We hear it at the office, around the neighborhood, perhaps among friends and even our relatives. Entire reality TV series are based on it and tell-all books, talk shows and tabloids make millions from it. The misuse of social media has raised it to new levels – sometimes with astonishingly tragic results. In all of its influential and insidious forms, gossip has grown to epidemic proportions. Its universal presence has emerged as a popular form of entertainment for the masses– and it has permeated popular culture. Instead of being repelled by it, millions are drawn to a steady diet that dishes the latest scoop (whether true or not) on celebrities, sports stars and “real” housewives. From time to time, most of us have also engaged in it as well.
The topic of gossip is also on the mind of Pope Francis as well. Since his election less than two months ago, the Pontiff has already spoken three times about the dangerous consequences of gossip. In a recent homily in the chapel of the Vatican’s Santa Marta, Pope Francis said, “When one prefers gossiping – gossiping about another, it’s like clobbering another. This is normal, it happens to everyone, including me – it is a temptation of the evil one who does not want the Spirit to come and bring about peace and meekness in the Christian community.” The Pope went on to say, “The struggle against such harmful chatter is something that continually sows tensions in parishes, families, in neighborhoods and among friends.”
The Bible is also very clear about gossip – “Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people” (Leviticus 19:16). Likewise the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks to the importance of refraining from actions such as gossiping that can tarnish the reputation of another –
“Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury” (Para. 2477). Gossiping involves the sin of detraction in which a person discloses another’s faults and failings to someone who did not know them. Therefore, one commits the sin of detraction when he makes known the faults of another without a very good reason for doing so. Further, it can be a serious moral offense if it does great harm to another’s reputation by having his or her faults spread about when they otherwise would not be.
Gossip can be true, partially true, or completely false and while it can be motivated by good intentions, it always contains negative personal information about another that puts them in a bad light. Similarly, we can also participate in gossip by remaining silent or using approving body language such as nodding our head in agreement.
It is important to note that there is a difference between gossiping and venting to a trusted friend with the intent of seeking their advice or trying to reach a positive conclusion without damaging the reputation of another. There is also no crime in calling a spade a spade or discussing, for example, the character of a political candidate running for office or a difficult situation at work with a colleague.
God takes seriously how we communicate with and about others. So how can we curb our tongues and avoid gossiping? It is always helpful to recall the golden rule Jesus taught us in “doing unto others as you would have done unto you” (Luke 6:31). Another is to follow the age old advice – “If you can’t say something nice about a person, don’t say anything at all.” Also, ask yourself if your words tend to heal or hurt – do they tear down or do they lift up? It might be useful to analyze what is behind our gossiping ways. Do we put others down because we are insecure about ourselves, bored or simply being thoughtless? From time to time, we may slip and say something that wounds another. It happens to all of us and should be confessed. I know that eliminating gossip from our lives is easier said than done, but Christ always challenges us to raise our spiritual bar. In beginning to pay particular attention to our thoughts – we can overcome our habit of dissing others before they become words. Words are powerful and cut deep. They can also have a powerful impact on our own character development. A famous quote from the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher sums this up well:
“Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny!”
When we slip and say something disparaging, we can recall the words, “May the words of my mouth meet with your favor, keep the thoughts of my heart before you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:15). Ultimately, we are all looking for a safe relationship where someone knows all of our parts with the assurance they will keep them in strict confidence for “a gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Prov. 11:13).
Clearly, Pope Francis is aware of the tremendous need for this to happen in our world today in saying, “If, with the grace of the Spirit, we were able to stop gossiping, it would be a huge step forward, and it would do everyone good!”
Cover image credit: “Gossip” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)