When I was in high school, my family lived for a time in Henderson, a town in western Kentucky. Now, Main Street in Henderson was a broad and shady thoroughfare, with relatively little traffic.
Shortly after my sixteenth birthday, I was driving along Main Street with my mother. On that particular day, there was very little traffic on that wide and pleasant street. Up ahead, however, was a lone brick near the center of the road. I proceeded to run over that brick, thereby putting my parents' car out of alignment. Rightly exasperated, my mother said, "I knew you'd hit that brick." I promptly retorted, "I knew you knew I'd hid that brick, and I didn't want to disappoint you!" My poor mother!
In my adolescent wisdom, I thought my glib remarks were funny, clever and the sign of high intelligence. Over time, and with a measure of poetic justice, I came to know otherwise.
I learned that lesson by being the recipient and occasionally the object of the glib remarks of others. I learned that sarcastic, cynical and too-clever remarks usually do more harm than good. They can be hurtful to others, especially one's spouse, children, parents, colleagues, and friends. They readily distort the truth. And a comment meant to trump a conversation often harms one's cause. As Dale Carnegie tells us, it's all too easy to win the argument and lose the sale!
Glib speech is an indelible part of our culture. We expect advertising slogans to be clever. Most people watch the Super Bowl not only to see a good football game but also to catch the ads. We tend to admire people in public life whose quick retorts make good sound bytes. I am reminded (without partisanship) of the effectiveness of Ronald Reagan's rejoinder in his debate with Jimmy Carter, "There you go again!" Or who can forget President Kennedy's famous replies to Helen Thomas, the veteran UPI reporter?
We like language that is genuinely clever, witty, and even provocative. But in our reflective moments, we recognize that even the best riposte goes only so far. Even more importantly, we come to appreciate that what we say and write almost always has consequences - in our lives and in the lives of others. We also grow in our ability to be wise and vigilant in evaluating what is said or written about others both in public and in private.
In an age when almost anything can be said about anyone - with impunity - The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps us in our struggle to use rightly the gift of human speech. The sections entitled "Offenses Against Truth" and "Respect for the Truth" (nos. 2475-2492) offer sound guidance for our personal and professional lives.
For the sake of convenience, let me sum up here what those few pages of the Catechism tell us.
It begins by telling us that words count. Those who follow Christ are made new, from the inside out. So what we say reflects, in one way or another, what is in our hearts. In that spirit, Saint Peter instructs us to "put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander" (I Peter 2:1). The Catechism proceeds to spell out how we can offend against the truth, and, in so doing, provides plenty of material for a thorough and daily examination of conscience. Let's consider these offenses against truth:
- False witness and perjury; that is, false statements made publicly or under oath. The Catechism reminds us that "... Acts such as these contribute to the condemnation of the innocent, exoneration of the guilty, or increased punishment of the accused." False witness and perjury, even in secular wisdom, are clearly serious business.
- Lack of respect for the reputation of others. This takes several forms: Rash judgment, that is, a negative (and often false) judgments about another sometimes encapsulated in a glib remark. Detraction, speaking about the actual faults of another. Calumny, speaking falsely about another. Often detraction and calumny are done for the sport of it or to cast oneself in a more favorable light.
- Flattery, adulation, and complaisance are examples of insincere speech. These are not the same as a thoughtful compliment, a word of real appreciation, or genuine amiability. But we know all too well how easy it is to pay an insincere compliment for our own advantage or how easy it is "to go along to get along." When taken to extremes, that attitude can get us into a lot of trouble.
- Boasting and bragging are other examples of misusing speech. It's not hard to exaggerate one's accomplishments, to embellish one's background, or to inflate one's own importance or role. We usually find this a disagreeable trait in others but it is hard to weed out of our own lives. Who of us hasn't occasionally told a fish story?
- Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. According to the Catechism, "... A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving." It goes on to say: ". . . the gravity of a lie is measured against the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims." Lies take many forms. They can entail a deliberate denial or obfuscation of the truth or more subtle efforts to deceive, such as selectively quoting from official documents to create a false impression of what the Church actually teaches. Lies almost always do more harm than we imagine. As the Catechism reminds us, "lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust... and tears apart the social fabric of relationships."
As followers of Christ and as members of His Church, we are called to be men and women who respect the truth. Respect for the truth is a key component to the two great Commandments given us by Christ: to love God above all things, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Catechism rightly teaches that "... charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response of every request for information or communication." Transparency is critically important, particularly when silence does harm to others or when others have a right to know even difficult and sensitive information. But genuine transparency excludes offenses against the truth and includes respect for the dignity and well being of others. Unfortunately, respect for the truth and for the human dignity of those in the spotlight have become rare commodities in our culture.
The best and highest use of human speech is to give thanks and praise to God, to profess our faith, and to help others open their minds and hearts to God and to the faith of the Church. Each day we need to ask the Lord to help us use the gift of speech to glorify His Name and to build up the Body of Christ, the Church. Instead of being glib, let's be glad - deeply and profoundly joyous that Christ's love has found us and put into our mouths the words of everlasting life.
This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue and is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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