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Cases sometimes occur in which a man will not believe the word of another. But if a witness comes forward and affirms: “ That is so, I myself saw it,” then the speaker is more readily believed, and all the more if the witness in question is known to be a man of honor. Now it may occur that a man calls God to witness, that is to say, he appeals to the omniscient God to make known the truth of what is said by His almighty power. In this case his word will be regarded as the word of God. As an official seal gives force to a decree, so the oath is the seal God gives us to corroborate a statement. It is a coin of high value, stamped with the name of the living God. Our Lord took an oath when Caiphas adjured Him by the living God to speak the truth. So did Esau, when he confirmed by an oath the promise he made to relinquish his birthright for the pottage of lentils.
1. To swear or take an oath is to call God to witness that one is speaking the truth, or that one will keep a promise.
In swearing, a man calls either upon God or upon something he holds sacred. If a man swears by God, he makes use of words such as these: As the Lord liveth (Jer. iv. 2); as surely as there is a God in heaven, God is my witness (Rom. i. 9); may God punish me, etc. Or we swear by holy things, such as the holy Gospel, the cross of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament. But as these things are incapable of attesting anything themselves, or of punishing a deceiver, it is in fact equivalent to calling God to witness. Our Lord Himself speaks of swearing by the Temple, by heaven, or by the throne of God (Matt. xxiii. 21, 22). But to use such expressions as: Upon my word, by my honor, as surely as I stand here, etc., is merely emphasizing an assertion, not swearing. An oath may be simple or solemn. A simple oath is between man and man in ordinary intercourse; a solemn oath is taken in a court of law or in presence of official personages. (An oath is administered to soldiers and officers of state.) In taking a solemn oath one is required to kiss the Holy Scriptures, or a crucifix, and to say: So help me God, to intimate that if he de parts from the truth, he renounces the divine assistance and the blessings promised in the Gospels. Jews and Mohammedans have their own peculiar ceremonial; the latter raise one finger to show their belief in one God.
2. Christians are not obliged to refuse to take an oath, for it is permitted by God, and pleasing in His sight.
If swearing were forbidden Christ would not have made use of an oath (Matt. xxvi. 64), nor would God have sworn to Abraham on Mount Moriah that He would multiply his seed as the stars in heaven and as the sand by the seashore (Gen. xxii. 16); nor would St. Paul so frequently have taken God to witness in his epistles (Rom. i. 9; 2 Cor. i. 23). The oath has besides a good object; it serves to put an end to disputes (Heb. vi. 16). It is pleasing to God, because by it we make public profession of faith in His omnipotence, His justice, His omniscience, and thus we honor Him. On this account atheists and social democrats cannot be induced to take an oath. It is God’s will that we confirm our word with an oath, when necessary (Exod. xxii. 11). When Our Lord said: “Let your speech be yea, yea, no, no, and that which is over and above these is of evil” (Matt. v. 37), He meant to warn the Pharisees against the habit to which they were addicted of using idle, unnecessary oaths. Catholics need not refuse to take an oath, as some sectaries do; however, no one ought to be compelled to do so. Any one who forces a man to swear when he knows he will swear falsely, is in some way worse than a murderer; for the murderer only kills the body, whereas he who makes another swear falsely, causes the death of a soul, nay, of two souls, his neighbor’s soul and his own also, for he is responsible for the other’s death.
3. We ought therefore to make use of an oath only when it is absolutely necessary, with deliberation, and in the interests of truth and justice.
When Christ says the oath is of evil (Matt. v. 37), He intends to signify that it is occasioned by man’s evil tendencies, and that rash oaths are sinful. Had mankind not fallen from its original state of integrity and justice, there would have been no need for the oath; but since faith and fidelity have vanished, recourse has been had to it. Not until evil prevailed everywhere did swearing become an ordinary practice; when by reason of the general perfidy and corruption no man’s word could be relied on, then God was called to witness. St. Augustine compares the oath to a medicine, which must not be taken without good reason; it is to a man’s words what the crutch is to the cripple. Consequently it is wrong to swear heedlessly, about trifling matters, as salesmen often do about their wares. Frequent swearing is apt to lead to false swearing. “A man that sweareth much shall be filled with iniquity, and a scourge shall not depart from his house” (Ecclus. xxiii. 12). Wherefore we must make use of an oath as seldom as possible, unless it is required of us by the Government or in a court of law. Our oath must always be true; that is to say, when on our oath, we must always say what we really believe to be true, and we must have the intention of keeping our word. The Roman general Regulus (250 B.C.) affords a fine instance of this. He was taken prisoner in war by the Carthaginians, and after being kept six years in captivity, he was sent to Rome to sue for peace. Before leaving the Carthaginian camp, a solemn oath was ad ministered to him to return thither, provided the Romans would not conclude peace. On arriving in Rome he informed the Senate of the enemy’s weakness, and urged them to pursue the war. Then he returned to prison, although every one in Rome, even the pagan high priest, spared no effort to detain him. St. Peter, on the contrary, swore falsely in the outer court of the high priest’s palace (Matt. xxvi. 72). Blessed Thomas More, the High Chancellor of England, was thrown into prison by Henry VIII., because he would not concur in the hostile attitude that monarch assumed towards the Catholic Church. He might have purchased his release merely by swearing to conform to what his sovereign decreed. He was advised to do this, mentally applying the words to God, his supreme Sovereign and Lord. But he would not consent, saying he dared not swear falsely. It is possible, however, that one may swear under a misapprehension, or one may be prevented by illness or misadventure, or some other sufficient cause, from fulfilling a promise made under an oath; in that case no guilt is incurred. Our oath must be premeditated; that is, we must consider well beforehand whether our statement is strictly true, or whether we shall be able to accomplish what we promise. King Herod at the feast swore rashly, for he promised with an oath to give the damsel who danced before him whatever she should ask. At her mother’s instigation she asked the head of John the Baptist (Mark vi. 23). We read that forty Jews, in their enmity to St. Paul, swore neither to eat nor drink until they had killed him (Acts xxiii. 12). In the present day Freemasons bind themselves by oath not to express any desire to receive the last sacraments on their death-bed. Such oaths are sinful, and highly displeasing to God.
4. He who swears falsely, commits a grave act of blasphemy, and draws down upon himself the curse of God and the penalty of eternal perdition.
False swearing is also called perjury. He who swears falsely, who confirms by oath a statement he knows to be untrue, or who swears to do something, although he is conscious that he cannot fulfill his promise, is like a man who stamps a forged document with an official seal, an act which cannot escape punishment. Swearing falsely is a mortal sin, whatever be the subject of the oath. The curse of God rests upon the house of him who swears falsely (Zach. v. 3). God often punishes false swearers by a speedy and sudden death. Sedecias, the King of Judah, swore fealty to Nabuchodonosor and broke his covenant. Forthwith God announced to him by the lips of the prophet Ezechiel that he should meet with severe chastisement and die in Babylon (Ezech. xvii.), and in fact Nabuchodonosor took the king captive, put out his eyes, and brought him to Babylon, where he died (4 Kings xxv. 7). Wladislas, King of Hungary, concluded peace with the Turkish Sultan Murad II., and confirmed the treaty with an oath, yet he resumed hostilities against him. He fell in the battle of Warna (1444) with all the flower of his nobility. Perjury is punishable by the law with imprisonment. The Emperor Charlemagne made it a law that all who were convicted of swearing falsely should have their right hand cut off; later on three fingers only of the right hand, wherewith they took the oath, were struck off. Rash swearing is at the least a venial sin; it is a bad habit, and he who is always ready to confirm every statement, whether true or false, by an oath, lives, if he knows the value of his words, in a state of mortal sin. If a man has sworn wrongfully, he must not keep his oath, but deplore it. That is what Herod ought to have done. With regard to breaking an oath, that is to say, the non-fulfillment of a promise made under oath, it may be either a venial or a mortal sin, according as the matter concerned is weighty or not. The same is true of a vow (Suarez).
This article, The Oath is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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