Do Not Bear False Witness
By Father Kenneth Wasilewski
In the last column, I discussed how issues of reputation can fall under the Eighth Commandment. Specifically, I looked at the issue of rash judgment. 
As I mentioned at that time, in the same section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church two other possible offenses dealing with the Eighth Commandment and reputation are also discussed (CCC 2477). These were detraction and calumny. 
Detraction is when someone discloses another person’s faults to someone who didn’t know them. These faults may be either past ones or current ones. This is not to say that the faults or failures which are disclosed are not real, just that they’re disclosed inappropriately. 
Certainly, there can be times when we might have a responsibility to make known someone else’s faults or failures if we’re aware of them. This might be necessary to protect people or to put an end to wrong behavior or even to assist in the pursuit of justice. 
There can be any number of reasons why it would be entirely appropriate to do so. But what separates these cases from the sin of detraction is simply the fact that there is an objectively valid reason for making them known. 
Typically, with detraction, the revelation of someone’s fault is done in order to hurt them — to make them look bad or embarrass them or in an attempt to influence other people’s opinions about them in a negative way. This offense might also be called other things, such as muckraking or digging up dirt. Whatever it’s called, it can obviously have a very profound effect on a person’s reputation. 
One of the particular challenges about this offense is simply the fact that the revealed fault may be entirely true. Because of this, the offender can sometimes feel justified in making it known. In a sense, they may say to themselves, “I was just telling the truth about this person.” 
Clearly, speaking truthfully about another person isn’t bad in and of itself. However, when it is done with the aim of harming another person then we have an evil intention being acted upon. Sometimes too, there may be a mixture of truth and embellishment. Someone might make known an actual fault but with a degree of “interpretation” — perhaps adding or subtracting details in the process. 
Part of what can make detraction particularly damaging is the fact that we often change as human beings. A mistake I made years ago doesn’t define me today — at least it doesn’t have to — nor should it if I’ve repented or made amends for it. Detraction often tries to paint a portrait of the person using the colors of their past mistakes rather than one from the fresh palate of who they’ve since become. 
This is why it is an example of “bearing false witness” — it gives witness to certain negative choices or events which can overshadow the whole truth of who a person actually is. 
The other sin mentioned by the catechism is calumny. Calumny can look very similar to detraction since both are about speaking ill of another person. However, with calumny the “faults” or “failures” of the person are not true. 
Sometimes they’re simply made up. Sometimes they’re believed to be true or are presented as the truth but the person discussing them has no way of knowing if they actually are true. 
Calumny often happens when someone spreads rumors about someone else. It can also easily coincide with rash judgment. Whereas with detraction there is at least a basis of truth to the words spoken about someone (albeit inappropriately), with calumny the claims are falsehoods aimed at harming someone. Given this, it is easy to see why it’s an example of “bearing false witness.” 
Sadly, victims of detraction and calumny may never fully enjoy a reputation commensurate with their true character, making these offenses particularly harmful in some cases and violations of charity and justice in every case.