The mark of a great sermon is that is not only touches you at the time but stays with you for years to come. Long ago our parish priest, a careful intellectual and thoughtful preacher, dedicated a month’s worth of Sunday sermons to the eighth commandment, pulling apart one offense against truth and charity at a time. Not far into this series I, a typical 15 year old girl, knew I sat condemned. I resolved to guard my tongue against all forms of gossip. There followed a very silent few days. I confess to a continued struggle with this vice, but I am disturbed at its rampant spread online. It can be profoundly upsetting and also demoralizing to see the kinds of misrepresentation, and misunderstanding directed towards Christianity and its teachings. Occasionally even more disturbing are the misrepresentations, misunderstandings and deeply uncharitable words of people who claim this Christianity as their own. It seems the whole world needs a refresher course in the fine points of the eighth commandment.
“Thou Shalt Not Lie” is pretty universally acknowledged to be a good rule. Telling outright malicious falsehoods is frowned upon across the board. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that truthfulness is much more than not lying.
The virtue of truth gives another his just due. Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion (CCC 2469).
Truthfulness demands honesty and discretion. It is this care in the use of words which is so lacking on many blogs, news sites and social media. Consider this:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them (CCC 2477).
In his sermon series, my pastor described a common excuse for rash judgment as reasoning based on “9 out of 10.” In our experience, nine out of ten times we might be right in our assumptions. Nine out of ten is no justification for judging someone without real evidence and often leads to the injustice of judging them wrongly. In contrast, the Catechism directs that: “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (CCC 2478). Is this your experience online? It isn’t mine.
Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity. (CCC 2479)
I find detraction more common than calumny, perhaps because it seems easier to justify. We claim that something is already common knowledge, that a sinner deserves to be shamed, or that we must know the enemy. If injurious information is already in the public domain it does not absolve us of the requirement to hold our tongues, or typing fingers. Any contribution we make to the spread of detraction is our fault, even if it is merely a drop in the bucket. Even if a man wears his sins with pride, we do not have the right to bandy them about. Persons have a right to their dignity and privacy, even if they themselves do not realize it. Furthermore, we may contribute to scandal by sharing such things. Not only charity and justice but modesty also demands discretion. Clearly some personal faults reveal a person’s intentions regarding various issues and may need to be addressed. All too often what is shared is not for this purpose but simply to humiliate.
Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom. (CCC 2492)
Calumny seems to come about most frequently when we are incautious about the dissemination of gossip. Usually it is not so much that we sought to tell an untruth, but that we passed on a claim without sufficiently investigating its truthfulness. This kind of irresponsible calumny walks hand in hand with rash judgment. Thoughtlessness is a poor excuse for destroying a man’s reputation.
Both detraction and calumny seem to be increasingly tempting in a wall to wall, 24/7 news world. If you run out of things worth reporting, some spicy gossip will fill the empty space. The Catechism even has specific things to say regarding the eighth commandment’s relationship to media. Neither the creators of media nor the consumers are off the hook.
The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences.
By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information. They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals. They should not stoop to defamation (CCC 2496-2497).
The prescription for bloggers, editors and journalist is simple. Follow high journalistic standards in investigating and disseminating information. For consumers there is a responsibility to demand these high standards and not to reward base and slanderous reporting. Do not reward click-bait and incendiary material. Don’t defend it either, even if the source is one “on our side” or that we happen to like. In fact, should we do this we not only become complicit in the aforementioned sins but add another!
Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins. Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech (CCC 2480).
We are doing no favors in excusing, defending and rewarding such content. Consumers also have a responsibility to be judicious in what we share and in our participation in combox debates.
Gossip is deeply tempting. It lets us feel “in the know” (Think Vatican gossip). In noting the speck in our neighbor’s eye we can distract ourselves from the log in our own. (Think exposés on celebrity peccadilloes). It is usually juicy and interesting. Gossip disguised as news and bile disguised as righteous outrage let us call our wasted time at the computer important and informative rather than idle curiosity.
I wonder if the term culture war has become part of the problem. We are busy lobbing bombs at each other across a great divide. Maybe we need to call it a Culture Mission or a Culture Persecution. Then we might start responding to the detraction, rash judgment, and calumny directed toward us with Christ-like patience, humility, and charity instead of returning fire with our own. If we cannot do it because it is right, we should at least do it because it is strategically wise. Our enemies seek to portray us as bigoted, ignorant, and hateful. If our articles or comment sections are full of unchristian detraction and calumny then we give this narrative oxygen.
There is an old story about gossip, likening it to casting feathers in the air and seeing how hard it is to gather them all back. Imagine the snowstorm of feathers we’ve created with our injudicious words! For my teenage self the most crushing lesson from those Sunday sermons was the duty to make it right:
“Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation. . . . Reparation also concerns offenses against another’s reputation. This reparation, moral and sometimes material, must be evaluated in terms of the extent of the damage inflicted. It obliges in conscience.” (CCC 2487)
How staggeringly difficult it is to make reparation for words. You can give back money stolen, not reputations. What we can certainly do is resolve to do better. Maybe a post-it note by the screen or keyboard listing rash judgment, detraction, calumny and adulation will serve as a gentle reminder to refocus on more edifying things.