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An epidemic of false witness

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 24, 2022

The death of Archbishop Rembert Weakland has thrown the spotlight back on the corruption of the American hierarchy. While the late archbishop was himself involved in both sexual abuse and financial misconduct, let me focus here on another aspect of the corruption, which extends far beyond this one individual: the routine of lies and, still worse, the contempt for people who told the truth.

Most American bishops were not personally involved in sexual abuse. But most—at least most of those whose responses were exposed to public view during the “Long Lent” of 2002—were guilty of misleading their people about abuse and abusers. Few were as relentless as the late Archbishop Weakland in the campaign against whistle-blowers. But the media coverage during that unforgettable sad and scandalous year showed a shockingly familiar pattern:

When confronted with evidence that a priest had abused a child, our bishops:

  1. Denied the evidence.
  2. When the evidence was substantiated, charged the accusers with offending against charity, insisting that there was an innocent explanation.
  3. When the “innocent explanation” became untenable, assured the accusers that the priest was being disciplined, and would be removed from ministry. And then, after a bit of ineffective counseling, moved the priest to a new parish assignment.

Those responses, which so many bishops gave to the justifiably outraged parents of abuse victims were lies. But again, I want to look beyond those lies—sinful though they were in themselves—and consider the treatment of the whistle-blowers.

A lie is an offense against the 8th Commandment. (Or the 9th, as some faiths number the Decalogue.) But it is interesting to note that the commandment does not use the word “lie.” It is: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The quintessential offense against this commandment is to accuse someone unjustly. When the bishops accused parents of offending against charity by accusing a priest of sexual abuse—knowing full well that the accusation was accurate—they offended gravely against that commandment. They were lying when they accused others of lying: a double offense.

To this day I am unaware of a single instance in which an American bishop has apologized to the people against whom he levelled charges of uncharity and even calumny—in some cases making those charges quite public. Bishops have apologized for allowing abuse, and for covering up abuse. But they have not apologized for bearing false witness.

The bishops who were implicated in the scandals made public in 2002 are mostly retired now. But the damage done by their false witness still harms the Church; the offense needs correction—by their successors, if necessary.

The bearing of false witness has become something of an epidemic in American society. We are asked, more and more often, to testify to things that we know to be untrue. In our most prestigious institutions of higher education, faculty and students are expected to give their assent to claims that a man might by choice become a woman, and vice versa, or that a man can join another man in matrimony, a woman another woman. If they give that assent, they are bearing false witness.

Or take the witness that we bear when we attend a wedding ceremony. It is painful (as I can say from personal experience) to tell a good friend that you cannot attend his second wedding, because you witnessed the first exchange of vows, and that first wife is still alive. If you now attend the second ceremony—and no one is even asserting that the first marriage was invalid—then the second marriage is is invalid, and your attendance bears witness to a falsehood.

Leila Miller, who has fought valiantly to preserve the integrity of Christian marriage, has stirred up a hornet’s nest with two new YouTube videos in which she takes prominent Catholics to task for attending wedding ceremonies that are clearly invalid—because the marriage takes place outside the Church, or because the partners are not eligible to marry. Some of her targets, unhappy with the criticism, have responded that after a period of “discernment” (a term popularized by Pope Francis in Amoris Latetia), they determined that attendance at the ceremony would be, on balance, the best way to preserve the unity of the family and perhaps even to guide the couple back to regular status in the Catholic Church. That “discernment” can be questioned; is it simply an excuse to avoid an unpleasant duty? In any case, a wedding is a public act, at which both the couple and their guests are testifying to something. Are they testifying to the truth? It matters.

Declining to attend a wedding ceremony does not mean breaking off all ties with the bride and groom. They might still be welcome for lunch or dinner, for Christmas or Thanksgiving. No one suggests that we cease loving them, caring for them, praying for them. But particularly at a time when the truth is everywhere under attack, we cannot testify to something we know is false.

Corruption arises, in a family or in an institution, when responsible individuals choose their own comfort over their duties. If you wonder what would happen if parents declined to attend the invalid weddings of their children—if you wonder whether parents really make the right choice by attending—consider how the badly the faith was damaged by bishops who thought, perversely, that they could serve the good of the Church by bearing false witness.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Aug. 28, 2022 12:43 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Mr Lawler, for this timely post! I agree with the earlier commentor Chapman18688. We need not look far to see why the faith is not as strong as it should be in our country and in our world today. However, I recall that Saint Peter also publicly denied Christ three times. So this is not just the problem of 21st Century Catholics, but is the problem of human sinfulness in every age.

  • Posted by: petew1977 - Aug. 27, 2022 2:03 PM ET USA

    We need to pray often and fervently for our bishops. As Jesus says: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required" (Lk 12:48).

  • Posted by: chapman18668 - Aug. 25, 2022 10:34 AM ET USA

    Excellent commentary. I too have been struck by the phrasing of the 8th commandment. The great St. Cardinal Newman identified that faith is come to through "personal testimony" i.e. witness. As almost all of us know the Greek word for "witness" is "martyr". The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, it really is the grace given at Confirmation to bear witness through "word and deed". We need not look very far to understand why the Faith has been dwindling for decades...