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The often-ignored 8th Commandment

By Father Woods

Standing in the line at the grocery store the tabloid papers and magazines are full of it. The “Comments” section of scads of internet sites are loaded with them. Sometimes we call it “gossip” or just passing along “stories”. On other occasions we soothe our consciences by telling ourselves we are just passing along news. What do all these situations have in common? Bearing false witness against our neighbor.

Observing this Commandment seems to be out of fashion, but it’s probably one of the most violated of the Decalogue. Whenever we have a cavalier attitude or little regard for the reputation of another person, when we pass along half-truths (or tell truths about another person we have no right to reveal), when we jump to assumptions, or simply blather at the mouth with things we have no proof of – all of this bears a false witness against our neighbor. It’s easy to see why Almighty God placed this among His Commandments. The damage we do to one another through our speech can be catastrophic. The abuse heaped upon the famous, the infamous and the rich – people most of us have never met and will never meet – is particularly egregious. They become the punching bags of others as their names and reputations are abused. The neighbor down the street, the relatives we don’t like, the stranger we see in the store all become fodder for us to feel so superior. And Heavens! How quick we are to believe the worst about someone and how urgent it becomes to share that information with others.

Think about the poor person on the receiving end of all this abuse. To know that people whisper (or shout) about them behind their backs is an unbearable burden. People can sense when they go out that others are talking about them, defaming them, and misconstruing their motives and actions. Each time we hear ourselves or someone else begin a sentence with the words “well, I heard… “we are in deep trouble. If I heard it there’s a very good chance I don’t know it to be true. And is it my duty to report everything I hear or even everything I know to be true? Do I not have a great responsibility to respect the privacy and good name of another?

A prominent nightly news program proudly proclaims its motto: “Keepin’ them honest.” How arrogant! Such a motto presumes that people intend to be dishonest… and who appoints this program as the guardian of truth? How do they become the deciders of what is honest and what is not as they sit in judgment over every guest and story? All of us should heed the words of the Lord Jesus that the measure with which we measure others will be used to measure us (Matthew 7:2). That alone should make all of us shake in our boots.

In 2011 at the solemn Vespers of Thanksgiving on New Year’s Eve, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI spoke in his homily that all the “news” we are saturated with is not really all the news. There is so much more to our lives than what gets reported on television, in the papers or on the internet. The Pope said that believing the reported news is the totality of humanity’s existence would quickly depress us. Instead there are millions of good things going on in the lives of good people that will never be broadcast and that this makes up the majority of life. In 2018 each of us should resolve to be bearers of good news and truth as we abandon bearing false witness against our brothers and sisters.