Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. – Exodus 20:16
The eighth commandment, against lying, is fundamental to Christian morality, even though it, along with the commandment against using the Lord’s name in vain, is often overlooked. Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6), and as St. Paul said, “God is true; and every man is a liar, as it is written, That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and mayest overcome when thou art judged” (Rm. 3:4). If God is truth, then we must seek the truth in order to seek God, and in finding God we find the truth. Therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy” (CCC 2468).
There are many offenses against the truth. The Church defines lying as speaking a falsehood with the intention to deceive (CCC 2482). We might lie to get ourselves out of trouble, to benefit ourselves, to harm or to help someone else, to prevent an awkward situation, or to spare someone’s feelings. There are several particular sins that fall under lying or deceit. Perjury is a particularly grave offense against the truth because it is lying under oath and interferes with the exercise of justice in society. Detraction and calumny are lying about someone to damage or destroy their reputation, which is an offense against the dignity of the person. However, flattering someone falsely is also a form of lying, and it is especially grave when it is done to temp someone to sin. Boasting or bragging about oneself can be another form of lying, as can caricature, when they are done with the intention to deceive.
There are other ways to deceive someone other than speaking a falsehood; we can also act to deceive someone, and this could also be considered lying. Lying is at least a venial sin, but it can become more grave, even a mortal sin, when it undermines justice and charity. Lying to save someone’s feelings is a sin, but it isn’t as serious as lying to cause harm to someone else. The purpose of speech and of language is to communicate truth, so lying is a misuse of speech and is disordered, it “does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgement and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart he fabric of social relationships” (CCC 2486).
Those who struggle with lying and dishonesty can work to grow in the virtue of truthfulness. They ought to pray, even daily, and ask God for help in growing in that virtue. They can also consider the harmful effects of lying, which can motivate them to tell the truth. They can also consider that lying makes the entire spiritual life more difficult, because it separates us from God Himself, who is Truth, it harms our neighbor, and it covers up other sins, making it more difficult to avoid them. God, in His mercy, wants all of us to know the truth of His mercy. Through confession and reconciliation we can be forgiven of our sins, including sins of lying, and be strengthened by God’s grace.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.