When it comes to serious sin that can cut us off from sanctifying grace, we tend to think of the more overt types of sin: the ones that we hear about in the news or the ones that we have had engrained in our minds ever since we set foot in CCD class or youth group.
When it comes to the eighth commandment, it is easy to ask ourselves “did I tell a bald-faced lie?” when examining our consciences and be satisfied when we can say “no” and move along. As with much of the interior life—our spiritual life—the truth about the eighth commandment goes deeper than just a cursory examination. Sins against this commandment may actually be quite grave, akin to the murder of the soul, and the killing of the reputation of another. The truth is, our mouths and tongues can get us into eternal trouble (biblically and theologically sins against the eighth commandment are sometimes referred to as sins of the tongue).
St. John Chrysostom wisely said, “Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?” St. Thomas Aquinas devoted a section of the Summa Theologiae to exploring gossip and its forms and he identified them as sins against justice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes certain forms of gossip as sins against charity as well. So just what are sins of gossip, or the sins against the eighth commandment and why are they so sneaky?
St. Thomas to the rescue
In his Summa, St. Thomas broke down the various forms of gossip and it is helpful to take them one by one. You can also find them listed in the Catechism beginning in section 2477.
Rash judgement is what it is called when you assume, even a little bit, the worst of someone, particularly if the “worst” is a moral defect or fault. If you publicly dishonor someone especially to their face, it is called reviling, and reviling is done with the intent of making someone look bad, discrediting them, or causing them public shame.
According to Monsignor Pope, a pastor, writer, and lecturer, “It may include name-calling, caricature, profanity and even cursing.” The Catechism goes on to say, “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: ‘Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.'” (St. Ignatius of Loyola)
Talking behind someone’s back, also referred to as backbiting or backstabbing, is another offense against the eighth commandment and has two forms: calumny and detraction. Calumny, says the Catechism, includes “remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.” In other words, it is lies told about another person, in order to harm their reputation or honor, or to make others think badly of them, when the person being talked about isn’t present and therefore cannot defend him or herself. If this form of gossip is written instead of spoken, it is called slander.
Detraction is a little more tricky. Detraction, according to the catechism, occurs when someone “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.” So detraction is a truth told inappropriately, whose effect is to hurt a person’s reputation or call into question their good name or standing. The key to the difference between calumny and detraction is that calumny involves lies that are told about a person, and detraction involves a truth shared wrongly. In both cases the intent is to harm the reputation or cast doubt on the moral character of someone who isn’t present and cannot defend him or herself. Calumny and detraction are so serious that the Catechism goes on to explain that “everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.”
St. Thomas differentiates between tale bearing (also called tale whispering) and backbiting because its intent is to stir up action against a person. Monsignor Pope explains:
“Perhaps he seeks to have others end professional, business, or personal relationships with the one gossiped about. Perhaps his goal is to incite angry responses toward him, or even violence. Perhaps too, some legal action is the desired outcome. But the tale-bearer seeks to incite some action against the one he gossips about, hence it goes further than the harming of reputation, to include the harming of relationships, finances, legal standing, and so forth.”
Derision, according to St. Thomas, is what it is called when someone is made fun of, even light-heartedly, with the intent and effect of harming their reputation or their public honor. The Catechism further says that “Boasting or bragging is an offense against truth. So is irony aimed at disparaging someone by maliciously caricaturing some aspect of his behavior.” These behaviors are particularly insidious and sneaky on social media.
Each of these forms of gossip can be mortally harmful to one’s soul. The sneaky thing about gossip is that while it hurts the person who is the object of the gossip, can ruin a reputation, and have long lasting consequences, it ultimately hurts the person engaging in the gossip infinitely (and possibly eternally) more.
Gossip is so sneaky—and the devil loves to trap us—so we often make excuses for our sin. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we aren’t gossiping when, in reality, we are.
How many times have you heard, “so and so needs your prayers” and what follows is a detailed account of “so and so” and his or her misdeeds which cannot be verified, and at which time “so and so” isn’t present to defend him or herself? How many times have you told yourself you were seeking “wise counsel” about how to handle a situation or person only to share unverified information, or truths which weren’t yours to share, with more than just a few “trusted friends” instead of the one or two spiritually mature advisors like St. Francis de Sales suggests when seeking counsel? Or how many times have you been the recipient of un-needed information that made you feel a little bit special to hear? To be “confided in” about the faults of another or the alleged misconduct of another when in reality, this information was not necessary for you to know, yet it felt good to be included and so you encouraged the information sharing?
The Catechism makes it very clear that even the bonds of friendship do not absolve us of the gravity of gossip. “Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech.” When we encourage someone in gossip, or worse, when we praise them, or encourage them in it, we are guilty of sin ourselves. So what are we to do then?
The truth will make you free
Jesus tells us that truth sets us free. He also tells us that he is the way, the truth, and the life. We must strive for truth, always. Knowing what the sins against the eighth commandment are is a good place to start. Understanding that sins of the tongue are serious, is a good next step. “Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (Jam. 3:11).
When we find ourselves in a situation that involves gossip, the saints have some good advice for us. St. Francis de Sales explains that we should respond in truth as much as possible. St. John Vianney counsels, “If something uncharitable is said in your presence, either speak in favor of the absent, or withdraw, or if possible, stop the conversation.” Sometimes our silence speaks louder than any words will. Do not be afraid to be silent when you cannot say anything that will end the gossip, and when you cannot remove yourself from it. While being silent, pray for the person being gossiped about and for the person gossiping, and then pray for wisdom so that if an opportunity presents itself whereby you may correct the wrong, you may seize it with courage.
When you are the target
What happens when you are the target of gossip? This is a good question, and it deserves its own article, so stay tuned for Part 2: Talk Less, Pray More: How to Deal With Gossip Like a Saint! In the meantime, if you realize you have been the target of gossip, the Gospels have already laid out a framework by which you may act:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
Then reflect on the words of St. Josemaria Escriva, “After seeing how many people waste their lives, their whole lives (tongues wagging, wagging, wagging, and all the inevitable consequences), silence seems preferable to me, and more necessary than ever. And I well understand, Lord, why we have to give an account of all our idle words.”