Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Don't Be A Cold-Blooded Killer

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.


  1. Priests are not open and honest about their sexuality. Most are not celibate. The most conscientious of these confine themselves to masturbatory sex but many have sex with partners. The most conscientious of these seek consensual, monogamous , age appropriate partners, many do not and many are predatory in their sexual practices. People need to speak out about these and other kinds of public hippocracy within the church community until it stops. It is not gossip.

    1. I'm curious about your sources.

    2. Haters gonna hate. You just worry about your own chastity. You don't know anything about 'most.' I know lots of priests and I find them refreshingly open and honest about their sexuality, insofar as that falls within the bounds of modesty. Why don't you turn your hate equally on others - like school teachers and politicians?

    3. Are priests obliged to be "open and honest" about their sexuality? I'm not. Most Catholics aren't. So what makes priests obliged to be "open and honest"? Is there something about them that makes them more obliged to divulge their sins and failings?

      Sin isn't hypocrisy.

      If you want to out any particularly sinful priest whom you know is publicly breaking his vows, you go ahead and report them to their bishop. Otherwise, you're talking through your hat.

    4. Slocum: What you write isn't gossip, but it's also far from the truth. Yes, SOME priests have done as you say but studies (John Jay Institute for one) show that the MAJORITY of us faithfully live out all of our vows.

      As to being 'open and honest', let me ask you this: Do you go around telling people about the intimate details of your sex life (assuming you can remember back that far)? If you do, it could explain why you spend so much time by yourself trolling online Catholic sites like this one. Try to be more prudent and you might find yourself a little more popular with others. Just a suggestion.

      Fr. Tim

    5. If I presumed to preach to others as to how to live out the most personal and private aspects of their lives, after soliciting from them their sexual secrets, without being honest with them about the fact that I myself do not live that way myself, then I would be deeply ashamed of myself and a surely evil in the eyes of god.

  2. Fr. Denis, thank you for this. Gossip IS a pernicious fault of humanity, but it can be confusing since talking about people isn't necessarily always bad (like when you're praising/extolling another's virtues, as you said). I suppose when it comes right down to it, we constantly have to monitor our own hearts, making sure we are truly loving towards one another, encouraging others in the good, building up the body of Christ and being discerning and forthright with the not-so-good. At the same time we must be careful not to make wild assumptions, but give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I will make up little stories about people that annoy me - like when someone cuts in front of me I will imagine that his wife's in the car having a baby or something. Then I don't turn around and say awful things about him, but can have a bit more understanding. Thanks again for this!

  3. Oh Father - Thanks for the reminder. Telling stories about someone else for 'entertainment', even if the stories are true, causes such damage to our immortal souls and is an insidious way of breaking the commandment "thou shalt not kill". If I may be so bold as to talk about you "in front of your back", you've really hit the nail on the head with this one and made me reassess holding my own tongue more closely. Thank you again for the gentle prodding. God Bless! <><

  4. Father, I have a lot of trouble with this one, knowing the boundaries and keeping within them. Sometimes gossip comes off as "news about the family". It's hard in conversation to draw the line when you're focused on listening to what others have to say.

  5. Thank you Fr. Denis. Sometimes these are the harder sins to confess or to remember to speak of especially when you try to downplay what you have done well before getting to the box.
    Great blog post.
    BTW, the Church does not suck.

  6. I am busier than usual...and am reading the last week of your blog , Father Denis, all at once.
    Maybe, it does not matter much... But I wanted to say very clearly: I find publicly confabulating about the sexual lives of anyone abhorrent.
    Telling the truth is one thing...but making these gross generalizations about priests...well it is just painful.
    Perhaps, I have not yet met a priest who was perfect, and maybe not a saint. But I have met a couple who were in love with God. A that love has had a profound effect on me all these many years...and a profound effect on others too. So, I offer this coment as a kind of tribute...a very small gesture of my gratitude. Bless you. Please take of each other!
    Ps I especially like the little mandate reflections!


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