Do Not Bear False Witness
By Father Kenneth Wasilewski
In the last column, we began looking at the Eighth Commandment and the relationship we’re to have with the truth, and by extension, to God Himself. 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies several ways we might commit an offense against the truth. One such way is contained in the traditional wording itself: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” 
The phrase, “bear false witness,” is specifically concerned about public statements we make about others. It implies a setting, such as a courtroom, where someone gives testimony about another person. Nevertheless, it can include any number of similar settings — ones that might exist in the workplace, at school, or even in social media. 
While the specific setting is important to consider, the general principle applies regardless. Namely, the things we choose to speak about others in a public forum (or whenever our words are likely to become public) must be as truthful as possible. 
The implication of this phrase is that the testimony given will have a direct impact on the life, reputation or well-being of the individual spoken about. In a courtroom setting, this may impact the verdict rendered. In other settings, it may impact not a legal consequence, but rather a social one. 
Either way, what we say about another person can have serious consequences. Thus, speaking truthfully becomes a matter of justice toward those involved. 
Speaking falsely, on the other hand, can easily become a grave offense. The specifics of the testimony, the catechism reminds us, can create an even more egregious wrong in some instances. For example, if the testimony given is under oath, then any falsehood intentionally spoken becomes perjury. Perjury, even in a secular setting, is seen as such a serious wrong as to constitute a crime in and of itself. 
But apart from any criminal consequences, morally speaking, it is an extremely serious sin since it not only has the potential to harm another person unjustly, but to do it under the sworn pretext of speaking truth in the name of truth itself. 
The catechism also points out some practical consequences “bearing false witness” creates (CCC 2476). For instance, it can contribute to either condemning the innocent or exonerating the guilty. Furthermore, it undermines the basic justice upon which a society depends for its proper functioning. In so doing, it moves society further away from right order and the common good. 
There is also another, far more subtle, implication of the phrase “bear false witness” that we might easily overlook. This is the fact that we have some legitimate reason to be offering our witness in the first place. 
Clearly, in a court setting, someone may be specifically asked to offer testimony. In other settings too, there would presumably be a legitimate reason why someone offers testimony — apart from simply wanting to talk about another person or sharing unnecessary or unsought information. Other moral issues might well be involved when information is shared without good cause. (Some of these will be looked at in future columns.) 
In all of this, we might do well to call to mind a few words spoken by Jesus. In His Sermon on the Mount, He speaks about avoiding taking oaths. In Matthew 5:37 He instructs His disciples, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” 
The last few words can seem like He’s saying that oaths themselves are from the evil one. Rather, many Catholic theologians would interpret that to mean that the need to take oaths in the first place is symptomatic of the human propensity to speak falsely. Faced with this, Jesus teaches His followers to speak and live so truthfully that oaths are unnecessary. 
Most of us probably have some progress to make in that regard. Nevertheless, the more progress we do make, the easier it becomes to avoid “bearing false witness” in any forum.