After one of Pope Francis’ recent daily Mass homilies, the headlines blared that Pope Francis likened the vice of gossip to terrorism. At face value, this seems to be an extreme analogy and unjustified hyperbole. However, if one looks past the headlines and reads Pope Francis’ actual words, the comparison is actually quite apt.
Gossip as Murder
Pope Francis did not equate the act of terrorism with the act of gossiping. Rather, he equated the tactics of a terrorist with the tactics of a gossip. Both lob their instruments of destruction into a crowd, leaving sorrow, discord, and division in their wake. Instead of the bombs of a terrorist, the gossip chooses sharp words and tall tales as his weapon of choice.
This nuanced understanding of the Pope’s comparison should not lead us to minimize the catastrophic harm of gossip. Clearly, Pope Francis considers it a serious sin as he has addressed it on multiple occasions during his papacy. During his Angelus message on February, 16, 2014, the Holy Father considered gossiping as an affront to the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill” (Deuteronomy 5:17; cf. Exodus 20:13):
Therefore, not only must one not make an attempt on the life of others, but one must not even pour on him the poison of anger and hit him with slander, nor speak ill of him. And here we arrive at gossip. Gossip can also kill, because it kills the reputation of the person.
With so many grave depravities dominating the headlines, it might seem odd for the Pope to address the sin of gossiping. Here again we see the wisdom of the Holy Father, for he sees that we cannot effectively address large societal transgressions against God and humanity if our hearts are sullied with the poison of gossip.
The Pathology of Gossip
As a physician and college professor, I understand the human body by studying its anatomy and breaking it down into its core components. It is helpful to take the same approach when trying to comprehend the spiritual danger of gossip.
The first thing to settle is exactly what do we mean by gossip. The dictionary definition of gossip seems harmless: “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people”; or, “a person who often talks about the private details of other people’s lives”. What the dictionary leaves out is the motivation of a gossiper. It is the motivation that transforms sharing personal news from harmless conversation to sinful gossip.
For example, if one acts out of solidarity, and relates the misfortunes of another person in order to rally help and prayers for this person, the action is noble and good. Only as much information is revealed as is needed to gain the necessary aid. The humanity and dignity of the person in need is always respected and preserved.
Gossip, on the other hand, has little regard for the human dignity of its victim. The one who gossips demeans and objectifies the subject of his tale as he regales to others the intimate details of another person’s life as a form of entertainment. Respect for the truth is often lost, and details are embellished or fabricated out of a desire enhance the drama and maximize the enjoyment of the story.
Pride and envy are additional roots of gossip. Pride motivates us to elevate ourselves above all others. Instead of celebrating the good fortune and successes of others, we regard them as threats to our own exalted positions. We may covet the wealth, status, beauty, strength, or happiness of others and resent that it exceeds our own. With strategically placed comments or innuendo, we seek to diminish the stature of our perceived rivals.
Finally, gossip can be born out of a desire for vengeance. Rather than seeking reconciliation for an offense, we lash out with gossip to exact revenge. This is a horribly misguided attempt to soothe our wounds. Words said in such a fit of anger never bring a lasting satisfaction. There is no peace when our hearts are roiled with rage. Only mercy and forgiveness can bring healing and true peace.
Gossip as Counter-Witness
By studying the anatomy of gossip we see that it stems from the same evil roots as many other sins we consider more serious. When we gossip, we undermine our opposition to many cultural ills. How can we be credible witnesses to the sanctity of all human life when we demean and exploit another person for our own self-serving pleasure? How can we be true ambassadors of Christian charity when we are willing to destroy another person’s reputation out of envy? How can we decry violence and work for peace on a global scale when our words exact revenge and our hearts show no mercy to a neighbor who has offended us?
There are many worthy political and cultural battles to fight. Ultimately, though, we will be judged not by our successes on the world stage but by our actions with each individual whom God places in our path. By using the issue of gossip, Pope Francis is laying the foundation for holiness and drawing our focus back to the importance of day-to-day human encounters. He exhorts us to reform our relationships beset with gossip and cultivate truly Christian interactions filled with humility, kindness, charity, and mercy.