Sins of the tongue: omission & commission

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Gossips,” 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948. Oil on canvas. Private collection. ©SEPS: Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN

-by Br Damian Day, OP

“Sticks and stones may break bones, but words wound hearts. A well chosen insult cuts to the core, searching out secret soft spots so that the fresh wound festers more than the former. How cleverly cruel we can be, delighting to deliver the destroying word. Yet, sometimes the evil words seem to spring forth of their own accord with a spite that shocks us.

That is the terrible power of the words our tempestuous tongues utter. While we can tame every animal, “no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:7–9). With our tongues we cry kyrie one moment in church and curse the car that cuts us off the next.

The tongue needs training beyond human craft to drain its deadly poison. For, the tongue’s venom ferments in a vicious heart. “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). The tongue tells what the heart houses.

And the heart houses what it hears. Do our hearts hear only wounding words or the wondrous word of him who said, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23)? When our hearts open to receive his words, the Word himself dwells therein. The Word dwelling within pours forth an abundance of his wisdom into the treasury of our hearts.

With sapiential starkness, a proverb articulates the transformation: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts; but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18). When the Word of Wisdom has made the heart whole, the tongue no longer raves and rants and wrecks. From a healed heart, the disciple speaks words of healing, “for he whom God has sent utters the words of God” (Jn 3:34). May tongues always utter the words of him who heals wounded hearts.”

Sin of omission

In Catholic teaching, an omission is a failure to do something one can and ought to do. If an omission happens deliberately and freely, it is considered a sin.

The degree of guilt incurred by an omission is measured, like that attaching to sins of commission, by the dignity of the virtue and the magnitude of the precept to which the omission is opposed, as well as the amount of deliberation.

A person may be guilty of a sin of omission if he fails to do something which he is able to do and which he ought to do because he has put himself into a state or situation whereby he is unable or unwilling to complete the action.

“A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscrete speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.

The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: “They are dumb dogs that cannot bark.” On another occasion he complains: “You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord.” To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of the world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.

When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel. Therefore, the Lord again says to His unfaithful people: “Your prophets saw false and foolish visions and did not point out your wickedness that you might repent of your sins.” The name of prophet is sometimes given in the sacred writings to teachers who both declare the present to be fleeting and reveal what is to come. The word of God accuses them of seeing false visions because they are afraid to reproach men for their faults and thereby lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Because they fear reproach, they keep silent and fail to point out the sinner’s wrongdoing.

The word of reproach is a key that unlocks a door, because reproach reveals a fault of which the evildoer himself is often unaware. That is why Paul says of the bishop: “He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: “The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is a messenger of the Lord of hosts.” Finally, that is also the reason why the Lord warns us through Isaiah: “Cry out and be not still; raise your voice in a trumpet call.”

Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge Who follows. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? It was to bring this home that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues on the first pastors, for He causes those whom He has filled, to speak out spontaneously.”

-Pope St Gregory the Great (540-604 AD)


Leave a Reply