Is it a sin to gossip if the story’s true? That’s not breaking the Eighth Commandment, is it? The one that forbids bearing false witness against your neighbor?
False witness, bad. OK. But true story … well. Hmm. This seems to have some possibilities.
Perhaps the snag is the word “gossip.” So let’s say “share.” Is it a sin to share if the story is true? Not to sound all “piousy” here, but as Catholics aren’t we called to share the truth?
Wait! Could this mean gossiping … uh … sharing the truth is the right thing to do? Dare we even call it holy!? Let’s take a look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the Big VIII:
“The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.” (No. 2464)
So don’t tell lies. All right. Although “lie” sounds harsh. Let’s just call it giving “fake truth.” But if you have something that is the truth — and, if you’re lucky, it’s something really juicy — then you can just fire away. Right? Wrong.
Sins against the eighth
Back to the Catechism (No. 2477), that goes on to say:
1. “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He [a gossiper] becomes guilty:
“– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;”
[Meaning it’s a no-no to rush getting the story out and to worry later about its validity or particular circumstances.]
2. “– [becomes guilty] of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;”
[“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. … Three times I committed detraction.” De-what-sion? Behind-the-back uncharitable talk that deprives someone else of his or her good name. Worse still, from A Catholic Dictionary: “He, who by listening to detraction encourages it actively or passively, sins equally with the detractor.”]
3. “– [becomes guilty] of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.”
[“Calumny” seems like a bit of an old-fashioned term, like “phone booth,” but it means giving a false or misleading statement, usually intended to deceive or be unfair. So even telling the truth, but using it to mislead. “I saw Bob at the spaghetti dinner last night and I think he was sober!” Implying that he usually isn’t.]
The Catechsim reference concludes: “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words and deeds in a favorable way”(No. 2478).
Give folks the benefit of the doubt. And, in other words: “Keep your big bazoo shut.” (“Bazoo” meaning mouth, from the late 19th century and of unknown origin; perhaps related to the Dutch bazuin, meaning “trombone, trumpet.”)
Plead the fifth
Oh, but wait. There’s more. It’s no idle gossip that God has another reason for you to zip your lip. It’s called the Fifth Commandment.
Oh, come on. Seriously? “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13). There’s no killing here. Except maybe a little time with some coworkers during a break at work, or a small, select group of parishioners enjoying coffee and donuts after Sunday Mass.
|‘Bite Your Tongue’|
During his visit to Bangladesh last December, Pope Francis set aside his prepared talk to bishops, priests, men and women religious, seminarians and novices and told them:
“There are many enemies of harmony, many indeed. I always like to mention one, which can suffice as an example. Maybe someone can criticize me for saying the same thing over and over, but for me it is essential. The enemy of harmony in a religious community, a presbyterate, an episcopate and a seminary is the spirit of gossip. This is not something I invented: two thousand years ago, a certain James spoke about it in a letter that he wrote to the Church. The tongue, my brothers and sisters, the tongue. What destroys a community is speaking ill of others. Dwelling on the faults of others. Not speaking to the person, but saying things to others and thus creating an environment of distrust, an environment of suspicion, an environment in which there is no peace, but division. There is one image I like to use in describing the spirit of gossip. It is terrorism. Yes, terrorism, because those who speak ill of others do not do so publicly. The terrorist does not say publicly: “I’m a terrorist.” And those who speak ill of others, do so in secret: they speak to someone, throw the bomb and off they go. And the bomb wreaks havoc. And the bomb-thrower goes off serenely to throw another bomb. Dear sister, dear brother, when you want to speak ill of another person, bite your tongue! Most probably, it will swell up, but you will not wrong your brother or your sister.”
OK. Let’s consider this: Would it be a sin against the Big V (that is, 5) to just maim someone? “Literally maim?” you ask. Well, we can all agree that would be forbidden. What about punch, trip, smack upside the head, or hip check? (Hockey fans know what we mean here and we don’t mean during ice time.)
What about a little pinch? Meant to hurt, not flirt. (The latter might belong in a discussion on the Sixth Commandment. Adultery!) You get the picture. We creative human beings know countless ways to inflict pain on others, including bearing false witness and, oftentimes, true witness.
But no matter how good it may feel, how much power or prestige it may give us, there’s just no way to cram that square peg of gossiping into the round hole of “Love one another as I love you” (Jn 15:12) and “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6:31).
So don’t gossip. At all. Case closed. Case closed? No, it isn’t that easy to do because gossiping, like almost all sins, just feels so good. At the time. Gossiping is spicy-evil, in-crowd/out-crowd delicious. At that moment, in that moment, we enjoy it. Good to tell, good to hear, good to “say it forward.” And, as with many sins, the pain and damage spread far and wide. Rock-tossed-in-a-pond far and wide.
Fortunately there are those who want to help you. Here’s a little advice and points to consider, beginning with a firm suggestion — command — from God:
“You shall not go about spreading slander among your people. … I am the LORD” (Lv 19:16).
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain” (Jas 1:26).
“Do not speak evil of one another, brothers” (Jas 4:11).
“Whoever spreads slander is a fool” (Prv 10:18).
“One who slanders reveals secrets, but a trustworthy person keeps a confidence” (Prv 11:13).
“Perverse speech sows discord, and talebearing separates bosom friends” (Prv 16:28).
“A slanderer reveals secrets; so have nothing to do with a babbler!” (Prv 20:19)
A “babbler”! If someone always has stories to tell about others when they’re not around, what’s he or she saying about you when you’re absent?
Now that’s a chilling thought.
Bill Dodds writes from Washington.