views updated May 29 2018


Oaths are appeals to God in witness of the truth of statements or of the binding character of promises. The oath has been in use among all peoples; it continues to be regarded as a useful social institution and a formal guarantee of truthfulness necessary in organized society. Some (e.g., the Quakers) have interpreted Mt 5.4 to be an absolute prohibition of oaths, but Christ's words are a condemnation only of the type of trivial or profane oaths that were permitted under pharisaical casuistry (see oaths in the bible).

There was some difference of opinion among the Fathers of the Church regarding the licitness of oaths. Chrysostom regarded them as a snare of the devil to be avoided under all circumstances (Serm. ad pop. Ant. 15; In Act. Apost. hom. 8). Augustine was not concerned about a gospel prohibition, but thought that the oath should be avoided because of the danger of perjury that would arise from the frequent use of it (In psalm. 88.4; De mend. 28). Others, basing their arguments on New Testament usage, especially on the example of St. Paul, who frequently expressed himself in language indistinguishable from an oath (e.g., 1 Thes 2.5; 2 Cor 1.23; Gal 120; Rom 1.9), thought the taking of oaths was permissible in proper circumstances. This view prevailed in Christian times. Oaths became part of the judicial procedure; and oaths pledging fealty, fidelity, or the faithful performance of the duties of an office were recognized as having a social value. Theologians have generally held that an oath taken under proper conditions is not only licit but is also an act of the virtue of religion inasmuch as it is an expression of homage to the wisdom and power of God (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, 81.2).

By reason of the matter with which it is concerned an oath is either assertory (declaratory), that is, it calls upon God to witness that one is speaking the truth; or it is promissory, that is, it calls upon God to guarantee one's pledge to do or not to do something. In mode, an oath is either invocatory or imprecatory. In the former, one calls upon God as a witness; in the latter, one invites God's punishment if what is sworn to is false. An oath may also

be either implicit or explicit. In the one, God is mentioned by name; in the other, the formula or gesture used is generally understood to imply the invocation of Him.

To be licit, an oath demands truthfulness, judgment (prudence), and justice (Jer 4.2). The first of these conditions requires the person who takes the oath to speak truly and, in the case of a promissory oath, to be sincere in his intention to fulfill his promise. Judgment, or prudence, requires sufficient reason for taking the oath. In an assertory oath justice demands that the statement should not be sinful (as would be the case, for example, if it were defamatory); in a promissory oath, that which is promised should be morally lawful.

In the case of the promissory oath, the object of the promise must be possible and morally good. A promise of what is impossible, evil, or vain dishonors God and has no binding force. Moreover, it is understood that one undertakes to keep the promise only so long as the fulfillment remains morally possible, provided legitimate authority does not forbid it, and provided no notable change occurs in the matter of the promise, and the beneficiary of the promise does not yield his right to the fulfillment.

Because God is called to witness in an oath, the Church, as the official representative of Christ, legislates on the taking of oaths and claims the power of releasing those who are bound by promissory oaths.

See Also: perjury.

Bibliography: t. aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, 89. h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, rev. and enl. ed. by l. w. geddes (New York 1958) 2:4448. h. noldin, Summa theologiae moralis, rev. a. schmitt and g. heinzel, 3 v. (Innsbruck 196162); v. 1 contains complementa, De castitate and De poenis ecclesiasticis, separately paged, 2:208223. n. iung, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 14.2:194056.

[m. herron]


views updated May 17 2018

oaths. From early days the taking of solemn religious oaths was regarded as an essential part of the political and social order. Monarchs swore oaths at their coronations, vassals swore oaths on doing homage, jurors swore oaths on being empanelled. Difficulties began at the Reformation when oaths were devised to make it impossible for catholics to take them: the Elizabethan Act of Supremacy in 1559 demanded an oath from all ministers, judges, graduates, or mayors that they acknowledged the queen as supreme governor of the church. The next century saw torment by oaths. Right-thinking persons in 1644 were required to take an oath to support the Solemn League and Covenant and in 1662 to repudiate it. quakers were in the most disagreeable of all positions since their refusal to take oaths on principle was regarded as utterly subversive, and they suffered imprisonment and loss of property. James II, when duke of York, was forced to resign as lord high admiral because the oath of office under the Test Act contained a declaration against transubstantiation which, as a catholic, he could not take. The first group to obtain concessions was the quakers, who lobbied hard after the Glorious Revolution. In 1689 they were allowed to make a solemn declaration of loyalty, in 1696 they were permitted to affirm in civil cases, and in 1749 to affirm whenever an oath was required by statute, though they were still excluded from public office. A collision of oaths kept catholics out of Parliament until 1829, since George III insisted that any concession would damage the protestant constitution and breach his coronation oath. Jews remained ineligible for Parliament after 1829 since the oath was on the true faith of a Christian, and were not admitted until 1858. Atheists had to wait until after the Bradlaugh case. In 1888 the Oath Act cleared up the whole matter by permitting a solemn affirmation in all cases.

J. A. Cannon


views updated May 21 2018

Oaths. A self-curse in Judaism which would be fulfilled if certain conditions were not met. Oath-taking was common in Ancient Israel. In Talmudic law, oaths were used as a means of judicial proof in civil cases and could not be sworn by known liars, minors, the deaf and dumb, or the insane. Taking an oath involved holding the Scroll of the Law and swearing by God or one of his attributes (B.Shevu. 38b). See also CURSING.

In Christianity, Matthew 5. 33–7 has been taken by some (e.g. Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, Waldensians) to preclude any kind of oath-taking; but more generally it has been understood as a prohibition on swearing.