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The Eighth Commandment and Lying

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation, as we come to the close of the Decalogue, is on the eighth commandment - and specifically on lying. The eighth commandment of the Decalogue in the Old Testament is worded almost identically in Exodus and Deuteronomy, in both of which books we have the text of the Decalogue. It says: “You shall not be a false witness against your neighbor.” As it stands, this commandment certainly forbids telling the untruth against another person. The implied assumption is that people do not tell lies about themselves. The human tendency is to tell lies about someone else. I repeat; this is the Old Testament focus.

In the Old Testament, therefore, the stress is not telling the truth about someone, especially in court.

Thus perjury against one’s neighbor stands out in Old Testament morality and the concentration in the old law is on the prohibition of lying against another person. Even more specifically in testifying falsely against someone else.

Just two passages out of many in the Old Testament from Ecclesiastics: “Lying is an ugly blot on a man and ever on the lips of the ignorant. How faith is preferable to an inveterate liar but both are heading for ruin. Lying is an abominable habit so that disgrace is the liars forever.”

And in Proverbs: “Lying lips are an abhorrent to Yahweh. Dear to Him is one who speaks the truth.”

Our concentration in this meditation will be on lying. By way of anticipation, we will not dwell on this now.

Christ did not change the Old Testament prohibition on lying. However the focus in the New Testament in contrast with the Old is not only, though also, that lying is forbidden because it is a sin against justice. Rather, as we’ll see at length, Christ’s teaching is that we are to use our powers of communication to tell the truth. And the reason for telling the truth is that we are bound by the law of charity.

We shall speak in this meditation on what I thought deserved one meditation, just on lying. And the reason is because our modern world is so prone to withhold the truth and to tell lies.

Consequently, I will ask just three questions:

  • What is lying?

  • Why do people lie?

  • How are we to avoid this terrible evil of not communicating the truth?

Lying is defined by the Church, the Latin, in three simple (though not so familiar) words. Lying is locucio contra mentem. Lying is: locucio - speech, contra - against, mentem - the mind.

In other words when a person lies, that person knows what is the truth; consciously and deliberately says something that is contrary to the truth.

Let's be clear. Lying is not withholding the truth because, as again we’ll see, we are to keep secrets.

And I believe one of the special gifts of the sacrament of Holy Orders is the grace to keep secrets. You know that lying, properly speaking is that, what is on my mind is not what I communicate to others. This failure or refusal to say what is really on my mind (in other words telling lies) may be done by words that are spoken. That’s the usual understanding of a lie. But lies may also be told by words that are written.

I was in the eighth grade of grammar school. My pastor, Monsignor John Sheffield, came in once a week to teach us Religion - memorable events.

He told us: “I suppose you children think that all the lies are spoken. No, most of the lies (and the most devastating lies) are written.”

I don't know (only God really knows) but I think most of what is published in the United States is a lie. And I don't say that, believe me, casually. Over the years, and I’m sure I’ve told you more than once, the modern philosopher of the media, Marshall McLuhan in a letter that he wrote to my, then, confessor at the University of Ottawa where I was teaching. Fr. Moe showed me a copy of the letter he had just received. One sentence, there are things you never forget: “The modern media are engaged in a Luciferian conspiracy against the Truth.” Amen!

The main reason that I thought we could use one meditation on lying was to show that lying may be done not by spoken or written words but by gestures. The mind says yes.

You shake your head and the most effective lies are, shall I say spoken, by the human face without opening the lips. Surprisingly, lies may be made by silence. Let’s be clear. Lying is not due to ignorance. It’s not that I don't know something and I express myself and I’m wrong. No! I know what the truth is; I know what’s on my mind but I somehow communicate the opposite.

Our next question: Why do people tell lies? You might wonder, why spend a whole meditation on lying? Because we’re living in a world in which it is so hard to know when, whether or who is really telling the truth.

In my younger days, I may have told you on some occasion, I was on the stage, all kinds of plays; most of them were serious and sophisticated dramas. Sometimes they were comedies. One of the comedies was a three act play on nothing but the truth.

I have to say this otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you the truth. I was a hero or the victim of that play. Took a wager; for twenty-four hours to tell nothing but the truth. It was a very clever scenario that lasted almost two hours. I lost the wager.

Oh how clever people can be - what pressure. I don’t mean physical pressure under torture but psychological, emotional pressure that people will place us under. Pull out of us what they want us to tell them. It’s very hard in the modern world, and I mean it, for twenty-four hours to tell nothing but the truth.

So why do people lie? I thought that I’d go down the seven capital sins and just a short comment on each one, which in different ways induces people to tell lies.

Pride: We all want people to think well of us. But we know ourselves that we are not all that much, all that intelligent, all that gifted for people to admire us or think well of us. What lives of untruth people can be living. I don't think that it is too strong to say that some people are living lies.

The pretense, the make-believe, the whole cosmetic industry. I’ve taught for too many years not to know that people ask questions in an exam, and not just written examinations, but for years all examinations of my own beloved fellow Jesuits. You ask them a question. They don’t know the answer. They lack humility to admit that they don’t know. First motive for people telling lies, pride.

Lust: What does lust have to do with lying? The answer is EVERYTHING! Oh! The seduction of the innocent through pretending to love another person and that other person is deceived. The consequences can be disaster. Over the years, especially my five year tenure on a State University campus, having taught over two thousand students what I learned about the young keeping company, anticipating perhaps marriage.

How many of my coed students told me when I asked them, what are you majoring in? They told me they were here to get an M.R.S. degree. At least to me they were honest.

We’re asking ourselves why do people lie. Lust is the motive for so much untruth especially in our modern sophisticated, sex-preoccupied world. I had the privilege of spending several months under the directives of the Holy See analyzing the “Sex Education in the United States.”

In all the public school systems in the country and now in most of the still surviving Catholic schools, sex education of the young is required under the pretense of protecting them from AIDS. Oh what clever lies.

I don’t think I had occasion to tell you that in our last year’s retreat, in the New York public school system, from the first grade all through, homosexuality is taught explicitly, formally to the young. Children who cannot even read have colored pictures showing a little boy going out of the house with his father. Mommy and Daddy just had a divorce so Daddy is walking out with his young son. Next picture, Daddy is living with a friend. They are living together and I like it. The friend is another man. Then a picture - first grade in the New York public school systems - daddy and his friend sleep together.

That's why we’re having a meditation, one meditation on lying. Lust is the father of massive lies. We’re asking why?

Anger: Oh what pretended kindness or friendship people can show toward one another. But down deep inside, they may be seething with hatred, covetousness, and greed. Having been chaplain in a penitentiary for one year, oh what those prisoners taught me. How clever, well not so clever because they landed in jail, but how clever they were. And they would boast about their thievery, and of course they would always disguise. The cheapest form of lying in thievery is to have a mask – that’s amateur lying.

Ingratiate themselves with someone from whom they would want to take money or property. Lying has the fruit of covetousness and greed.

After seventeen years of retreat giving for both men and women’s retreats at our Jesuit Retreat House in Chicago, I have found this to be the standard among many retreatants.

The men who have a business or employees tell me, Father, the hardest thing in business is to get eight hours of honest labor from your employees. And the highest single loss in companies on which they are most heavily taxed by insurance is stealing. And all under the guise of doing business for an employer.

Envy: Envy is a source of more lying than most people realize. What is envy? As we saw, it is that sadness that I feel over someone else having what I lack or succeeding where I have failed.

Again, how friendly, how nice, how cordial a person can be towards someone who he or she deeply envies.

One reason that I’m going through this sequence is because the one person about whom most people know the least on the moral level, is themselves.

How we can mask our envy of other people? Because, remember that we can tell lies, not only to others, we can tell lies to ourselves.

Sloth: I prefer the word laziness. We have words to describe sloth as lying. A busy body. Oh what we cannot do. How many muscles we can move, and in appearances we are not lazy.

We may be the most industrious person, pardon me, in the community. But being busy doing whatever we’re doing is not the same as being and practicing the virtue of industriousness. Over the years, I’ve given too many term papers to too many of my students especially in graduate school. Meet the students once a week, two hour class, and their grade was mainly based on their coming to class and the impression I got from them in class.

Anyone who would fall asleep during class, no matter how smart they were, would not get a good grade. About those term papers, an announcement was made in the first week of class. I get term papers I don’t see in the last hour - seventy-two hours from the end of class to the term paper being turned in express mail. I never got a term paper by fax, not yet. Laziness: We don't want to be considered lazy. So what do we do? Oh! How we can put on being busy, always involved. But the essence of laziness is sloth; unwillingness to do what I am supposed to do.

Over the years I’ve developed a three-ply hierarchy. What is necessary? What is useful? What is pleasant? Human nature, I can prove it, and let me tell you if there is one of these seven capital sins that I can identify with, it is laziness.

So what do we do? All kinds of time on things that we like. Then there are certain things that ought to be done. The useful things and that on which we tend to spend the least time, the least energy and the last thing we do is what is necessary.

A retreat is not a retreat unless we examine our consciences before God. I don’t even apologize about having a whole meditation on lying and specifically on covering up our sloth.

Gluttony: Is it possible to be deceitful and practice gluttony? Yes. Little children may have to climb on a chair to get the cookie jar. Stealing cookies. Oh what deceit people can practice especially in our overfed United States and pretend that they are, I don't say abstemious, but at least pretend not to be over indulgent in food and drink.

In the years of my priesthood, I’ve given a number of retreats to professed, or shall I say confessed, alcoholics. And they tell me (these are the converted alcoholics) Father, the hardest thing for us alcoholics is to admit that we are alcoholics.

To admit that we are overeating in quantity. Oh, it is much more subtle, overeating and practicing gluttony in quality. As I like to tell people, my favorite definition of an affluent society is one in which pastry has replaced bread. Oh the deceit, the deceit motivated by gluttony.

I'm told by those that are in the profession that clothes are now tailored and there are psychologists consulted to direct the tailors to produce clothing for men and clothing for women that will not show their overweight. So far, for why people lie.

All the sinful tendencies of human nature, and the seven capital sins are the seven capital sinful tendencies of fallen human nature, are all the seedbed of lying. I don’t believe that my years in the priesthood I’ve ever given, precisely, this meditation. And the audience to which I’m speaking has nothing to do with my choice of this meditation. And, in saying that, I am not lying.

I am meeting with so many people in a world of pretense and untruth that I thought we should have at least one meditation in Our Lord’s presence on lying.

Very briefly, how do people tell lies? You may be surprised. People tell lies by hiding their deceit. In other words, they pretend to be telling the truth. In other words, how do people lie?

By lying, to hide the fact that they are lying. In my years, first even chronologically, but then my years in the priesthood, when I deal so intimately with so many souls. And, thank God, so many have, as we say come clean before God, admit how they are living, deep down inside. How they see themselves before God.

And there is one strong recommendation I make in this retreat. To ask Our Lord to tell you, “Lord show me where I am not living the truth. Help me,” we should pray, “Dear Lord, first of all to be the person you want me to be, and then, to live the truth. Because, Dear Lord, when You became Man, You our God, You told us, ‘I Am the Truth.’ And if we are to imitate You, that’s the formula for sanctity, there is no more fundamental way in which we are to follow You.

Then like You and through your grace to be what you want us to be and then we are living the truth. Because only those who know the truth, speak the truth and live the truth will reach You, the Incarnate Truth in that Heavenly Eternity which is reserved only for those who have been the truth.” Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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