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:
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:
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?
2 thoughts on “Remedies for Gossip and Slander – St. Josemaria Escriva”
I found this post while looking around for Aquinas' view on gossip. St Josemaria's advice seems good. Here are some further 'scenarios' that I wonder how St Josemaria / St Thomas would deal with. Consider first a case where (1) Kim is sure about his judgment, because he is sure about the testimony through which he has made the judgment (perhaps Kim has reason to think that Randall is a very trustworthy and honest person). Of course, Kim still has to meet his obligation to talk to Pat, as per Matthew 18, but does this amount to an obligation for Kim to remain silent about Pat in his dealings with Jen and other friends? (2) consider, as in scenario 1, that Kim has reason to be sure about his judgment, and further, that it is impossible for him to contact Pat. (e.g. perhaps Kim doesn't actually know Pat personally. Or, perhaps Pat lives in a foreign country. Etc.) How would this change the nature of the injustice? Could spreading 'facts' about Pat in such a circumstance be consistent with charity? (E.g. a commitment to spreading the truth)?
Aquinas takes up such issues in speaking about fraternal correction. He distinguishes a number of cases.
When multiple persons have been scandalized by someone's notorious sin, that person should be corrected by someone in authority, so that those persons who have been scandalized by the public sin may be edified by the public correction.
When a person's fault involves the danger of harm to others, one has to act so as best to hinder that; that may mean going directly to someone in a position to stop that person from harming others.
One particular case in which it is often harmful to speak first with the person known or suspected to be engaged in sin, is the case of child abuse, where speaking first with that person can lead to various problems — pressure being put on the child(ren), things done and said to make the children feel (even more) guilty for the situation, so that when one speaks to the children, they will hide what is going on, etc.
When a person's fault doesn't involve the danger of harm to others, and one has a reasonable expectation of winning him over, one is obliged to correct the person individually per Matthew 18, before talking to others (those in authority) to get him to change. So in case (1) Kim has to speak to Pat before telling others about the case, unless he is sure that would be fruitless or harmful, or is impossible.
The article in the Summa where Aquinas discusses this is in the Secunda Secundae, question 33, article 7, Whether the precept of fraternal correction demands that a private admonition should precede denunciation.
I can't recall Aquinas explicitly taking up a case in which a sin is hidden and there is no significant danger of the sinner harming others directly or by scandal, and in which he is unable to correct the sinner personally or can't expect to be able to influence him (if he is neither a friend nor has any special standing with him, etc.) I have to think about that myself a bit more.