It is Wednesday again, and time for another thrilling instalment of the papal examen, our weekly look at the fifteen spiritual diseases Pope Francis cautioned the Roman curia against in his pre-Christmas address. I believe it is a good examination of conscience for everyone, and have taken it as such.
This address was the occasion of much fevered and at times quite ill-natured commentary and speculation on social media and regular media as well—the Pope laying into ‘those horrible people’ in the curia. The amount of snarky comments and guessing games as to which cardinals he was talking about, etc., is somewhat ironic in light of the fact that disease number nine is:
The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a person, making him become a “sower of weeds”(like Satan) and in many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues and confrères. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s backs. Saint Paul admonishes us to do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent” (Phil 2:14-15). Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!
Yes. Indeed. Let us not look to the sins and misdeeds of others as fodder for our facebook news feeds and water cooler chatter, but look to our own hearts.
Gossip is a pernicious fault of humanity, one of the hardy perennials of the human sin garden. It is, simply, talking about other people in the service of one’s own entertainment, increase in status, or (in the case of the more serious form of the sin) to maliciously harm the other.
We are not to ‘dish the dirt’ about other people. Gossip is a sin against truth, even if the content of the gossip is entirely true. Truth is meant to be spoken in love; truth is not fully true unless it is coming from a place of love and for the purpose of love. To use the truth of some other person’s lives—who they are romantically involved with, some misfortune or personal failure of theirs—as a game or sport or diversion is to reduce that person to an at best an object of fun, at worst an object of mockery and derision. At any rate, an object, and this is a violation of the whole truth of that person.
And then there is gossip which actually damages the good name of the person. This is the sin of detraction, where we disseminate negative information about a person without just cause. There are times when we have to pass on something we know about a person, and I think it should be fairly obvious to an adult of normal intelligence when those times are.
But simply blabbing about how this one is stupid and that one is short-tempered and that other one is lousy at their job—what loving purpose does that achieve? To talk about someone behind his or her back is a grave sin against charity.
Worse yet, of course, is calumny, which is knowingly spreading damaging lies about a person. I would add that passing on negative information about a person when we do not really know it to be true verges on calumny as well. It is already detraction, but the real possibility that we are incorrect in our gossip raises it to the point of that most serious sin against truth.
‘The terrorism of gossip’ – the Pope certainly does like that phrase! And it’s a strong one. I think he is trying to get people’s attention here—besides being a commonplace sort of sin (or perhaps because it is so common), gossip is a sin we like to ‘palliate’ – make little of, pretend that it is really not a big deal. Everyone does it, after all, so how bad can it be?
Well, it’s very bad. It does terrible damage to the person gossiped about, and does worse damage to the gossiper. We are meant to live in such a spirit of charity and love for one another—do we really take that seriously? We are meant to have an overflowing heart of compassion and tender care for every human being. Gossip, as far as I can see, destroys that in us like nothing else, quite.
Reducing another person to fodder for the rumour mill, victims for the arena of public exposure, the circus of the tongue, for tabloid headlines and water cooler chatter—all of this is the direct opposite of the attitude of mind and heart that is the spirit of Jesus Christ in the world.
Bottom line: we are not to talk about people behind their backs, except perhaps to praise them and extol their virtues. And Lent is a good time to examine ourselves for the sins of gossip, detraction, calumny, and bring them to confession if need be (since these are grave matters). Let us leave off this nonsensical and deeply sinful habit that is so pervasive in our world today. Amen.