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August 18, 2019

There’s an old adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin that goes something like “Nothing is certain, but death and taxes!” To that, as a pastor in a vibrant parish, I would add gossiping parishioners. “Nothing is certain but death, taxes, and gossiping parishioners!”

Oftentimes, the gossiping seems relatively harmless, but sometimes, it can be quite serious and even insidious. In today’s first reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we see a scriptural example of what happens when people pedal their influence to the detriment of the prophet. Jeremiah finds himself arrested and thrown into a pit in which he faces his death. Only by the intervention of an honest court official is he spared his ultimate ruination. The prophet’s life is saved, though his reputation remains in tatters. 

For some reason I can’t completely fathom, it seems that such malignant gossip is part of every parish community in which I have served. It appears to me that there are always those who seem to make a hobby out of talking about others. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the circumstances of their own lives that prompt gossips to talk about others? But something I have learned over the years is that there is no such thing as “harmless” gossip. Gossip harms the person gossiping in that it is an offence against truth. It harms the victim of the gossip in that it detracts from their reputation. It harms those exposed to the gossip in that it deprives them of truth and foments unjust judgment of others.

St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of different forms of gossip, all of which lead us into sin. Reviling someone is a direct dishonoring of a person, sometimes to their face. It is intended to embarrass a person and to shame them. Back-biting can involve telling lies about someone behind their back. This is known as slander or calumny. It’s written form is called libel. Back-biting can also involve inappropriate sharing of information about another, even if it is true. Detraction has as its goal the effect of diminishing a person’ reputation or of causing harm to their good name. This is always unacceptable. St. Thomas makes a distinction between back-biting and telling tales. Those who tell tales endeavor to stir up animosity toward another and to cause trouble, such as in today’s first reading. This behavior, too, is always unacceptable. Deriding someone, that is making fun of them because of a physical attribute, or because of the way they speak, is another aspect of this sin that Aquinas singles out. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2477) treats gossip under that section in which it addresses violations of the Eighth Commandment: 

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

Perhaps we might all do well to consider that we are encouraged by our faith to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Or in the words of the Catechism, “to be careful to interpret insofar as possible [our] neighbor’s thoughts, words and deeds in a favorable way.” This may not be as fun as being distracted from the struggles of our own moral life, but to persist in gossip or in any offence against the eighth commandment is to persist in infidelity to God, who is truth. 

So, perhaps to put all this in the homespun wisdom of ages past… “If you can’t say anything good about a person, then keep it to yourself.”

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