The importance of telling the truth and the consequences for failing to do so seemed much clearer and forthright in the past than they are today. Maybe this seemed so because the use of psychology to “excuse” sinful behavior was in its infant stage prior to Vatican II. This was a time when people paid attention to Christ’s wisdom and admonitions on the taking of oaths and fulfilling them: “Thou shall not swear falsely but fulfill thy oaths to the Lord. But I say to you not to swear at all; neither by heaven because it is the throne of God; neither by the earth for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither do they swear by their head, for thou canst make one hair white or black. But let your speech be Yes, yes; No, no; and whatever is beyond these comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5: 33-37). As this passage states, Jesus commands us to keep our oaths and not “swear falsely.” He warns us that to do otherwise “comes from the evil one.” The taking of an oath, therefore, is most important, and we are cautioned not to take this lightly.
As a young boy growing up in the 1940’s and early 50’s, I can recall a time when being branded as a liar seriously tarnished one’s reputation and led to public humiliation and ridicule. Liars were required to put a dunce cap on their head and sit on a stool in the corner of the classroom. Children taunted dishonest peers, chanting rhymes such as “liar, liar pants on fire” at those who were caught in their deception. And kids being kids, they were quick to make sure that liars understood that they were not to be trusted, questioning every detail and expressing great doubt about their veracity concerning even minor matters. These were the times when politically correct terms such as “misspoke” and the clever manipulation of words to deceive the naïve public were held at bay for the most part. Yes meant yes; No meant no; and lies were not covered over by claiming that one “misspoke” when he really did steal the cookies from the cookie jar and denied doing so.
In days gone by, it was more widely known that taking an oath and failing to honor it could lead to the damnation of one’s soul. Consider the meaning of the word oath and what this entails. First, a person who takes an oath, declares solemnly and forthrightly that he “will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God.” Second, the oath taker calls on God as a witness to verify his sincerity and veracity. The act of invoking God as one’s witness has far reaching implications.
If the oath taker views God as The Father of Truth, Who can neither deceive or be deceived; is all powerful and just; and will punish us for failing to keep our promise, the pressure to be honest is likely to be far greater than for someone who denies God’s perfection, power and even His existence. Because the former fears divine retribution, he is more likely to honor his oath. The latter, on the other hand, is more likely to be cavalier in his attitude, hardly worrying about being punished by God or burning in the fires of Hell. The fear of God, therefore, would have no compelling influence in motivating him to keep his promise. The non-believer may honor an oath administered by the State, Military, or a Professional organization in order to avoid harsh penalties for its violation. Fear of the power of these human institutions makes it more likely that he will honor his obligations. However, human institutions, unlike God, are fallible. Those in authority in such institutions can be deceived, corrupted, or lax in the enforcement of penalties. Perfect justice, therefore, can never be served. Only God can provide this. The State can never replace God and His power to hold us accountable. God will not allow us to avoid those sanctions, which humans by the clever “spinning” and manipulation of words, might escape. Hence, a tribunal before God would be far more serious than a tribunal before men. Naturally, those who are prone to deception would want God struck out of all oaths, which is happening today.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, growing up in a Catholic community that proclaimed traditional Catholic values made us well aware of being honest and the pros and cons of failing to behave accordingly. We understood that being tagged as a liar was not only offensive to our parents, relatives, and teachers, but most importantly, lying was repugnant to God. Even as children we knew that taking an oath was serious business, and that the failure to honor it would lead to a run in with God, the consequences of which could be dire. This, however, did not deter us from invoking him as a witness to our trustworthiness. For example, how often did we tell a story or describe an event to our peers, the validity of such which they might question. In order to affirm our veracity, we made the sign of the cross over our heart and stated, “Cross my heart and hope to die — that’s the truth.” And that simple addendum was the show stopper. By calling on The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as our witnesses and asking that we be struck dead, affirmed without a doubt what we said was true — unless, of course, we had the reputation of being a liar, irreverent, or non-believer.
Prior to Vatican II, children and adults had a healthy fear of God based on the awe and reverence of His great power. “Cross my heart and hope to die” and the serious taking of oaths and honoring them was made possible because the clergy and laity perceived God in this light. God allowed us to call on Him as a witness to the truth. However, if we failed to keep our promise, we knew that He would “heap hot coals upon our head” for violating our oath to Him (Saint Paul, Romans: 12, 16-21).
Despite the dire consequences for violating an oath made to God, oaths asking Him to serve as a witness to the truth were common. Public, private, and religious institutions formulated solemn declarations specifying duties, obligations, and promises, in which God was called forth as the primary witness and enforcer of the truth. For instance, in the United States a witness in court is required to affirm the following: “I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God” before testifying. In the Oath of Enlistment, the enlistee is required to affirm that he or she will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and abide by the uniform Code of Military Justice. This oath concludes with the phrase “so help me God.” The “so help me God” addendum implies that we are calling upon God as our witness to this promise, with the understanding that we will incur his wrath if we fail to honor it.
Like it or not, it is the threat of punishment that is often the primary motivator for insuring that we will fulfill our obligations, especially when the fulfillment of such could be very painful indeed. It is human nature to want to “fudge a little” in telling the truth, and “passing the buck” when we have failed to complete our duties in a proper fashion. Fulfilling an oath can cost us human respect, our job, the loss of money and property, and even our life in some cases. Ask Saint Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, about that. But even more painful than what might be taken from us in the here and now would be the loss of our immortal soul. It is the fear of this, which can only be inflicted on us by God, which trumps the fear of losing what the world has to offer or take away.
Oaths requiring that we invoke God as a witness and the judge of its proper execution are an essential ingredient upon which the trustworthiness of a nation’s citizens is founded. In our spiritually blinded, secular society “so help me God” has become increasingly more optional, ignored, or left out of these solemn declarations. This is evident to those of us who were reared in the old Catholic Church and have lived through the tumultuous years since Vatican II.
Relying on human institutions and the men who run them to inspire others to fulfill their obligations without sanctions doesn’t work. And even if punishments are provided, counting on human authorities to administer them fairly is tricky business. Over the past fifty years, we have witnessed this time and time again. Governmental, corporate, and political corruption have caused the citizens of our country to become more mistrusting and cynical than ever. And even worse, the Church hierarchy and clergy have failed to live up to their responsibilities to protect and pass on the traditional Catholic Faith to the succeeding generations. There are elderly Cardinals, bishops, and priests today who have taken the Oath against Modernism (Pius X, Sacrorum Antistitum, September 1, 1910). They certainly appear to have violated this Oath many times over. Even if this is pointed out to them, they act as if they have no obligation to fulfill their promises. Yet, they invoked God as a witness to their sincerity and veracity of keeping this Oath.
How do those who took the Oath against Modernism rationalize away their failure to fulfill this promise? What were they thinking at the time they took this Oath? Were they sincere about fulfilling the oath before Pope Paul VI discontinued it in 1967? Did Paul VI’s discontinuance of the Oath mean that they were now released from their obligation to honor it? And what about those men who faithfully fulfilled the Oath to the end of their lives? Were they ignorant, misinformed fools whose rigid thinking failed “to evolve” properly? Christ said, “by their fruits you shall know them.” ( Matthew 7: 16). The fruits of this abandonment of St. Pius X’s strong Antimodernism have been bitter indeed! Could the failure to honor this Oath, which had been already made to God, and the intentional effort to separate His Church from the State by striking out “so help me God” from its solemn declarations, account for the marked moral decline over the past fifty years?
Now that I am old and gray, I often think of my uncle, Father Joseph Lavin who was called The Iron Man of China. He was a missionary priest for twenty years before he was arrested and tortured by the Communists. He, like the other missionaries of his time, took the Oath against Modernism and fulfilled this promise right to the end of their lives. These great priests reigned in the days of The Church Militant. When they said “so help me God,” they meant it. The Catholic Church flourished back then. Maybe this occurred because we took God and the oaths made to Him far more seriously than we do today. “Cross my heart and hope to die” is a relic of the past. Although it was often recited by children, it said something about us, our society, and the importance of truth and our obligations to the Almighty. This, unfortunately, is what is missing today.