii. 8). The end does not justify the means. The enemies of the Jesuits allege that they teach and act upon the principle that the end justifies the means, but this has never been proved against them. It was the philosopher Voltaire who proclaimed that doctrine, for he said: "Lying is only reprehensible when it causes mischief; it is a virtue when it is a means of effecting good."
A falsehood told in jest is not wrong if everyone can see at once that it is not meant in earnest.
If anyone says: "How delightfully mild it is today!" when the cold is exceptionally severe, no one will call this a sin. But if a foolish joke produces lamentable results, the case is different. A gentleman once told a peasant who was at a distance from home, that he had heard his cottage and half the village where he lived was burned down; he only meant to make an "April fool" of him, but the poor man took the news so much to heart that he fell down dead. As a rule it may be said that every lie, however trifling it may appear, injures either ourselves or our neighbor, for it is a departure from truth and uprightness; there is always a certain duplicity about it, even if it be only a joke. Let your speech be truthful and honest, as becomes children of Him Who is truth itself.
It is, however, lawful to give an evasive answer to one who causes us embarrassment by asking a question he has no right to ask.
We are under no obligation to answer a question which another has no right to ask. We may return an evasive or an ambiguous reply, or refuse to give any at all. St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was concealed in a vessel on the Nile, when the soldiers of the Emperor Julian overtook and stopped it. On their inquiring where Athanasius was, his servant replied: "He is not gone far, if you make haste you will soon take him." The soldiers went onward on their quest, and the bishop escaped. The Archangel Raphael himself told Tobias that he was Azarias, the son of a distinguished Jew, whose form he had assumed (Tob. v. 18), because, had he revealed his true nature, he could not have fulfilled the commission entrusted to him by God. If an impertinent person presumes to ask a professional secret of us, we make reply unceremoniously "I do not know," i.e., "it is not mine to tell." In this sense Our Lord stated that He did not know when the Day of Judgment would be (Mark xiii. 32). If anyone whom we cannot trust wants to borrow money of us, we are justified in saying: "I have not any," that is, "to lend you." Again we may return an evasive answer if someone in authority, in the absence of proof, tries to force a confession of guilt from us, for no man is obliged to incriminate himself. In many cases we should refuse to give an answer. St. Firmus, Bishop of Tagasta, concealed in his house two young men, whom the emperor had unjustly condemned to death. The officers of justice came to the bishop, and demanded to be told where the young men were hidden. The prelate refused to answer; he was put to torture, but this availed nothing: "I can die," he said, "but I cannot make others miserable." The emperor hearing of his heroic conduct, pardoned the young men. Our Lord did not answer all the questions Pilate put to Him. It will be understood that ambiguous replies must only be given when considerations of the glory of God, the good of our neighbor, or the exigencies of our own position renders them necessary. When our neighbor has a right to the truth, we must answer simply and openly, in buying and selling, for instance, or drawing up an agreement. It would be grossly unjust if persons about to marry were to deceive one another by equivocating about money matters and other things.
3. Whoso is really upright is like almighty God, is pleasing in His sight, and is esteemed by his fellow-men.
Christ says: "I am the truth" (John xiv. 6). Therefore the lover of truth is like unto Him. The lover of truth is well pleasing to God. Our Lord said in praise of Nathanael that he was: "An Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile" (John i. 47). The lover of truth is esteemed by his fellow-men. On one occasion when Caesar Augustus was making a triumphal entry into Rome, he happened to hear that among the captives there was a heathen priest, who had never been convicted of a lie. Immediately he ordered him to be liberated. St. John Cantius was once stopped by robbers who, after taking his purse, asked if he had any more money about him. The Saint replied that he had not. After he had gone a few steps on his way, he remembered that he had some pieces of gold sewn up in his clothes; he hastened after the robbers and gave them to them. The thieves were so astonished that they restored all that they had taken from him. See how highly pagans and robbers esteem truthfulness! Thus it is always best to acknowledge one's fault freely, for thereby one obtains forgiveness, or at least a mitigation of the punishment due to it. It is said that Washington, when a boy, hacked with a chopper a beautiful cherry tree which his father greatly prized. His father was extremely angry when he saw what was done, and asked the boy if he was the culprit. He replied: "Yes, father. I will not tell a lie. I did it." This candor pleased his father so much that he did not punish the boy. We may, perhaps, sometimes have to suffer through speaking the truth, but the suffering is far outweighed by the approval of a good conscience. "He that walketh sincerely, walketh confidently" (Prov. x. 9). Our Lord exhorts us to be simple as doves (Matt. x. 16). Guile is not half so profitable as simplicity. It is therefore our wisest course to be candid and truthful.