The eighth commandment is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” as formulated in Exodus 20:16. Given that we may not be accustomed to the term “bear false witness,” it is important to delve into this commandment that pertains to truth and truthfulness at all its levels.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs on this 8th commandment speak at length on the reality of truth itself, acknowledging that in our human nature we are oriented toward truth – even before we are aware of religion – as God Himself is Truth and by revealing Himself He shows us the Truth that we are then invited to receive and subsequently live. Likewise, (and quoting from St. Thomas Aquinas), the Catechism expresses that our lives would not be livable in relationship with others were there no confidence in truthfulness. Such statements both express the necessity of truth (contrary to those who self-contradict with such sayings as “there is no absolute truth”) and the beauty of the truth: that our capacity to live human life to the full is through and in truth – as God Himself is Truth, and it is in His image that we have been created.
As those made for truth, remember that “truth” is not equal to “facts.” In the Catechism, paragraph 2469 expresses that to be true includes both honesty and discretion, seeking to be just without unfairly doing harm to others. A simple example of the balance of honesty and discretion is that each of us is owed proper privacy, lest our name/reputation be harmed by unwarranted sharing of “facts” – for it is not just nor loving to share anything about another person that is not meant as public information (whether good or bad), even if it is true.
This balance of honesty and discretion is a good lead for identifying breaches of this commandment. Clearly any lie (even so called “white lies”), breaking oaths, or disclosing private information all are contrary to this commandment. As this commandment pertains to loving neighbor as self, it is important that we heed the Catechism’s words regarding respecting the name and reputation of others, minding how these offenses are all prevalent within the larger realm of gossip: rash judgment (assuming fault of another without foundation); detraction (sharing another person’s faults with others who did not know them); and calumny (false statements about another). Furthermore, the Catechism expresses how boasting, flattery, or any type of encouraging of another to commit or continue in a way of sinful living are also offenses against truth.
Finally, while the Catechism goes further to express teaching on the realm of social communications and media, along with truth in the context of sacred beauty and art, for our purposes might we consider the following from paragraph 2487 regarding any word that harms another: “Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven.” Said plainly: justice requires that any sins against what is true, and especially those against the good name of another are to be repaired, either openly or in private if such reparation is not possible in public. Please take this truth to heart the next time you feel inclined to speak ill of a neighbor: that if such harmful speech is carried out, it will require repairing of the damage done – including correcting the record with any who may have heard the initial harming words.
Jesus has said “the Truth will make you free” (John 8:32). May we all grow in love for Truth – as to love Truth is to love He that is the Truth: our Lord Jesus Christ.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2464 – 2513 offer teaching on the many layers of this commandment concerned with truth.