There is a popular story about a woman who had confessed the sin of gossip. For her penance she was told to go to the top of a nearby hill, pillow in hand, and cut it open. Shaking all the feathers into the wind, she had to go collect every last feather from the wilderness into which they had blown. Only then would her penance would be complete.
So it goes with each time we speak a word against another; we can never hope to recover all the information from whence it has been carried.
Sins of the Tongue
There are many categories of gossip, since gossip itself is only an umbrella term referring generally to speaking to or about others in a malicious or injurious way. (Therefore, we often call these “sins of the tongue”.) False witness and perjury, rash judgement, detraction, calumny, flattery, adulation, complaisance, boasting or bragging and irony, and lying are all sins of the tongue. These are sins against charity and justice. Each of these constitute an offense either by spreading untruths about another, by spreading truths of another’s faults without sufficient reason, by withholding information from one who has a right to know, or by “maliciously caricaturing some aspect of another’s behavior” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2475-2487).
Perhaps “gossip” isn’t a term you attach to yourself. Yet, taking a moment to evaluate the meanings of each of the kinds of gossip above, you may come to realize areas where you are weak, either by commission or by omission.
Here are just a few examples of ways in which people commonly offend charity and justice by sins of the tongue:
- Those “caricatures” mentioned above are commonly known in variations such as teasing, joking, sarcasm, and the like. Sarcasm is particularly spiteful and sinful. Many pride themselves on their dry sense of humor, which is really only sarcasm. Beware this beast!
- Consider those popular memes of irony, seen so often in social media forums, which are aimed at famous persons. Is this sinful? It is certainly delightful and entertaining, and downright funny at times. Is there any harm in a good chuckle? Even if it is not sarcastic or maliciously caricaturing some aspect of another’s behavior, it is at the least a distraction from higher things, and a bad habit. “Joy in hearing useless things gives direct rise to distraction of the imagination, gossiping, envy, uncertain judgments, and wandering thoughts, from which flow many other pernicious kinds of harm.” (St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel)
- Think of that obese man seen walking out of the convenience store carrying a box of fried chicken and a high-calorie cola. “Way to go fatty, eat up!” and “Learn some self-control!” chides the judgmental voice in our heads. These are sins of rash judgement; namely, presuming the food is his, or that he usually eats in such a manner, or that he hasn’t tried to lose his weight, or most basic of all — that he is somehow deserving of our scorn because of his weight. The list of errors in our reasoning for firing off such a remark is long, and I’ve only suggested a few for your consideration.
- Then there’s the ever-popular, “I’m just letting you know about N. so that you can pray for him.” While often true, this one-liner can also be merely a play for the attention one receives in being the bearer of the news. Also, it can be an opportunity for self-exaltation, which always blinds one to one’s own faults. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, cautions against losing sight of ourselves when we gossip: “Those who live judging their neighbors, speaking badly of them, are hypocrites because they don’t have the strength, the courage to look at their own defects.” (Pope Francis, Homily, September 13, 2013)
- Statements which begin, “Well, you know …” are often warning signs that conversation is about to get juicy. You more than likely do not yet “know”; but somebody is about to make sure you do! Often, such gossipy reports begin with paying a compliment to the one about to be talked about. “There are some who, before actually slandering someone, will say something good about that person. These are the most subtle and venomous of slanderers.” (St. Francis de Sales)
Good and Necessary Things
Perhaps a serious reflection of the reasons why all sins of the tongue are wrong will help form our minds better on these matters. Gossip not only injures the party about whom information is being dispersed — or from whom information is being withheld — but it also injures all those who hear it, and the one telling or withholding.
The party being talked about is aggrieved because he is robbed of his honor and his reputation. “We judge our brothers and sisters in our heart, and worse, when we talk about it with others, we are killer Christians.” (Pope Francis, Homily) At its most generalized form, gossip is an injustice which fails to obey the command, “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth; but that which is good, to the edification of faith, that it may administer grace to the hearers.” (Ephesians 4:29)
We are commanded to speak only good and necessary things, thereby assisting the elevation of our neighbors’ minds and hearts to higher things. This is a critical obligation of all the faithful. Any speech to the contrary is a hindrance to that elevation, and an obstacle to grace. It is not only critical to the life of grace in our souls, but also as an aid for peace in society that we bridle our tongues. “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.” (Proverbs 26:20)
There are circumstances where it is right to reveal the faults of another. The Catechism qualifies the definition of nearly every sin of the tongue with phrases such as, “without sufficient foundation” and “without objectively valid reason.” There would be clear cases, then, which require us to make known the faults of another. For example, when another’s immediate health or safety is in question, and help is required; or when warning others of a dangerous person who may bring about further harm to the unwitting. Offering explanation of one’s apparently scandalous behavior, which may be based upon another’s wrongdoing, is also permissible, if meant to save the reputation of the party whose reputation is in question. “A man rejoiceth in the sentence of his mouth: and a word in due time is best.” (Proverbs 15:23)
Charity and Gossip
Remember, too, that we display our true selves to others when we gossip, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45) It’s common knowledge never to tell a secret to the person always talking about others. Others will know us according to our speech, as it reflects all that lies within our hearts. “Even a fool, if he will hold his peace shall be counted wise: and if he close his lips, a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 17:28)
What to do when another begins to gossip? It is here that the words of the saints illuminate the matter best: “If something uncharitable is said in your presence, either speak in favor of the absent, or withdraw, or if possible, stop the conversation” (St. John Vianney); and “When you hear ill of anyone, refute the accusation if you can in justice do so; if not, apologize for the accused on account of his intentions … and thus gently check the conversation, and if you can, mention something else favorable to the accused.” (St. Francis de Sales)
Keeping our mouths shut may be the hardest thing in the world to do. “But the tongue no man can tame, an unquiet evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8) Nonetheless, we are required to exercise restraint and prudence in this regard, with promises of a life of grace in which to abide peacefully with our fellow man and ourselves. “He that keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from distress.” (Proverbs 21:23)