Oath & Perjury

September 13 2021 | by

AN OATH is a solemn promise, often invoking God, which a person makes about his or her behavior. Often a person gets into serious trouble breaking an oath or not living up to it. Generally, an oath is made before an institutional authority. A person who takes an oath is expected to comply with the oath until the time limit for the oath is over. A person taking an oath is presumed to be telling the truth; if proven otherwise, the oath taker can be convicted of perjury, which is the willful telling of an untruth while under oath.

We are familiar with the medical school oath (often the Hippocratic Oath), the presidential oath of office in the USA, an oath of military enlistment, an oath to testify in court, wedding vows and scout oaths.

In the Middle Ages, an oath of fealty was a pledge of allegiance in which the vassal (subordinate) swore perpetual loyalty to his lord in return for the lord’s protection and material support. The oath of fealty usually took place after the act of homage. The vassal knelt before the lord and placed his hands between the lord’s hands, thus becoming the ‘man’ of the lord. Generally, the vassal swore his oath upon a Bible, a saint’s relic, or a church altar, thereby invoking God as a witness.

An example of such an oath is: I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord, never cause him harm and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit.

Fealty and homage were supporting pillars of European feudalism in which lords vied for and held power over vassals, villages, and kingdoms.


Religious adaptation


Penitents were forbidden by their Rule to take oaths. “All are to refrain from formal oaths unless where necessity compels, in the cases excepted by the Sovereign Pontiff in his indult, that is, for peace, for the Faith, under calumny, and in bearing witness” (Section 17). The Rule also forbid penitents “to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody” (Section 16). Penitents were to be faithful to God alone, whereas vassals were expected to defend their lord in power struggles or war.

Penitents and religious adapted the oath of fealty and the act of homage, thus making them into religious vows given into the hands of a superior of a religious Order, but made to God alone, though the superior. When a deacon is ordained to the priesthood, he places his hands between the hands of his Bishop. The Bishop, as representative of Christ and the Church, asks, “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” and the candidate responds, “I do.” Members of the Confraternity of Penitents, who are living a modern update of the 1221 Rule for penitents, take their pledges by placing their hands between the hands of a priest, deacon, or religious, and promise “to live for the rest of my life the Rule and Constitutions of the Confraternity of Penitents, in full consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of the Confraternity. I do this freely, believing that God has given me the call to live this holy way of life and knowing that He will provide the grace to do so. May this be for the glory of Christ Crucified and the service of the Church.”


Good conversation


The Rule of 1221 also forbid ‘silly’ oaths such as ‘cross my heart and hope to die’ or even, ‘I swear I’ll do it’. If a penitent ‘messed up’, he or she had a penalty. “Also in their ordinary conversations they will do their best to avoid oaths. And should anyone have sworn thoughtlessly through a slip of the tongue, as happens where there is much talking, he should the evening of the same day, when he is obliged to think over what he has done, say three Our Fathers in amends of such oaths” (Section 18). Not a bad practice to follow even today!

While penitents were to “remain quiet during the Mass and sermon” (Section 21), their Rule encouraged them to good conversation. They were to pray the Lord’s Prayer once before and after meals and “give thanks to God” (Section 7). The ministers were to visit ill brothers and sisters at least weekly and remind them of penance while also supplying them with alms from the common fund (Section 22).


No frivolity


In his talks to the penitents, Saint Anthony encouraged “honest” conversation. “Honest conversation is beautiful and sweet, having nothing disgraceful in its actions, nothing out of place in its words, nothing unbecoming in gesture or movement; thus it refreshes our neighbors’ sight with the color of its beauty, and delights the palate of his mind” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals IV, p. 230; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).

Anthony was severe in his condemnation of using God’s name frivolously. “He who uses the name of God without its meaning, instead of respecting the meaning of the name, takes it in vain. And so they enter the sea, which is the bitterness of sin, in order to pass from this to the bitterness of torment” (Sermons I, p. 14).


Bridling the tongue


The Epistle of Saint James was precious to Anthony’s spirituality. If any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religious is in vain” (James 1:26). Anthony taught, “Let a religious man who is puffed up in spirit, careless in speech and excluded from God’s kingdom hear these words ‘If any man think himself to be religious,’ etc. The tongue should be controlled, and whoever does not silence it proves that he is without real religion. The beginning of religion is the bridling of the tongue… I should not speak even good things out of turn: there is a time to be silent and a time to say what is good.” (Sermons I, pp. 382-83).

“The beginning of religion is the bridling of the tongue.” Penitent or not, those seeking to follow Christ more closely can begin with the words they say. And not only say, but also type, text, and think.

Updated on September 13 2021