Category Archives: Tongue

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,

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)


“…and they murmured against God.”


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

“The next day the whole Israelite community murmured against Moses and Aaron. “You have killed the Lord’s people,” they said.”  -Numbers 16:41

-by Br. Tomas Rosado, OP

“Although they rarely get the respect they deserve, our tongues really should be numbered among our most prized bodily members. With them we sing of love, we broker peace, we passionately preach, and we attempt to express our very selves. They are nothing less than the tools that build up humanity and the kingdom of God. The psalmist sees the tongue as the instrument of God’s praise: “my tongue shall tell of thy righteousness and of thy praise all day long” (Ps 35:28). Our tongues, as a part of our human bodies, are destined for eternal glory, for union with God. At the Resurrection of the body, the whole of the human person will be united with God, and our tongues will perform their part in the eternal worship of God.

However, while we are still journeying toward our final rest and joy, our instrument of praise can be turned away from its purpose. Our current culture does not make many allowances for the virtues of the tongue; According to many, the tongue is for the advancement of man, by any means necessary. Lies are permitted, even practically encouraged, among certain professions and having the wit to spin the truth is even considered a virtue.

In addition to the temptation to violate the truth, directly or indirectly, we also face the temptation to use the truth as a weapon at the wrong time. St. Thomas sums up these sins of the tongue: “the railer intends to injure the honor of the person he rails, the backbiter to depreciate a good name, and the tale-bearer to destroy friendship, so too the derider intends to shame the person he derides” (ST II-II q. 75, art. 1).

The first, reviling, uses the truth as a direct and open attack upon another. One of your coworkers is receiving praise for her great performance at her job and you openly decry her drinking problem. When we revile another, we cast down the excellences of a person’s life by revealing embarrassing and unnecessary information in his or her presence.

Backbiting also kills a person’s reputation, but it does so in secret, undermining his or her position in the eyes of others. This is the person who pretends to be friends while secretly detesting us or hoping to make himself greater by climbing over our fallen name.

Tale-bearing is telling something bad about someone in order to disrupt relationships. This includes telling old stories about someone so that a couple will break up or telling the boss some unflattering details of a coworker’s past mistakes so that they will get passed over for a promotion. It can express itself as a refusal to allow the “old you” die or to prevent the flourishing of good relationships.

The last, what St. Thomas calls deriding, can be good or bad. In its good aspect, derision can be directed at the evil actions of another. Mocking the evil someone has done in order to show them it is shameful could be helpful in some situations, but usually it isn’t. On the other hand, derision is always evil when it is employed in the mockery of what is good. This occurs when people are made to feel ashamed for doing good, such as when they defend the faith or refuse to participate in immoral activities. Derision can also be aimed at people themselves, so that they feel they should be ashamed for existing and that they aren’t worthy of our care or love. This is always evil.

One can find examples of these sins or privations of the tongue by scanning almost any Internet article or comment box. But more illuminating than any example is the penance given by St. Philip Neri to a gossip. For her penance, St. Philip Neri told the woman to pluck a chicken outside of the church and bring him the plucked chicken. Puzzled, she obeyed. He then sent her back out to collect the feathers, but the wind had scattered most of them, so she only returned with a handful. “Sins of the tongue are like the feathers,” he said, “once uttered they cannot be recaptured.”

What can help us to be aware and stop these sins of the tongue? Silence. If we do not spend time in silence, how can we know the value of words? In silence, we come to greater awareness of the presence of God. We spend our mental words on the Lord and He shows us His peace. When we are with someone we love very much, words are unnecessary. They know what we think with a glance. In coming to deeper knowledge of God through this prayer of silence, we come to greater love of Him who will tame our tongues through His grace.

In the words of St. Augustine: “Your God, your Redeemer, your Tamer, your Chastiser, your Father, instructs you [and your ungovernable tongue.] For what purpose? In order that you may receive an inheritance where you will not have to bear your father to the grave, but where you shall have your Father Himself for your inheritance. In view of this hope, you are being instructed. Do you therefore murmur?””