Fr. John H. Stapleton
The first quality of an oath is that it be true. It is evident that every statement we make, whether simple or sworn, must be true. If we affirm what we know to be false we lie, if we swear to what we know to be false, we perjure ourselves. Perjury is a sacrilegious falsehood, and the first sin against the Second Commandment.
If, while firmly believing it to be true, what we swear to happens to be false, we are not guilty of perjury, for the simple reason that our moral certitude places us in good faith, and good faith guarantees us against offending. The truth we proclaim under oath is relative, not absolute, subjective rather than objective, that is to say, the statement we make is true as far as we are in a position to know. All this holds good before the bar of conscience, but it may be otherwise in the courts where something more than personal convictions, something more akin to scientific knowledge, is required.
He who swears without sufficient certitude, without a prudent examination of the facts of the question, through ignorance that must be imputed to his guilt, that one takes a rash oath - a sin great or small according to the gravity of the circumstances. It is not infrequently grievous.
Some oaths, instead of being statements, are promises - sworn promises. That of which we call God to witness the truth is not something that is, but something that will be. If one promises under oath, and has no intention of redeeming his pledge; or if he afterwards revokes such an intention without serious reasons, and fails to make good his sworn promise, he sins grievously, for he makes a fool and a liar of Almighty God who acts as sponsor of a false pledge. Concerning temperance pledges, it may here be said that they are simple promises made to God, but not being sworn to, are not oaths in any sense of the word.
Then, again, to be lawful, an oath must be necessary or useful, demanded by the glory of God, our own or our neighbor's good; and it must be possible to fulfill the promise within the given time. Otherwise, we trifle with a sacred thing, we are guilty of taking vain and unnecessary oaths. There can be no doubt but that this is highly offensive to God, who is thus made little of in His holy name.
This is the most frequent offense against the Second Commandment, the sin of profane swearing, the calling upon God to witness the truth of every second word we utter. It betrays in a man a very weak sense of his own honesty when he cannot let his words stand for themselves. It betokens a blasphemous disrespect for God Himself, represented by that name which is made a convenient tool to further every vulgar end. It is therefore criminal and degrading, and the guilt thereby incurred cannot be palliated by the plea of habit. A sin is none the less a sin because it is one of a great many. Vice is criminal. The victim of a vice can be considered less guilty only on condition of seriously combating that vice. Failing in this, he must bear the full burden of his guilt.
Are we bound to keep our oaths? If valid, we certainly are. An oath is valid when the matter thereof is not forbidden or illicit. The matter is illicit when the statement or promise we make is contrary to right. He who binds himself under oath to do evil, not only does not sin in fulfilling his pledge, but would sin if he did redeem it. The sin he thus commits may be mortal or venial according to the gravity of the matter of the oath. He sinned in taking the oath; he sins more grievously in keeping it.
The binding force of an oath is also destroyed by fraud and deception. Fear may have a kindred effect, if it renders one incapable of a human act. Likewise a former oath may annul a subsequent oath under certain conditions.
Again, no man in taking an oath intends to bind himself to anything physically or morally impossible, or forbidden by his superiors; he expects that his promise will be accepted by the other party, that all things will remain unchanged, that the other party will keep faith, and that there will be no grave reason for him to change his mind. In the event of any of these conditions failing of fulfillment his intention is not to be held by his sworn word, and his oath is considered invalidated. He is to be favored in all doubts and is held only to the strict words of his promise.
The least, therefore, we have to do with oaths, the better. They are things too sacred to trifle with. When necessity demands it, let our swearing honor the Almighty by the respect we show His holy name.