Moral Briefs – Chapter XXXVI – Swearing

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry Stapleton“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain.”

A name is a sign, and respect for God Himself, as prescribed by the First Commandment through faith, hope, charity, prayer and religion, naturally implies respect for the name that stands for and signifies God. Your name may, of itself, be nothing more than mere sound; but used in relation to what it represents, it is as sacred, and means as much to you, as your very person, for whatever is addressed to your name, whether of praise or blame, is intended to reach, and does effectively reach, yourself, to your honor or dishonor. You exact therefore of men, as a right, the same respect for your name as for your person; and that is what God does in the Second Commandment.

The name of God represents all that He is. He who profanes that name profanes a sacred thing, and is guilty of what is, in reality, a sacrilege. To use it with respect and piety is an act of religion which honors God. Men use and abuse this holy name, and first of all, by swearing, that is, by taking oaths.

In the early history of mankind, we are told, swearing was unknown. Men were honest, could trust each other and take each other’s word. But when duplicity, fraud and deception rose out of the corrupt heart of man, when sincerity disappeared, then confidence disappeared also, no man’s word was any longer good. Then it was that, in order to put an end to their differences, they called upon God by name to witness the truth of what they affirmed. They substituted God’s unquestioned veracity for their own questioned veracity, and incidentally paid homage to His truth; God went security for man. Necessity therefore made man swear; oaths became a substitute for honesty.

A reverent use of the name of God, for a lawful purpose, cannot be wrong; on the contrary, it is good, being a public recognition of the greatest of God’s attributes – truth. But like all good things it is liable to be abused. A too frequent use of the oath will easily lead to irreverence, and thence to perjury. It is against this danger, rather than against the fact itself of swearing, that Christ warns us in a text that seems at first blush to condemn the oath as evil. The common sense of mankind has always given this interpretation to the words of Christ.

An oath, therefore, is a calling upon God to witness the truth of what we say, and it means that we put our veracity on a par with His and make Him shoulder the responsibility of truthfulness.

To take an oath we must swear by God. To swear by all the saints in the calendar would not make an oath. Properly speaking, it is not even sufficient to simply say: “I swear,” we must use the name of God. In this matter, we first consider the words. Do they signify a swearing, by God, either in their natural sense or in their general acceptation? Or is there an intention of giving them this signification? In conscience and before God, it is only when there is such an intention that there is a formal oath and one is held to the conditions and responsibilities thereof.

Bear in mind that we are here dealing for the moment solely with lawful swearing. There are such things as imprecation, blasphemy, and general profanity, of which there will be question later, and which have this in common with the oath, that they call on the name of God; the difference is the same that exists between bad and good, right and wrong. These must therefore be clearly distinguished from religious and legal swearing.

There is also a difference between a religious and a legal oath. The religious oath is content with searching the conscience in order to verify the sincerity or insincerity of the swearer. If one really intends to swear by God to a certain statement, and employs certain words to express his intention, he is considered religiously to have taken an oath. If he pronounces a formula that expresses an oath, without the intention of swearing, then he has sworn to nothing. He has certainly committed a sin, but there is no oath. Again, if a man does not believe in God, he cannot swear by Him; and in countries where God is repudiated, all attempts at administering oaths are vain and empty. You cannot call, to attest the truth of your words, a being that does not exist, and for him who does not believe in God, He does not exist.

The purely legal oath considers the fact and supposes the intention. If you swear without deliberation, then, with you lies the burden of proving it; since the law will allow it only on evidence and will hold you bound until such evidence is shown. When a person is engaged in a serious affair, he is charitably supposed to know what he is talking about; if it happens that he does not, then so much the worse for him. In the case of people who protest beforehand that they are infidels or agnostics, or who being sworn on the New Testament, disclaim all belief in Christ, there is nothing to be done, except it be to allow them to attest by the blood of a rooster or by the Great Horn Spoon. Then, whatever way they swear, there is no harm done.