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Deacon Kyle Eller: A little catechesis on the Eighth Commandment to help us through election season

It’s election season (although isn’t it always nowadays?), and that means our social media are even more full than usual with lies, distortions, falsehoods, half truths, and fake news, intermixed with more worthwhile things.

When we talk about this, often it’s to help build up our own media literacy, learning how to tell the good from the bad.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

As worthwhile as that is, it seems to me there is a still more urgent task: being sure that we’re not sinning ourselves by spreading lies among our family and friends. Going to hell, after all, is a far worse outcome than any election.

In other words, we need to revisit the Eighth Commandment — “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

Living in the truth

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2469). Unfortunately, as truth erodes in our society, I think we’re seeing that claim verified.

For a disciple of Jesus Christ, though, living in the truth and bearing witness to it appropriately are not optional, they are binding obligations. Jesus proclaims himself the way, the truth, and the life, and he promises that the truth will set us free. It is the devil whom he calls “a liar and the father of lies.”

What’s more, even at a purely human level, truthfulness is a matter of justice — of what we really owe to other people.

There can be no doubt the world is pushing hard against this virtue of truthfulness. Every election is billed as the “most important election ever,” and in contrast to Christian belief, many of our contemporaries believe good ends justify any means, so if fudging the truth is the way to beat back what they perceive as the forces of darkness, of course that’s just what they’ll do.

This is how your social media feed came to be so full of garbage.

Offenses against the truth

Our call is to be people of the truth, which among other things means avoiding every form of bearing false witness. This goes well beyond simply avoiding the most obvious lies.

For instance there are the sins that are contrary to respect for people’s reputations, like rash judgment, detraction, and calumny (CCC 2477). Thus even if we truly know another person’s failing, we still don’t get to spread it around without a serious reason — that’s detraction. Or if someone tells us something awful, even about someone we treat as an enemy, we must not even silently believe it’s true until we have a sufficient foundation for that. This is rash judgment.

And if even those things are sins, how much more is calumny, where one spreads some falsehood that damages someone’s reputation — a powerful temptation in a climate where one of the common paths for electoral victory is damaging an opponent’s reputation.

We might ask ourselves how often we have done that — passed on some commentary or article with an accusation against someone that we haven’t really researched ourselves or that we even later found out to be false, or played up some apparently damning quote we know deep down was taken out of context.

And if we have done so, we might consider whether we have confessed that sin and done our best to fix our error by trying to restore the reputation of the person we’ve damaged. Because there really is a duty of reparation in these matters (CCC 2487).

For instance, if I calumniate a politician I dislike on Facebook, guess where I should go to apologize and try to restore his reputation? Same place, in just as public a way. If that sounds like a distasteful task, consider that an excellent reason that you should never share anything that damages anyone’s reputation without being morally certain it’s true and that you have a serious reason to share it.

There are even times saying something “nice” is an offense against the truth. If some politician I favor is engaged in some wrongdoing, and by flattery or adulation I affirm that perverse conduct, I have also sinned against the truth (CCC 2480). We all unfortunately face choices at the ballot box where all the candidates may take positions in serious contradiction to sound morality. I think that presents for us one of our most daunting challenges in living in the truth — how to speak and act in such a way that we do not encourage the evil things the “lesser evil” we may have decided to support stands for.

To the extent we speak to others about politics, all of us take on the responsibility to do so in a truthful way. To the extent we do so more publicly, in places like social media, we even begin to take on some of the responsibilities we would normally associate with journalists. (And it’s no excuse for us that many journalists seem to have abdicated these responsibilities too lately.)

So we should worry about getting suckered by fake news and false information. But far more than that, we should worry about being spreaders of the contagion. Just don’t. Before you even believe something awful — let alone share it with others — verify it, putting the best construction you can on the other person’s words and actions (CCC 2478). If in doubt, don’t post.

If it’s gossip and garbage, as so much of it is, stop it in its tracks.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].