The 8th commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness.” However, to avoid falsehood, we need to serve truth. And to serve truth, we need to do the hard work of checking facts, researching the reliability of our sources, following the dictates of logic, and compensating for our own biases. When we don’t do that hard work, we’re much more likely to believe and even repeat falsehood. And that is both slothful and dishonest.
Sins against the 8th commandment, therefore, include not only lying, but also serving falsehood by leading others to wrongly doubt human reason or the existence of objective truth as well as repeating rather than investigating assertions that harm the good name of others.
Thus engaging in or encouraging rash judgment as well as rushing to repeat what we do not know as certain, are sins of omission against the truth. Slander, that is, deliberating lying about someone in order to detract from his natural right to a good reputation, is a sin of commission against the truth. These sins of omission or commission encourage insincerity rather than transparency; distrust over trust.
Besides outright falsehood by omission or commission, even inappropriately sharing truth is sinful. For example, would you not agree that it would be sinful to break confidentiality by blabbing something even though what you repeat is truthful? Complaining also may be sinful if inordinate self-love makes us magnify our injuries or disturbs the common peace. More frequent and more deadly, however are gossip and rumor.
Gossip includes idle talk, but worse is sharing information unnecessarily in private; rumor is to do the same publicly, such as through social media. Both are sinful to the degree that they promote an unfavorable interpretation of the person dished. These common sins of rumor and gossip merit further exploration.
Everybody loves a good story, and an easy way to become the center of attention is to elaborate on a story. Hence, gossip like Velcro, always attracts, but also inevitably exaggerates the original data. And the victim of gossip never has a chance to defend himself or even offer clarification.
Moreover, after you leave a room full of gossips, how do you know they aren’t tattling about you? After all, they’ve already demonstrated their preference to talk about people rather than to them. Gossips create division and distrust by promoting insincerity over transparency.
Others like to show that they’re in the know and, therefore, traffic in rumor. Both rumor and gossip are like invasive species; once released, we have no idea how destructive they might be. Nor is there any way to recall them. Gossip and rumor sow disunity because their vicious cycle of division and suspicion only leads to more separation and polarization, which always weakens trust. Serving the truth in love promotes trust.
And is not trust is a more rare and precious commodity than ever? Why squander even a little with loose lips?
We rightly condemn the falsehood practiced by some bishops that leads us to suspect: Whom we can trust? But do we examine our own conscience to see how we too contribute to falsehood and suspicion? At this point in the history of our country and our Church, direct, honest, frank communication between people is needed not indirect, dishonest, rumor and gossip. Like the bishops, we must all choose to serve either transparency or insincerity.
From seemingly small sins against transparency grows the scandal of insincerity. If we want to live in a community of transparency, honesty, and trust we have to avoid lies, but also any communication which promotes rash judgments, the unfavorable interpretations of others, the detraction from their reputation, the divulging of legitimate confidences, or the ingratitude of complaints. Rather we must promote intellectual honesty, the presumption of innocence and goodwill, the keeping of confidences, and mutual encouragement.
In an age of alternative facts and fake news, we serve Good News when we practice accountability and transparency from an individual examination of conscience to cross-examination in the courtroom. Our church, our government, and our world are all better when we observe all the commandments; but we can’t even know if we are following any commandment without the honesty inherent in the 8th commandment.
Written by Fr. Ken