Did You Know St. Thomas Aquinas Preached A Sermon on Lying?

I didn’t either, until earlier this year when I picked up a copy of The Aquinas Catechism, published by Sophia Institute Press.

Alert! This is a very long post. Just FYI.

I’ve mentioned in past posts how I’ve grown to appreciate the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas. His razor sharp mind, coupled with a humility that is unparalleled, make for quite a package. Known as the Angelic Doctor for the sublimity of his thoughts, he’s also known as the Common Doctor for the fact that “he unified Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and philosophy in a neat synthesis that scholars have studied ever since (source).

In his Foreword to the book above, the late Ralph McInerny reports that St. Thomas preached a series of sermons during Lent in the last year of his life. It was the year 1273, and the great philosopher climbed down from the ivory tower to preach catechetical lessons to the flock,

Delivered in the church of San Domenico in Naples in Thomas’s native Neopolitan dialect (rather than in Latin), the sermons were directed to the simple faithful and had an immediate and profound impact on those who heard them.

We are told by a contemporay Neopolitan (John Coppa) that “almost the whole population of Naples went to hear his sermons everyday. And William of Tocco writes that “he was heard by the people with such reference that is was as if his preaching came forth from God.”

I can only imagine how it was to have sat in the pews. But we can do more than imagine it, as the sermons were written down for us. Since lately the idea that one may be able to “lie for a good cause” is again a topic of discussion, I share St. Thomas’s sermon on the 8th Commandment below.

As great a philosopher as St. Thomas is, his thoughts on lying show that he was above all a master theologian and scripture scholar. All the controversial points on lying are discussed below, both lying for good causes, and for bad. Questions on whether it is a mortal sin, or a venial one, etc.

Hearty appreciation goes to Jimmy Akin for hosting the website where multiple catechisms, including St. Thomas’s, can be found. Jimmy’s site is where I found the text below.

In the Common Doctor’s sermon, I’ve taken the liberty to present it in outline form, much as the Sophia Press book does. I have also freely used bold and italics fonts to help make St. Thomas’s points readily apparent. Most of the end notes are scripture references, which I have noted and supplied a link for. The remaining end notes from the saint’s pen are at the bottom of the sermon, as is a link to Jimmy Akin’s website.

Now I’ll turn the blog over to St. Thomas, and see you with a few concluding thoughts of my own after he steps down from the ambo.

The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas

THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT: “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor.”

Betcha didn’t know I could preach

The Lord has forbidden anyone to injure his neighbor by deed; now he forbids us to injure him by word. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

A. Ways of bearing false witness

This may occur in two ways, either in a court of justice[1] or in ordinary conversation.

1. In the Courts of Justice

In the court of justice it may happen in three ways, according to the three persons who may violate this Commandment in court.[2]

a. The first person is the plaintiff who makes a false accusation: “Thou shalt not be a detractor nor a whisperer among the people.”[3] And note well that it is not only wrong to speak falsely, but also to conceal the truth: “If thy brother shall offend against thee, go and rebuke him.”[4]

b. The second person is the witness who testifies by lying: “A false witness shall not be unpunished.”[5] For this Commandment includes all the preceding ones, inasmuch as the false witness may himself be the murderer or the thief, etc. And such should be punished according to the law.

“When after most diligent inquisition, they shall find that the false witness hath told a lie against his brother, they shall render to him as he meant to do to his brother. . . . Thou shalt not pity him, but shalt require life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”[6]

And again:

“A man that beareth false witness against his neighbor is like a dart and a sword and a sharp arrow.”[7]

c. The third person is the judge who sins by giving an unjust sentence: “Thou shalt not . . . judge unjustly. Respect not the person of the poor, nor honor the countenance of the mighty. But judge thy neighbor according to justice.”[8, see below]

2. In Ordinary Conversation

In ordinary conversation one may violate this Commandment in five ways.

a. The first is by detraction: “Detractors, hateful to God.”[9] “Hateful to God” here indicates that nothing is so dear to a man as his good name: “A good name is better than great riches.”[10] But detractors take away this good name: “If a serpent bite in silence, he is no better that backbiteth secretly.”[11] Therefore, if detractors do not restore this reputation, they cannot be saved.

b. Secondly, one may break this precept by listening to detractors willingly: “Hedge in thy ears with thorns, hear not a wicked tongue, and make doors and bars to thy mouth.”[12] One should not listen deliberately to such things, but ought to turn away, showing a sad and stern countenance: “The north wind driveth away rain as doth a sad countenance a backbiting tongue.”[13, see below]

c. Thirdly, gossipers break this precept when they repeat whatever they hear: “Six things there are which the Lord hateth, and the seventh His soul detesteth . . . him that soweth discord among brethren.”[14]

d. Fourthly, those who speak honied words, the flatterers: “The sinner is praised in the desires of his soul, and the unjust man is blessed.”[15] And again: “O My people, they that call thee blessed, the same shall deceive thee.”[16]

e. The prohibition of this Commandment includes every form of falsehood: “Be not willing to make any manner of lie; for the custom thereof is no good.”[17]

B. Reasons lying is forbidden

There are four reasons for this.

1. The first is that lying likens one to the devil, because a liar is as the son of the devil. Now, we know that a man’s speech betrays from what region and country he comes from, thus: “Even thy speech doth discover thee.”[18] Even so, some men are of the devil’s kind, and are called sons of the devil because they are liars, since the devil is “a liar and the father of lies.”[19] Thus, when the devil said, “No, you shall not die the death,”[20] he lied. But, on the contrary, others are the children of God, who is Truth, and they are those who speak the truth.

2. The second reason is that lying induces the ruin of society. Men live together in society, and this is soon rendered impossible if they do not speak the truth to one another. “Wherefore putting away lying, speak ye the truth, every man with his neighbor; for we are members one of another.”[21]

3. The third reason is that the liar loses his reputation for the truth. He who is accustomed to telling lies is not believed even when he speaks the truth: “What can be made clean by the unclean? And what truth can come from that which is false?”[22]

4. The fourth reason is because a liar kills his soul, for “the mouth that belieth killeth the soul.”[23] And again: “Thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie.”[24]

Accordingly, it is clear that lying is a mortal sin; although it must be known that some lies may be venial.

It is a mortal sin, for instance, to

a. Lie in matters of faith. This concerns professors, prelates and preachers, and is the gravest of all other kinds of lies: “There shall be among you lying teachers, who shall bring in sects of perdition.”[25]

b. Then there are those who lie to wrong their neighbor: “Lie not to one another.”[26]

These two kinds of lies, therefore, are mortal sins.

C. Reasons people lie.

a. There are some who lie for their own advantage, and this in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is out of humility. This may be the case in confession, about which St. Augustine says: “Just as one must avoid concealing what he has committed, so also he must not mention what he has not committed.”

“Hath God any need of your lie?”[27] And again: “There is one that humbleth himself wickedly, and his interior is full of deceit; and there is one that humbleth himself exceedingly with a great lowness.”[28]

b. There are others who tell lies out of shame, namely, when one tells a falsehood believing that he is telling the truth, and on becoming aware of it he is ashamed to retract:

“In no wise speak against the truth, but be ashamed of the lie of thy ignorance.”[29]

c. Other times, some lie for desired results as when they wish to gain or avoid something: “We have placed our hope in lies, and by falsehood we are protected.”[30] And again: “He that trusteth in lies feedeth the winds.”[31]

d. Finally, there are some who lie to benefit another, that is, when they wish to free someone from death, or danger, or some other loss. This must be avoided, as St. Augustine tells us: “Accept no person against thy own person, nor against thy soul a lie.”[32]

e. But others lie only out of vanity, and this, too, must never be done, lest the habit of such lead us to mortal sin: “For the bewitching of vanity obscureth good things.”[33]

Abbreviated Endnotes

1. St. Thomas also treats of this Commandment in the Summa Theol.,” II-II, Q. cxxii, art. 6.

2. “The Commandment specially prohibits that species of false testimony which is given on oath in a court of justice. The witness swears by the Deity and thus pledges God’s holy name for the truth of what he says, and this has very great weight and constitutes the strongest claim for credit. Such testimony, therefore, because it is dangerous, is particularly prohibited. When no legal exceptions can be taken against a sworn witness, and when he cannot be convicted of open dishonesty and malice, even the judge himself cannot reject his testimony. This is especially true since it is commanded by divine authority that ‘in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall stand’ ” (“Roman Catechism,” “Eighth Commandment,” 3).

8. Lev., xix. 15. “This Commandment prohibits deceit, lying, and perjury on the part of witnesses. The same prohibition also applies to plaintiffs, defendants, promoters, representatives, procurators, and advocates; in a word, all who take any part in lawsuits. . . . Finally, God forbids all testimony which may injure others or do them injustice, whether it be a matter of legal evidence or not” (“Roman Catechism,” “loc. cit.,” 6).

13. Prov., xxv. 23. “This Commandment not only forbids false testimony, but also the abominable sin of detraction. This is a moral pestilence which is the poisoned source of many and calamitous evils. . . . That we may see the nature of the sin of detraction more clearly, we must know that reputation is injured not only by calumniating the character. but also by exaggerating the faults of others. He who makes known the secret sin of any man at any time or place unnecessarily, or before persons who have no right to know, is also rightly regarded as a detractor and evil-speaker, if his revelation seriously injures the other’s reputation” (“Roman Catechism,” “loc. cit.,” 9).

16. Isa., iii. 12. “Flatterers and sycophants are among those who violate this Commandment, for by fawning and insincere praise they gain the hearing and good will of those whose favor. money, and honors they seek” (“Roman Catechism,” “loc. cit.,” 11).

The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas (and endnotes) can be found at Jimmy Akin’s website.

All that is, was, and will be, is already present in God’s time. And so are not our lives then a test? Is this not true even before we come to know Christ, and even more so once we put down our nets for the Lord, and decide to be his disciples?

In his book The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc explains life as a test as follows,

“the Catholic Church has on this particular problem a very definite answer within the field of her own action. She says, first, that man’s nature is immortal, and made for beatitude; next, that mortality and pain are the result of his Fall, that is, of his rebellion against the will of God. She says that since the fall our mortal life is an ordeal or test, according to our behavior, in which we regain (but through the merits of our Savior) that immortal beatitude which we had lost.”

In our lives, we see time as kronos, and the series of events that transpire as needing our attention. Our sense of pride often leads us to believe that if we don’t “act,” taking matters into our own hands, then God will fail.

But God cannot fail. Only we can fail in following God. And we do fail Him in this, or at least I know I do. This is why we need to have the humility of a St. Thomas Aquinas. Our limitedness demands it.

And yet we must take actions as we make our way upon the path of Life.

Yesterday, the scripture readings reinforce the idea of not relying on ourselves, while bolstering the teaching of the norm of being truthful.  The first reading is from Sirach, a book that I never knew existed before I became a Catholic.

Rely not on your wealth;
say not: “I have the power.”
Rely not on your strength
in following the desires of your heart.
Say not: “Who can prevail against me?”
or, “Who will subdue me for my deeds?”
for God will surely exact the punishment.
Say not: “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?”
for the Most High bides his time.
Of forgiveness be not overconfident,
adding sin upon sin.
Say not: “Great is his mercy;
my many sins he will forgive.”
For mercy and anger alike are with him;
upon the wicked alights his wrath.
Delay not your conversion to the LORD,
put it not off from day to day.
For suddenly his wrath flames forth;
at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed.
Rely not upon deceitful wealth,
for it will be no help on the day of wrath.

Next up, was the responsorial from Psalm 1.

R. (40:5a) Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.

Blessed the man who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.

He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
Whatever he does, prospers.

Not so the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.

And the Gospel reading reinforces why the Church will never champion any teaching that advocates a sinful practice, even if it be a venial one, as ever being “okay.”

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.

“Everyone will be salted with fire.
Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid,
with what will you restore its flavor?
Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”

Sins are missing the mark, and when we fall, we go to Confession so we can get back up again.

I argue that we must make our decisions in the light of the great Christian norm of being truthful. Much like the military academy honor codes, we should not tolerate lying, cheating, or stealing. As I said in a prior post, doing so damages the bridge of trust. St. Thomas reminds us that lying in all its guises “induces the ruin of society,” and that “a lair kills his soul.” These two results must be avoided if at all possible.

What about the agents of the state who are required to do undercover work? CIA agents, narcotics and vice cops, IRS agents (oh my!) etc.? Well, given the risks their souls face in these lines of work, I’d want to have close access to a confessor if I earned my livelihood in these manners. In a fallen world, see, we need Christian folks in these lines of work, just like we need good Christians in every line of work.

So we are called to try our best to act in a moral way as we endure this test of living. We are called to do so in a way in which our mind is conformed with Christ. Not enamored with our own mind’s thoughts alone, where we often wind up lost, but instead seeking to be one with the mind of Our Lord and Our God.

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
― G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

We weren’t promised a rose garden.

RELATED

The Bellermine Forum, The Two Standards: Truth Incarnate or the Father of Lies.

  • Dan Li

    Thank you for St. Thomas’ commentary, he’s as reliable as always. However, he isn’t the sole philosopher we have… are there any commentaries of John Duns Scotus available? I am not sure, as my recollection on this is somewhat poor, but I believe his detailed thoughts may be relevant to this series as well…

    What happens if one is in a situation in which one cannot escape without committing some mortal sin, or will end up sinning by omission?

    • Karen LH

      Dan, I don’t think it’s possible to be in a situation in which it’s impossible to avoid sin, if for no other reason than that, in order to be a sin, an act must be freely committed. My guess is that, if there is nothing that you can do that is not sinful, then the only lawful course of action is to do nothing. In that situation, you’re not guilty of a sin of omission.


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