March 2014 Print

Question and Answer

by Fr. Peter Scott, SSPX

May one hide a part of the truth when swearing under oath?

An affirmative oath is the calling on God as witness to the truthfulness of one’s statement concerning a past event. The purpose of an oath is the confirmation of a certain truth, and as such is based upon the divine attribute of omniscience. God, knowing all things, cannot be deceived. An oath confirms the truth of one’s affirmations, for no one can be presumed to be culpable of such impiety and irreverence as to call upon God as witness to a falsehood, and thus to subject himself to the justice of the Almighty.

It is of Faith that oaths are licit under the right conditions, in particular when there is a proportionate reason, as is the case when witnesses are asked to swear under oath in a court of law. Moreover, such oaths are virtuous, being acts of the virtue of religion. The taking of God as a witness is, indeed, a profession of His indefectible truthfulness and His universal omniscience. However, the converse is also the case. The taking of an oath to a falsehood is not just a venial sin, as is a lie, but a mortal sin against the virtue of religion. Moreover, there is no light matter in such a sin. Any falsehood stated under oath, even one of lesser importance, is a mortal sin against the virtue of religion.

Theologians state that there are three conditions for an oath to be licit, as explicitly declared by the prophet Jeremias (4:2). These are also explicitly stated in the 1917 (Canon 1316) and 1983 (Canon 1199) Codes of Canon Law. The first condition is the judgment of prudence as to whether there is a sufficient reason to swear an oath, so that it is truly an act of reverence of the divine majesty. Swearing the truth for trivial reasons is a venial sin. Clearly, there is a sufficient reason when a witness swears in a court of law. The common good requires it. The second condition is that it is a just and honest thing to swear, and not something evil (e.g. heresy) or simply the revelation of another’s hidden fault, so as to destroy his reputation.

The third and most important condition, which concerns us here, is that of truthfulness. By truthfulness is meant not only that the sworn assertion is in conformity with the external reality, but also that it is in conformity with the mind of the person who swears to the truth. For truthfulness on the part of a witness excludes all lies, that is, speaking against one’s own mind or personal conviction, but it does not exclude all error. Consequently, a person who swears to an erroneous statement that he is firmly convinced is true does not commit the sin of perjury, where­as a person who swears to a statement that happens to be true although he believes it to be false does commit the sin of perjury. Moreover, a person can only swear to something as certain when he is truly convinced that it is certain, and not just doubtful or probable. If he thinks that it is only probable or that it is doubtful, then he must state as much, and not mislead others under oath into thinking that it is certain, again under pain of perjury.

The purpose of an oath being to guarantee that the witness’s statements are in conformity with his personal conviction as to the objective truth, it is customary in English to administer it with the expression: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” Although not essential to an oath, it emphasizes that the witness in his assertions of answers to questions must tell the entire truth that is on his mind, without suppressing a part of the truth (=the whole truth), nor misleading by suggesting something that is not true (=nothing but the truth). In this way, mental reservations are excluded.

There are two kinds of mental reservation. A mental reservation in the strict sense exists when the witness limits the meaning of the words to a special meaning that is not manifested outwardly and cannot be figured out from the circumstances. It is quite simply a lie and is never permissible. Innocent XI condemned the contrary opinion in 1679, namely the opinion that the person who swears in this way “does not lie and is no perjurer” (Prop. 26, Denzinger, 1176).

A mental reservation in the broad sense exists when the limitation of the meaning of the words to one particular sense can be deduced from the circumstances of things, persons and places, as for example when a physician testifies under oath that he knows nothing, meaning by this that he knows nothing that he is able to reveal, since knowledge in this case is under a professional secret. In such a case, it is not a lie. However, the use of such a mental reservation is not permissible without a proportionately grave reason, and then only provided that there is no intention to deceive and that there is no other honest means of protecting a secret to which one is bound, or some other right due in justice. Furthermore, when an oath is sworn, a major and grave reason is required to use such a mental reservation in the broad sense, on account of the reverence that is due to the holy name of God (Merkelbach, Th. Mor., II, §860).

A witness called to give evidence in a court of law will consequently commit the crime of perjury if he uses a mental reservation that the judge and jurors cannot possibly understand; for example, if he were to say that he met the accused on the day in question, understanding in his own mind a meeting by video-conferencing, but allowing everybody else to understand that he met him in person. This is a mental reservation in the strict sense, which nobody could understand. If he were to use a mental reservation in the broad sense without sufficient reason, he would be likewise guilty of a sin against the virtue of religion. This is what Father Merkelbach has to say about this case: “He who uses a mental reservation (in the broad sense) without sufficient reason moreover commits a lie because, if there is not sufficient reason, the circumstances do not sufficiently indicate the restriction in the meaning of the words placed in the mind. Hence he who confirms such a statement with an oath, commits perjury strictly speaking” (ibid., §861).

The attempt to hide a portion of the truth or evidence in a sworn testimony by a witness is effectively a mental reservation, allowing the judge and jury to think that he has given all the relevant information when in fact he has not. If he deliberately omits the cause of an accident or an important circumstance in a crime it would usually be with the intention of deceiving the judge and jury. If this evidence pertains in some way to the substance of the case, such as why an accident happened, or what kind of crime was committed, or how the crime was committed, then it is perjury. It will generally be a mental reservation in the strict sense, which is equivalent to a lie. However, there are occasions in which it is a mental reservation in the broad sense, as for example when a criminal pleads “not guilty” to a crime that he committed. This could be understood, and even expected, by anybody. In the case of the criminal who pleads “not guilty,” there is a proportionately grave reason, and everybody understands that nobody is bound to accuse himself in a court of law.

This will not easily be the case for other kinds of broad mental reservations. Firstly, it is very difficult to be sure that they are broad and not strict. If they truly are broad, it is also necessary that there be no deception involved. However, if some information is hidden, then there is in general the intention to deceive or lead astray, at least to some extent. In such a case, even if it is a broad mental reservation, it is illicit, and is effectively the same thing as a lie. The usual motives for such a mental reservation under oath are the safeguarding of property, or obtaining a larger financial settlement. These are not sufficient to justify a broad mental reservation, as is clear from the following statement, also condemned by Pope Innocent XI: “A just reason for using these ambiguous words exists, as often as it is necessary or useful to guard the well-being of the body, honor, property, or for any other act of virtue, so that the concealing of the truth is then regarded as expedient and zealous” (Prop. 27, Dz. 1177).

In conclusion, therefore, it will not be licit to swear under oath and at the same time to hold back a substantial fact or cause or piece of information or other truth which concerns the case upon which one is a witness, unless it is clear that one has a right to withhold that information, and there is no other way of doing it (such as refusing to testify) and there is a grave reason to do so (e.g. the protection of the professional or confessional secret). A witness under oath must consequently tell everything that is relevant to answering the questions asked or the facts upon which he is making sworn deposition.

Is there such a thing as a God particle?

In July 2012 took place in Melbourne, Australia, an international meeting of 800 physicists, gathered for the announcement of the discovery of a subatomic particle, called the Higgs boson, which discovery was only made possible by multi-national cooperation for the construction of a multi-billion dollar, 17 kilometer long, underground tunnel to act as an accelerator. They called this newly discovered subatomic particle the “God particle,” for it is, they state, the ultimate explanation of the world in which we live.

That there exist such sub-atomic particles, whose existence can be postulated and verified on the basis of experimentation, is not questioned. The question is, rather, whether such particles can be considered as an explanation of reality, and in particular of the physical universe.

The keen observer of nature that Aristotle was, saw that there are four kinds of causes of the things around us. The most obvious cause is the material cause, that out of which something is made. However, the identity of something, or ability or characteristics do not principally depend upon that out of which it is made. An animal is not a deer or a dog because it is made up of various cells that have molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen or oxygen atoms, much less because of sub-atomic particles that might be contained in the atoms. There are other causes that make the animal a deer or a dog, but which cannot be measured as physical weights, electrical charges, magnetic fields, or anything else which is contained in the material make-up. This must be another cause, which unites all the atoms, molecules, cells, organs, tissues together to make it a deer or a dog, and to give it life, characteristics, and ability to act. It is called the formal cause, because it gives the form or nature to a physical thing. This is obvious for all living beings, and is particularly so for man, whose form is his soul. However, the same applies to inanimate material things. Water is much more than the simple combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Its vast and necessary range of necessary qualities are the consequence of what it is, its nature, its form. Consequently, the material cause cannot be the ultimate explanation of what a thing is, and it is a denial of the simplest logic to consider that the Higgs boson might be an ultimate explanation or “God-particle.”

But even these two causes do not explain how things come into existence. There must be something that acts in such a way as to unite form to matter, so that the material thing can have the nature which belongs to it. Without such an efficient cause, nothing would happen, and there would be no explanation for the obvious observation that changes exists in the physical world around us. To say that Higgs bosons themselves, by a manner of evolution, create matter, is nonsense. It is like saying that the plaster makes a statue, or that the wood makes the house. It is the total lack of explanation of how something comes about. This is one aspect of the physical impossibility of evolution for the creation of the universe. It is the denial of the efficient cause.

Moreover, the real scientist will note that there is always a further cause, without which nothing would happen, which makes the agent act to bring about any change. It is the reason why something happens. It is the ultimate explanation of reality, for without it no efficient cause would act and nothing would happen. In nature a purpose is constantly observed in all the actions of any living thing. It eats to sustain life; it mates to maintain the species; flowers produce pollen for the bees; the bees pollinate the flowers so that they can multiply. Even in the inert material world purpose is clearly present. The clouds produce rain, and evaporation produces the clouds. Likewise for the minerals that constitute the soil. The ultimate explanation of reality is, then, the answer to the question as to why it is that this particular matter has this particular form, that is why it was brought into being, and what purpose it plays in creation. If, then, there is a “God-particle,” an ultimate explanation of reality, it truly is the final cause and not the Higgs boson.

It is characteristic of the modern atheistic scientist that he refuses to look at anything beyond the material cause. Why would he fall into such an absurdity as to deny the other three causes of the reality that he studies and measures? Why would he be so lacking in logic as to fail to see that the true richness and beauty of God’s creation exist in the explanations as to what something is, how it comes about and why? There is no other explanation than that of a radical prejudice, a presupposition that underlies all that he studies, namely that there is no God. Consequently, he refuses the perfect order of the universe, with its coordination of purpose, that is of final causality, amongst all of God’s creatures. He refuses the evidence of the senses that God exists, and that is the reason, the only reason and the full reason why he proposes a theory of evolution, evacuating every cause but the material cause, and giving to this material cause the power to give a nature to things, to make things happen, and to make them happen for a reason. The only reason, then, why he proposes that the Higgs boson is a God-particle is that he has substituted the material cause for God; he has made a God of matter; he has fallen into the most radical and insane idolatry imaginable.