In this era of fake news, is it a sin to share juicy but unsubstantiated reports?
Posted by Alice L. Camille
October 07, 2020 | Category: Doctrines & Beliefs
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Yes. The very common activity you’re describing is known as calumny. It’s a sin against the eighth commandment, which decries bearing false witness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an entire section on our mutual responsibility to uphold the truth (nos. 2464–2513). This is a special duty at a time when credible information is harder for well-meaning folks to discern.
God is the source of all truth. Jesus calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus also says “you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Peddling questionable information because it’s entertaining, or supports a position we favor, means participating in the shadow trade of falsehood. The Prince of Lies runs that operation and isn’t a spirit we want to encamp with.
Our obligation to truth prompts us to speak with candor: that is, with freedom from bias or malice. Traditionally, one’s word was one’s bond, which is why we still trust people in court to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth simply because they say they will. (And face a serious offense if they don’t.) We admire those whose word matches their deed. To act against one’s word is considered hypocrisy.
Martyrs aren’t defined as those who die in the name of religion. They’re witnesses to the truth who value it even above their own lives. Valuing the truth includes respecting the dignity of other people. The Catechism lists three errors against the truth concerning others. First, rash judgment: assuming the moral fault of a neighbor without sufficient evidence. Secondly, detraction: disclosing someone’s faults for no good reason. Calumny is last: harming another’s reputation by spreading misinformation. Both detraction and calumny are sins against charity and justice.
While lying is a direct offense against the truth, the Catechism also cautions against flattering, boasting, and malicious caricature. Some of our favorite comedians may be at fault lately with the latter. The ubiquity of social media muddles an already complex issue by presuming a right to the communication of all truth—which the Catechism teaches is not an unconditional right but must be considered with the precept of fraternal love. We must measure whether a divulgence ensures the common good or simply exposes the private lives of others—even if they are public figures. Gratuitous invasion into the privacy of others doesn’t serve the cause of truth or charity.
Scripture: Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20; Matthew 5:33-37; John 1:14; 8:12-18, 32, 44; 12:46; 14:6; 18:37-38; Acts 24:16; Romans 3:4; 1 John 1:5-10;
Books: The Truth Will Make You Free: The New Evangelization for a Secular Age, by Robert F. Levitt, PSS (Liturgical Press, 2019)
Paraclete: The Spirit of Truth in the Church, by Andrew Apostoli, CFR (Franciscan Media, 2005)
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