JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


"Because man is a social animal, one man naturally owes another that without which human society could not go on. But men could not live with one another, if they did not believe one another as declaring the truth to one another. And, therefore, the virtue of truthfulness in some way hinges upon the notion of a thing due" (St. Thomas). Thus truthfulness comes to be classified under justice. Not that it is a part of justice strictly so-called. Ordinarily, the knowledge in my mind is not the property of my neighbour, it is not his by right; I am not legally bound to make it over to him; and if, when he asks for it, I deal out to him something else, something contrary even to that knowledge, I do not thereby do him, strictly, an injury and wrong, nor do I owe him afterwards any restitution. Thus if a person asks me my opinion on the Tariff Question, and I tell him that I am a Free Trader, whereas really I am a partisan of Tariff Reform, I tell an untruth, I lie, I commit a sin, but I have not exactly wronged my inquirer. I am not bound to write to him next day and avow my Protectionist sympathies, by way of restitution. A simple lie is not a sin against strict justice. Nay, a simple lie, whatever Protestants may think to the contrary, is never a mortal sin; you will not go to hell for that; but unless you repent and do penance, you will go to purgatory, for it. This is quite enough deterrent to a Catholic, conjoined with the fact of the sinfulness of the lie, for venial sin after all is sin; and as Ecclesiasticus, xv, says: God hath not given permission to every man to sin. By a "simple lie," I mean, first, a lie which is not against religion and the honour of God, as is the lie when a Catholic denies his being a Catholic, which is a mortal sin; secondly, a lie which does no hurt to our neighbour in point of life, limb, property, or reputation. A lie which does serious hurt to a neighbour in any of those respects is a mortal sin against justice, and entails restitution. Somebody is said once to have walked into a shop where they sold sausages and laid six dead cats on the counter, with the words, "There are six of them; I'll bring you the remaining half-dozen to-morrow." This when the shop was full of customers. No doubt it was a joke, and no customer took it seriously. But seriously to imply by word or gesture, and make it believed, that a respectable poor butcher makes his sausages out of cats, would be more than a simple lie; it would be a lie edged with a barb of injustice, for which, as for any other strict injustice, restitution would be due.

However, we have not here to do with calumny, but simply with the habit of speaking or not speaking the truth, and we will confine our treatment of it, as the early moralists confined theirs, to the matter of speaking of one's self, one's own personal advantages and exploits. A child tells you of itself, and there are grown up people who will tell you of themselves, their doings, and their difficulties, with all the simplicity and effusiveness of a child. Their candour is charming, as being utterly removed from vanity. There is also an offensive and importunate way of forcing your past adventures, or present views, upon your neighbour's notice. A really vain person does not usually speak openly at length, but drops little sagacious, even self-depreciatory hints, all calculated to heighten your opinion of the speaker, or force from you a compliment. Then there are those who are not vain, and seek not admiration for its own sake, but they are gainful and ambitious persons, greedy of emolument and advancement, and to this end they will lie downright, cunningly, exaggerating their own value,, and depreciating their neighbour's, with or without cause; detraction or calumny, neither comes amiss to them. This sort of people is odious before God and man. I hardly know any worse symptom of character than the habit of systematic lying for the furtherance of one's own ends. Henry VIII was a portentous liar and a typical bad man. A symptom is not necessarily in itself the worst element of the disease; the evil lies in what it points to. There are worse sins than lying; but steady, reckless lying for the purpose of getting on in life is an index to much deep-seated moral evil.

This pestilential type of liar must not be confounded with him whose statements are inexact through constitutional inaccuracy of mind; or, it may be, from exuberance of imagination and love of fun. The liar in jest, once his character is established, can not, I think, be called a liar at all; for when the mood is on him, and the matter is trivial enough to permit it, no one takes his exaggerations or comical stories seriously. He can not be said to affirm anything; consequently he does not lie. He only suggests matter of inquiry, should any one think it worth his while to follow the subject up. One sole stipulation must be made with him, that his jests be never malicious.

Lying is a mark of pride. Humility, as we shall see, is taking one's proper place in the eyes of God; pride is assuming a rank that one has no right to, and consequently a false rank. I will ascend above the height of the clouds; I will be like the Most High (Isaias xiv, 14). Such was the aspiration of the first proud creature, Lucifer. There was falsehood in his claim; such was not his place, yet he would have it that it was. He began with a lie; upon a lying pretext he rebelled; therefore, our Saviour calls him a liar and the father of lies (John viii, 44). The proud man is pretentious and unreal in his makeup. What he is by nature and by the grace of God is not enough for him. He dotes upon an imaginary self. For that product of his imagination he claims place and position in the esteem of man, place and position beyond his proper due. His whole policy is based upon a fiction. Fiction and falsehood he loves; they are essential to the character that he plays. He dare not be himself, and let other people take him for no more than he is really worth. Pride is always founded upon a wrong view of self and of the situation. As we are often told, humility is truth.

I can conceive this last proposition being denied. "No," it will be said, "both humility and pride are founded on untruth; pride an untruth in the way of self-exaltation; humility an untruth in the way of self-depreciation. The humble man does not acknowledge his own merits. What shocking things the saints have said in the way of self-depreciation, but they are the worst of sinners, that they deserve to lie at the feet of Judas in hell," etc. If I plead on behalf of the saints that they at least believed what they said, and therefore told no lie, I shall be met -- and I think justly met -- with the rejoinder, that the proud man also believes in his own estimate of himself. I admit that he does. That is just the misery of his position. The arch liar lies to himself, and brings himself to believe himself. That is what Plato calls "the lie in the soul," the worst of all lies. Satan, I presume, thus lies even to himself. But though he believe in himself, not for that is his lying pride excusable. There is such a thing as culpable self-deception. As for what seems to us the exaggerated language of the saints, that is a matter admitting of much discussion. To discuss it at length would carry us from our subject. The key to the solution is this, that the saints see themselves, not in comparison with their fellowmen, but as they stand confronted with the ineffable holiness of God. Before that standard they are confounded for their very least defects; and having an eye (like the publican in the Gospel) on their own misdoings and not (like the Pharisee) on the misdoings of their neighbours, they humble and abase themselves below all other men.

Another virtue, ranked under justice, and also in close connection with humility, is gratitude. I should advise anyone who was looking for an easy way up the mountain of holiness to try the path of gratitude, of perennial exuberant thankfulness to God, and to men as vehicles of the bounties of God. Every master loves a contented and grateful servant; so does the Best of Masters. One hearty Deo gratias caroled in the sunny air of enjoyment, or better still, heaved out of the depths of tribulation, sends Satan away in disgust, for he is an eternal malcontent, and the Alleluia, the song of praise to God, is no music in his ear. The grateful man has the humility to own himself not sufficient for himself, but needing the assistance of others; and when he gets it, he does not take it as payment of his dues, or as anything that he had a right to, but as altogether beyond his claims and deserts.

Obedience, if we take it to mean the fulfilment of a contract do ut facias, "I give you on condition of your doing for me," may come under justice strictly so called. If John has contracted with Andrew to do a piece of work under Andrew's direction for a money payment, he is bound in justice to do the work, as Andrew is similarly bound to pay him the money. Working under contract, however, is not the proper type of obedience. Obedience supposes superior and inferior, the latter fulfilling the former's command because this superior is the higher in the hierarchical order, and is in status the better man of the two. This idea of obedience is very repugnant to modern minds. Modern men very generally will not hear of status, only of contract. But let us turn to the Commandments. Let us hear the Church, The Church delivers to us the Fourth Commandment, which is the commandment of obedience, honour thy father and thy mother. The relation of parent and child is not one of contract, hut of status. And it is the most fundamental of all human relations. Civil society is built up out of families. Consequently the disintegration of the family is the disruption of the State. Anarchists and socialists know that well, and loathe the one as they repudiate the other. Parents, unskilful how to command, and children, scorning to obey, these are filling the world with socialists. A servant, or a workman, should he next thing to a son to his master or employer, and pay not merely the work and service contracted for under stipulation of wage, but likewise the "honour" that the Commandment speaks of, the deference and respect due from inferior to superior. One is laughed at for saying such a thing nowadays. That civil society is incurring the most serious peril from the decay of the old-fashioned virtues of reverence, obedience, purity, religion, no thoughtful man will deny. Honour thy father and thy mother that thou mayest be long-lived in the land (Exod. xx, 12). Conversely, a society in which authority is flouted, and obedience is taken for a badge of dishonour, may well be shortlived. One good thing provided by the State, serves as some check on this evil. The State keeps up an army and a navy; and in army and navy that obedience to command and that deference to superiors, which have not been learned in the family, nor probably at school either, as schools go, are learned at last in the ranks or on shipboard. When army and navy become mutinous, the hour for the State's overthrow has struck.

Obedience keeps a man in his hierarchical order in the society to which he belongs, domestic, civil or religious. True obedience is constitutional obedience. Nothing so unconstitutional as to disobey lawful authority commanding within its constitutional province. Slavery is unconstitutional, happily, in modern times. Tyranny is unconstitutional. Constitutional obedience is an honour to the man who pays it, no less than constitutional authority in competent hands is an honour to him who wields it. It is an honour, because it becomes him well and sits well on him as a proper fitting garment. It marks him for the right man in the right place. In the social hierarchy, duly constituted under God, all right places are honorable places. The whole is honorable, so are the parts.

Obedience is for the young and for the poor, two classes of souls who are cherished with singular affection by the Most High. But even the wealthy full-grown man has to obey. He must obey the State, and he must obey the Church. The State, making laws on behalf of property and public decency, commands his ready homage, except perhaps for the burden of taxation. But the Church tries the obedience of the rich. Her fasts and abstinences get in the way of their elegant dinners. Her marriage laws do not suit their family arrangements. A rich man is more apt than a poor man to cavil at the authoritative pronouncements of the Holy See, partly because he is more highly educated and has leisure for speculation; partly because his judgment, fed with flattery -- for everybody listens and many applaud when the rich man speaks -- proudly goes its own way, impatient of control. The most divine of obediences is obedience to God's Church.

At the Last Day, as a holy man has said, mankind will be divided on a simple principle. The obedient men will be ranged on one side of the Judge, the disobedient on the other. Like will be assorted with like; some with the arch-rebel, whose banner they have followed and whose motto they have repeated, I will not serve (Jerem. ii, 20); others shall be gathered to eternal rest in His bosom, who was obedient even unto the death of the cross (Phil. ii, 8).

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