One of the more under-rated categories of sin are the sins of speech. There are many ways we sin, but perhaps the most common way is by speech. Too easily, almost without thought, do we engage in gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, uncharitable observations and remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. We can surely cause great harm with a gift capable of such good!

And not only do we sin by commission but also by omission. For frequently we are silent when we should speak. We do not correct when we should. In our age the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s word but too often we fulfill Isaiah 56:10 which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.

Well did James say: Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect! (James 3:2) And too easily do we dismiss sins of speech as of little account. While it may be true that not every sin of speech is serious or mortal, it is possible to inflict great harm with speech and thus have the matter become very serious, even mortal. Jesus warns, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36)

With this in mind, it may be of value to focus in on one aspect of the sins of speech commonly called “gossip.” (I was privileged to be on Catholic Answers Live last night and speak with Patrick Coffin and listeners on this very topic. You can listen to the hour-long broadcast here: Catholic Answers Podcast)

In defining gossip in a general way, the term can merely apply to talk of a personal or trivial nature. But the sin of gossip is more specifically considered to be idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It usually involves uncharitable or inappropriate conversation about others, not present and has a reputation for the introduction of errors and variations into the information transmitted. St Thomas includes it in his treatise on justice (II, IIae 72-76) in the Summa since, by it, we unjustly harm the reputation of others, through either lies or truths shared inappropriately. The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes gossip under its treatment of the 8th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

As he most often does, St. Thomas well distinguishes a number of different forms of gossip (injustice in speech) and we can look at them one by one.

1. Reviling – dishonoring a person, usually to their face, and often in the hearing of others. It is done openly, audibly and is usually rooted in anger and personal disrespect. It may include name-calling, caricature, profanity and even cursing (which will also be treated later). For the most part, we do not consider reviling to be a form of gossip per se, (since gossip is usually conducted apart from the offended person and reviling to their face). But reviling is a sin of speech that ought to be mentioned here, since it is annexed to the general dishonor and harming of the reputation of others that is at the heart of gossip. Reviling as such is intended to cause personal embarrassment or dishonor.

2. Backbiting – Generally we call this today, “talking behind someone’s back.” Backbiting is the secret and quiet injuring of a person’s good name to others. Here the key point is that the injured person is not present either to defend or clarify what is said. There are two forms of backbiting that St Thomas distinguishes:

A. Calumny – which is telling lies about someone behind their back. The written form of this is called slander.
B. Detraction – which is passing on harmful truths about others. What is said is true, but is not necessary information to be shared, and the information has the effect of diminishing a person’s reputation or harming their good name before others. For example, it may be true that Joe has a drinking problem, but it is not necessary information to share.

There may be times when it is important to share certain truths about others because it is necessary information but such information should be shared only by those who need to know it for a just cause. Further, the information must be certainly true and not merely hearsay. Finally, only the necessary information should be shared, avoiding a full rendering of everything you ever wanted to know about Joe.

3. Tale -Bearing – also called tale whispering – This may sound like backbiting, but St Thomas makes a distinction here. Whereas a backbiter seeks to harm the reputation of another absent person, the tale bearer seeks to stir up trouble and arouse people to action against a person. 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.

4. Derision – is making fun of a person, perhaps of their mannerisms, perhaps of a physical trait, or personal quality. While some of this can be light-hearted, it often strays into hurtful and humiliating actions or words that diminish someone else’s standing or honor within the community.

5. Cursing – a spoken wish or command that another person be afflicted with some evil or harm. This may or may not be spoken to their face. Here too we see a dishonoring of a person in the presence of others. The usual goal is to incite from others, anger and dishonor towards the injured person. The cursing of a person is considered in the realm of gossip, whereas the cursing of irrational things is considered merely vain or futile speech, though not wholly sin-free.

How serious these sins of speech (forms of gossip) are will depend on a number of factors including the degree of harm caused to a person’s reputation, who and how many overhear, and circumstances of place, time and language used. Lack of intent to harm may lessen the culpability of the sinner, but not the fact of sinfulness of the act. However, to dishonor a person, especially with the intent of harming their reputation or necessary standing before others, can easily become a very serious sin.

One of the most precious things a person has is their reputation, for, on it rests their capacity to interrelate with others and engage in just about every other form of human interaction. It is a very serious thing, therefore, to harm the reputation of another. And while this harm may sometimes be mild, we ought not easily dismiss the possibility that, what we think to be a small matter, might actually cause greater harm that we imagine. St James says of the gossiping tongue: 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 (James 3:11).

It remains true that we sometimes must have necessary conversations about others who are not present. Perhaps we are seeking advice about how to handle a delicate situation. Perhaps we need encouragement in dealing with a difficult person, or need to do legitimate fact-checking. Perhaps, especially in professional settings, we are asked to make and give evaluations of colleagues, employees, or situations. However, in cases like these we need to limit the scope our conversations to what is necessary and include only those who certainly ought to be included.

In seeking personal advice or encouragement we also ought to speak only with others who are trustworthy and can reasonably be of help. Where possible we should exclude unnecessary details, even the name of the person being discussed, (if feasible). Discretion is the key word in these necessary conversations.

It may also be important to balance the avoidance of gossip with a reminder that extreme secrecy may also be unhelpful in a community. There are times when egregious situations must be directly addressed. In cases like these we ought to follow the norms set forth by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17

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 established 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.

Hence, discretion must also give way to some transparency in given circumstances, and communities may need to address some matters publicly and clearly.

But as a consistent rule, we ought to be very careful about sins of speech. Too easily and carelessly we risk ruining the reputation and standing of others by our gossip. Idle chatter about others can bring great harm and draw many others into sin. Scripture says, Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips. (Psalm 141:3). Indeed, Help Lord! keep Your arm around my shoulder and Your hand over my mouth! Put your word in my heart, so that when I do speak, it’s really you.

Painting above by Agostino Carracci

While this video features the ladies, men gossip too:

15 Responses

  1. Sassy says:

    This is marvelous! I plan on printing it out to ready daily before my interactions with others. And to use to guide my son’s spiritual formation as well.

  2. Brad says:

    May God bless you, Monsignor.

    This topic was in my thoughts since the other night, while reading Father Amorth’s book on his work as Rome’s exorcist. He wrote that during an exorcism, the humans present are not to insult or even speak haughtily or angrily to the demon(s) present. Why? Because to do so would be to lower ourselves to uncharity. How much sadder and more anti-gospel it is when humans speak uncharitably to fellow humans.

    As Jude 1:9, 2 Peter 2:11, Zech 3:2, etc, reveal, when angels, even St. Michael Archangel, address their fallen brethren, they do so with charity: “Let the Lord rebuke thee!” is all they say, careful to not usurp God’s role as chastiser and judge.

    Now I comprehend why we say within the prayer to St. Michael, a prayer for deliverance if not of exorcism, “May God rebuke him, we humbly pray”: we are echoing the charitable words of the Archangel himself and being very careful to let our proper fear of the Lord guide how we think and speak.

  3. Tom T says:

    Great post Msgr. Pope. Excellant points to be considered and followed paricularly in light of the rapid explosion
    of information and opinions expressed on the web. The technology age has changed much and opened up many
    opportunities to sin. This is one reason why I post my sources when expressing an opinion. One point I would like to make without stirring the pot up is; if you are looking for the laity to quietly and silently follow the shephards, sadly after the abuse scandals, cover-ups, and directives contradictory to Catholic teachings and tradition by some bishops, those days are over. We have a much more informed and involved lay participation in the Church today than ever I can recall in my lifetime and the changes from Rome are still coming. We have to pray about our comments, however, there is a great deal of pain, and sorrow and confusion from misdirection
    in the Church and even division and bitterness that has been brought about by misinterpretations of Post Vat II
    Consiliar Documents that were not the intentions of Vatican II. The days of silence and blind acceptance, thanks
    to the internet and scandals are finished. Your outline of and explanation of sin by words is an excellant place to
    start before posting a comment. Pax

  4. Mary W says:

    I am opinionated and given to a bit of the blarney -now doesn’t that sound nicer than tale whispering, backbiting or derision; even as a kid a family friend called me NBC. So today’s post really hit home with me, and I am seriously making efforts to correct this defect. Checking myself before I speak, prayer, meditating on another blog “Finding Forgiveness Through the Magnificence of Mercy”, spiritual reading, and confession.

    Where I am lost in the weeds is how to fix some of the damage my sharp tongue has caused. I have not spoken to my sister, who I love dearly, in almost a year and I just don’t know how to fix it. I admit in a moment of anger I derided and cursed her. I would like to tell her that I love her but she has hurt me deeply I am afraid to open the door and let her hurt me again. She has also discussed our differences with my other brothers and sisters and some are distant with me as a result. Most have never asked me about it and I have not offered any explanation to them. My parents who raised us to love and care for each other are saddened by this and quite frankly it is a burden that they don’t need in their elderly years. I am frustrated trying to figure out how to let the healing begin.

    I guess this is kind a personal for the blog but so many people seem to be struggling with these family issues, I ma willing to put itout there. Sometimes it is hard to see what God’s will is in these things even when we want to do the right thing. Any suggestions?

    • Peter Wolczuk says:

      For making amends I find a book developed and distributed by Alcoholics Anonymous (who deal with many other forms of soul sickness besides alcoholism so as to strike at the root of the disease) called “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” then look up Step Nine, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
      My understanding of it is that I am to clean up my side of the street and to leave others reactions and/or decisions to them – which can be facilitated by giving them time to heal. No excuses or claims of provocation by myself. An interesting fact in the formation of AA is that there were many contributors and advisors, including Father Edward Dowling SJ, although I don’t know how much he directly contributed to certain aspects.
      At any rate, I was impressed with myself when I finally managed to avert virtually all judgements of other people (good or bad) and keep these judgements decreasing by deciding not to judge even when I had a difficult interaction ongoing or due to start. Now I (mostly) decide how I am going to interact with the person, while admitting that both my decision and the interaction will be imperfect and that I must learn from it so that I keep improving & take my mistakes to the confessional so as to ask for help; among other things.
      Now, however, upon reading this article, I find that I have only began to learn how to communicate in a better and more spiritually healthy way.

  5. David says:

    Excellent post. Small point of correction with regards to calumny: slander is spoken, in print it is libel.

  6. Richard A says:

    An added burden on us as voting citizens in a democratic republic is that we are called upon regularly to make judgments about the character and fitness for office of many fellows whom we would otherwise have no business inquiring about, or knowing about. With public figures, it can be difficult to decide between what we really need to know to form a right judgment and what we would like to know in service to a salacious or partisan end.

  7. Ricardo B says:

    Great post Monsignor! I will also let my teens read this. You are right, this is perhaps the least thought-of sin. Oftentimes we only think of cursing or verbal abuse as sin and not giving any thought to holding our tongues when talking about others. I have some reflecting to do!

  8. Daniel says:

    Mary W,

    Don’t let time separate you from your sister. The written word is a great means of easing back into a relationship, the emotion of the moment is absent giving time for rational response. Tell her how you miss her and how you regret the past break and what led up to it. Acccept your responsibility in the event and ask for a new beginning for your relationship. After you both agree to it you can resume a verbal relationship. Prayer is always a good thing prior to any action. God bless you both.

  9. Katherine G ERT says:

    This is a great post, and timely. I’ve had an issue with a person where she likes to say nasty things about people in front of other people and she frequently treats many members of our staff like they are stupid. The hard part with standing up to her is that she acts like she did nothing wrong and then she will go and gossip behind that person’s back to the whole department. I would not trust her as far as I can throw her, which is not very far. You are right in the fact that a person’s reputation means a lot, which is why I fear standing up to her. I have endured many very tough things in life but people who cut down others with words are one of the things I have always had something of a fear of. My fiance says that I shouldn’t care what other people think, that life will be easier on that end if I don’t care, but deep down I do care because I am usually very kind and friendly to most people unless they give me a reason not to be (and it has to be a good reason).

  10. Andrew M says:

    Excellent post and interview on Catholic Answers. There was one point made on the radio program that when we find ourselves in the midst of gossip that offhandedly we bless the conversation saying, “Oh, and let’s pray for this person,” to add a justification for what was just said or to relieve ourselves of the guilt.

  11. Veronica says:

    Monsignor, God bless you, and I thank you so very much for writing this. It is wonderful and quite timely. If I had a printer, I would print it out and do the same thing Sassy wrote she would do…read it each and every day until finally, finally, finally, it all sunk in.

  12. Sliver1935 says:

    Nice reminder of what is important Monsignor. On the other hand, I often wonder how the families of the “Holy innocents” thought of Herod once they realized it was he who indiscriminately slaughtered their babies. Were they allowed to curse him even in silence? And, if so, might they be held to the same sin standard as anyone else by our God? I ask this for a specific reason which applies even to this day. Should a leader/politician of our time virulently impose laws which demand that we accept the dismemberment of our innocents, and call that law good, are we not allowed to mention the term SOB from time to time. If not, then I have many sins to confess.

  13. Terry1957 says:

    I work with a woman who claims to be a christian (a baptist) who has gossiped and calumnated me visciously to other coworkers and my own supervisor. She feels fully justified in her actions and seems rather proud of it, as though she has the right and duty to reveil these things in order to distroy people or perhaps elevate herself in appearances. I have learned that she has done this to others who has worked with her in her previous positions. The catechism tells us to have compassion for these type of people.2843. I trust and pray to God that He will at sometime in her life reveil the damage and hurt she has inflicted so she will have the oportunity to repent. I have forgiven her, but i watch her continue in her ways. I ‘do’ have compassion for her, and I fear for her as well. I’m afraid that if she rejects the oportunity that God will give her and then face her particular judgement, feeling fully justified for her damaging behavior, that God will send her to eternal damnation. But of course i cannot judge, i just fear for her if this is true. Does my fear for her stim from my Christian compassion for her? I dont want her to end up (down there) I want her to seek forgiveness and to be in Heaven. Is my fear for her legitimate.?Am I rightfully concerned for her? Is there a way to help prevent her from the fate im fearing for her?

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