Remedies for Gossip and Slander – St. Josemaria Escriva

Gossip and slander are frequently found even among those who consider themselves good Christians. Few things, however, are more harmful to a community. It can start innocently enough. One person makes a comment to a third person about something someone else did or said. Perhaps this first person doesn't even intend the comment to be negative. The person hearing the comment, however, sees it as reflecting badly on the person being spoken about. Instead of clarifying the situation, he passes on this juicy tidbit of gossip, possibly distorting it even more in the process. The telling of this rumor ceases to be merely gossip and becomes slander, that is, the making of claims detrimental to a person's reputation with reckless disregard for the truth, disregard for the fact that one possesses no substantial evidence for these defamatory claims. The whole process is deeply opposed to charity and very harmful to the relationships between people. The slide below illustrates the origin and spread of such malicious rumors:

Gossip turning into slander, causing mistrust

Such things are, regrettably, all too real and all too common.

 The biblical rules for dealing with the faults people commit are aimed to avoid this culture of gossip and slander.

 "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reprove him openly, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:17-18)

When one sees or believes that someone has done something wrong, one normally must talk to that person, and tell him so; one ought, of course to be open to the possibility that one has misunderstood the situation, and that this person in fact did not do anything wrong, as well as to the possibility or even likelihood that even if he made a mistake, it was not out of malice. This open talk with the person whom one feels has done something wrong hinders the bearing of a grudge, a violation of fraternal charity. It also decreases the likelihood of seeking an outlet for one's grievance by unnecessarily making it known to third parties, gossiping about it.

Christ lays down a similar rule, and further clarifies the way to proceed in such cases:

"If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (Mat 18:15-17 — The words "against you" are not present in a number of manuscripts.)

 To go to the person in private, if the situation can be then resolved, keeps other people from getting involved who do not need to know about the fault. It also avoids the danger of falsely accusing a person. When one goes to the person concerned, one may find out that one has misunderstood the situation. By going directly to him, one has avoided slandering him by passing on this defamatory misunderstanding to others.

Only if the situation cannot be resolved between the two persons should one bring others into the situation. And then one should if possible not immediately involve everyone, but bring only a third party or two in, who may help to bring more objectivity to the situation, at any rate as witnesses. Only if all such efforts fail need the sin be brought to the attention of the larger community to deal with it.

 Unfortunately, this rule of Christ, this rule of christian charity, is widely ignored. For various reasons (to avoid a confrontation with the person, to pass it on to someone more “capable” of dealing with it, to pass it on to an “authority”, to feel better about one's own faults by talking about the faults of others, out of a pleasure in gossiping, etc.) most of the time people do not talk with the person they believe committed a fault, but talk about him to others. How can someone break this vicious circle of gossip? He can of course refuse to pass on such negative gossip himself, he can indicate disapproval of it, etc. But that often is not enough to stop the pervasive culture of gossip. Nor does it rectify the injustice (the damage to a person's reputation) of which he has become aware, at least not in most cases.

 St. Josemaria Escriva's advice

St. Josemaria Escriva proposes a radical method to counter malicious gossip: Tell the person who is spreading gossip that you will speak to the person concerned about it, and then go and do just that; and do not say “someone told me,” but name that person, so that the one about whom such statements were being made can, if necessary, talk to that person himself.

"This is how you should answer a backbiter: 'I shall tell the person concerned' or "I shall speak to him about it."  (Furrow, 916)

"I can see no Christian fraternity in a friend who warns you: 'I've been told some terrible things about you. You shouldn't trust some of your friends.' I think it is not Christian because that brother has not taken the honest approach of silencing the slanderer first, and then telling you his name out of loyalty. If that brother does not have the strength of character to demand such behavior of himself, he will end up making you live on your own, driving you to distrust everyone and to be uncharitable towards everyone." (Furrow, 743)

This is illustrated by the following slide:

Breaking the chain of gossip

Of course, at this point the problems caused by gossiping are still not yet all resolved. Further steps would be necessary, such as e.g.:

Jen and Pat go on to talk to James, to clarify/resolve things with him.

Jen talks again to Randall, telling him he seems to have misunderstood the situation, and suggests Randall correct the mistake by talking to James and Pat and then to Tom to clarify Tom's statement that Randall had previously uncritically received (and possibly misinterpreted).


What do you think about this suggested procedure of St. Josemaria Escriva?

Thoughts from St. Josemaria Escriva 2

The cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you're unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.

Don't say, "that person bothers me." Think: "That person sanctifies me." (The Way, nn. 173-174)

This was a method employed by St. Therese of Lisieux as well; she succeeded so well that annoyances became no longer annoying, because her attitude towards them we so much shaped by the aspect in which they were good–as a means of showing her love for Jesus and her sisters. This way of handling annoyances from other persons is in many cases also the most effective way of resolving them; people tend to act as we expect them to–if we treat people as grumpy persons, they are more likely to be so; if we treat them as cheerful and kind persons, they are more likely to be that way. Also in this sense, then, a cheerful reaction to annoyances brought by others around us is often, though not always, an effective means that gets rid of those annoyances.

There is no excuse for those who could be scholars are are not (The Way, n. 332).You frequent the sacraments, you pray, you are chaste, but you don't study. Don't tell me you're good, you're only "goodish" (n. 337).

Formerly, when human knowledge–science–was very limited, it seemed quite feasible for a single scholar to defend and vindicate our holy faith.
Today, with the extension and the intensity of modern science, the apologists have to divide the work among themselves, if they wish to defend the Church scientifically in all fields.
You… cannot shirk this responsibility (n. 338).

St. Josemaria Escriva applies the principle of charity, that where there is a pressing human need, those with particular talents to fill that need are called to do so. And in order for the faith to be received in the manner it deserves, it is necessary for there to be many scholars of deep faith… some whose scholarship is of properly religious matters, others whose scholarship directly pertains to secular matters, but whose life is imbued with Christian spirit, manifesting the harmony of reason and faith, nature and grace–how grace ennobles nature rather than contradicting it.

St. Josemaria's claim that for one called to scholarly work, the "interior life" is insufficient, is a particular example of St. James rule, "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:17). The interior life has to be expressed in deeds profitable for the building up of God's children in charity.

It's good for you to put such determination into your study, as long as you put the same determination into acquiring interior life (n. 341).

As an interior life that does not produce works of charity is barren and deserving of being cut down, so external works without an interior life are dry and of little value. Though he stresses the importance of scholarly work for those called to it, St. Josemaria Escriva avoids the activist or intellectualist error of seeing the true value of a scholar's life in his "success" in scholarly endeavors.

Thoughts from St. Josemarie Escriva

Never reprimand anyone while you feel provoked over a fault that has been committed. Wait until the next day, or even longer. Then make your remonstrance calmly and with a purified intention. You'll gain more with an affectionate word than you ever would from three hours of quarreling. Control your temper (The Way, n. 10).

The irascible passions, such as anger, or to a lesser extent, annoyance, can color our thoughts and actions a lot. St. Therese of Lisieux sometimes fled a situation in order to avoid acting upon the anger that she felt. Based on this, St. Josemaria gives two reasons for waiting, if possible, before our anger or irritation subsides before acting to remedy a situation, by reprimanding someone, correcting an error, etc. First, our action will be calmer. Consequently, it will be seen as more reasonable by the other person. It is well known that anger makes us less reasonable, and so a reprimand or correction given while one is angry is taken less seriously. Even if the reprimand is objectively justified, the reasonableness of it is less apparent, since it manifests itself under the appearance of anger. In the words of St. Francis de Sales, "it is a duty to resist evil and to repress the faults of those for whom we are responsible, steadily and firmly, but gently and quietly…. Correction given in anger, however tempered by reason, never has so much effect as that which is given altogether without anger; for the reasonable soul being naturally subject to reason, it is a mere tyranny which subjects it to passion, and where ever reason is led by passion it becomes odious, and its just rule obnoxious" (Introduction to the Devout Life III, ch. 8).

Secondly, our intention will be purer. Even if our main intention in correcting a person is good, namely to guide them to act well, out of concern for them, anger brings its own motive, which weakens this main intention, even if it does not destroy it.

Will-power. A very important quality. Don't disregard the little things, which are really never futile or trivial. For by the constant practice of repeated self-denial in little things, with God's grace you will increase in strength and manliness of character (The Way, n. 19).

If you don't get up at a set hour, you'll never fulfill your plan of life. (The Way, n. 78)

I put these two sayings together because there is a close connection between the second, particular advice, and the first general principle. Because sleep, like food, is a basic human need, regularity in this matter conditions the will overall to obey a reasonable rule rather than whatever impulse moves it at the moment. This advice, however, needs two qualifications. First, from the point of view of orderliness, the "rule" for wakefulness and sleep need not be as simple a rule as going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time every day (although there is much to be said for this, on account of the body's natural waking and sleeping cycle). Someone whose work requires him sometimes to work days and sometimes to work nights cannot keep the same waking and sleeping schedule all the time (at least if keeps a basically normal schedule). Secondly, like all concrete practical rules, this rule is open to exceptions. If one stays up most of the night with a sick person, the good of regularity and of getting up at the usual hour is in quite a few cases more than offset by the harm produced by the deprivation of sleep, and one ought therefore to get more sleep (though sometimes, for the reason to be stated below, it is better to make up for the short sleep by way of a nap or going to bed earlier).

The reason for stating "get up at a set hour," rather than "go to bed at a set hour" is probably for two reasons. First, sleeping later than usual more frequently leads us to skip a significant part of our daily plan (e.g., morning meditation or spiritual reading, breakfast, or a shower) than going to bed early does, and sleeping later than usual leads directly to these omissions, while staying up late only leads to them indirectly, inasmuch as it makes it more difficult to get up at the customary time. Secondly, getting up at a set hour is a more reasonable rule than going to sleep at a set hour. Because, by and large, our activities on various days differ more than our activity on various nights, the time when we are tired enough to sleep may vary more than the time when we wake up does.