The Sin of Gossip

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 Scott Richert

“A celebrity priest—a Jesuit—writes a book on the Catholic Church’s treatment of those struggling with sexual disorders. Short on doctrine, long on compassion and sensitivity, the book places the Church and the “LGBT community” on an equal footing, couching its argument in terms of a need for a relationship of mutual respect. Although it is endorsed by at least one cardinal and several bishops, the book comes under respectful criticism from at least two other cardinals, several bishops, and many priests, deacons, and laymen.

The celebrity priest takes to social media to defend his book and to extend its argument. And along the way, he draws into his defense and the extension of his arguments another well-known priest, more than two decades deceased, declaring that he knows that the latter was not only sexually attracted to men but violated his vow of celibacy.

The reaction on Twitter and Facebook is swift and severe, as well it should be—but (in many cases) for all the wrong reasons. Most of those who defend the long-dead priest start from the question of the truth of the celebrity Jesuit’s allegation; was he right or wrong?

But the truth of the claim is, although not irrelevant, at best secondary. The real problem lies in the immorality of making the claim in the first place. Whenever we reveal the sins—actual or imagined—of another, we tread on dangerous ground, and risk committing ourselves the grave sins of detraction and calumny.

In a section titled “Respect for the Truth,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains the following line: “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.” Taken out of context, this might seem to endorse lying in a good cause—for instance, to protect the Jews you have hidden in your attic when the Nazis come knocking on your door. In context, however, that line is not a defense of speaking untruths but a strong statement of the Church’s teaching on the immorality of detraction: the revealing of someone’s sins to another person who has no right to know it. The Catechism renders this traditional teaching in modern language (CCC 2488-89):

The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

There are two things to note here. The first is that the claim “What I said is true” is no defense against the charge of detraction. In fact, the very definition of detraction requires that what you say about the other person—the information that you reveal that may do damage to his reputation—must be true. If what you say is false, then by definition you aren’t engaged in detraction; you are engaged in the related sin of calumny.

The second is that the Catechism discusses detraction in the context of someone asking you to reveal a truth that may be damaging to the reputation of a third party. It does not even discuss the possibility that you would do so without being asked. There is no need for the Catechism to discuss that possibility because such an action would fall well beyond the bounds of all human decency. (That we might sometimes engage in such actions and dismiss our transgressions as mere “gossip” does not lessen their severity.)

When we reveal the possible sins of another, we engage either in calumny (if the claim is false) or detraction (if the claim is true) by revealing the secret sins of another and doing irreparable harm to his reputation. The sins of detraction and calumny are compounded when the person who is sinned against is unable to defend himself, either because he is unaware that his reputation has been attacked (as is often the case where gossip is concerned) or because he is dead (as in the case of the well-known priest alleged to have engaged in homosexual activity.)

In either case, the Catechism plainly details what repentance and justice require:

Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven. . . . If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated [e.g., if he is long dead], he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another’s reputation. This reparation, moral and sometimes material, must be evaluated in terms of the extent of the damage inflicted. It obliges in conscience (CCC 2487).

Of course, repairing such damage when it has been widely disseminated via the internet is, if not theoretically impossible, at least practically so; but a Christian is obliged to try for the sake of his own soul. In our increasingly fractious times, where social media encourages us to act with rashness and without due regard for the reputation of others, there can be found, in the actions of our celebrity Jesuit, a lesson for us all.”

Love, & holiness, pray for me,