The story is often told of the most unusual penance St. Philip Neri assigned to a woman for her sin of spreading gossip. The sixteenth-century saint instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the church bell tower, rip it open, and let the wind blow all the feathers away. This probably was not the kind of penance this woman, or any of us, would have been used to!
But the penance didn’t end there. Philip Neri gave her a second and more difficult task. He told her to come down from the bell tower and collect all the feathers that had been scattered throughout the town. The poor lady, of course, could not do it-and that was the point Philip Neri was trying to make in order to underscore the destructive nature of gossip. When we detract from others in our speech, our malicious words are scattered abroad and cannot be gathered back. They continue to dishonor and divide many days, months, and years after we speak them as they linger in people’s minds and pass from one tale-bearer to the next.
The Power of Our Words
We often do not realize the power of our words. Our words can be used to buildup or to tear down. We can have a positive impact on other people’s lives when we use our words for good. Consider how much we appreciate it when someone takes time to express words of gratitude, honor, or praise; or how enriched we are when someone takes a genuine interest in our lives. Conversation that focuses on what is good and honorable can edify other people’s lives and help strengthen the community.
Very often, however, our speech is used in a destructive way. St. James states “the tongue is a fire,” and he describes how easy it is to fall into sinful speech: “No human being can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men” (Jas.3:6, 8-9). St. Paul exhorts us: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). Yet many people fall into negative humor, constantly pointing out others’ faults, albeit in a joking fashion. Young people today, instead of outdoing one another in showing honor, often imitate characters on popular TV shows and YouTube videos and try to outdo one another with a witty quip that pokes fun at another person.
We tear down others when we point out their weak points, criticize them, or complain about them when they are not present. We may, for example, start off speaking positively about someone, yet add a “but” in the middle of our sentence that precedes our mentioning a certain fault or annoying point we think that person possesses. “He’s a great guy, but sometimes he talks too much.” “I love mom, but sometimes she can get on my nerves.” Such detraction is not necessary and diminishes the honor that is due to the other person.
The vice of detraction consists of disclosing, without good reason, “another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.2477). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, issuing injurious words with the intention to dishonor someone is sinful. Words that expose someone’s faults to the detriment of his or her honor thus should generally be avoided. Just because a certain statement might be true does not mean I should say it. If I were to tell others about a person’s hidden faults — even if they were truly weaknesses of his — this would be to the detriment of his honor, since now these faults would be in most people’s minds when they thought of him and overshadow the honor that is due to him. Instead of giving him the honor he deserves, others might now dwell more on this person’s particular faults and failings.
There may be some circumstances in which speaking of a person’s faults is not done with the intent to dishonor him or her, but for some good purpose — for example, to correct the person or to protect the community. Yet even in these cases, a person should delicately choose his words with great discretion and moderation. Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once needed to discuss with her close advisors a disciplinary issue involving one of the sisters in her community. She began the conversation by reminding them to speak carefully and not say anything they did not need to say. She led them in prayer asking God to help them speak gently about this particular sister, pointing out that it was as if they were holding her in the palm oft heir hands as they spoke about her.
Another sin of speech is backbiting, which denies or disparages one’s good points. It speaks ill of another person when he or she is not present “in order to blacken his good name.” Whereas detraction openly seeks to dishonor someone, backbiting aims at depreciating one’s reputation and it seeks to do so secretly. This can be done by speaking falsely about someone, presenting his faults as greater than they really are, or ascribing a bad intention to his good deed. We can fall into backbiting also by deliberately concealing or diminishing someone else’s good qualities. We may not directly criticize a particular person whom we do not like, but we never mention that person’s praiseworthy accomplishments or virtues to others because we do not want their reputation to be enhanced.
According to Aquinas, backbiting is a mortal sin more serious than theft. He quotes Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is to be chosen rather than riches.” To take away someone’s good name is a graver offense than to take away that person’s property.
This is why we must resist when others start backbiting in our presence. We should want to protect the trashing of our neighbor’s reputation just as we would want to protect their home from being robbed. Some of the great saints of our modern era had parents who were excellent role models in courageously resisting sinful speech. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s father, for example, would never allow his friends to gossip or speak uncharitably about others in his presence. Similarly, Mother Teresa’s own mother, Drana, trained her children never to speak negatively of others. When the children once were complaining about their teacher, she turned off the main switch in their home and told the children she would not waste electricity on their sinful speech. The kids had to walk around and do their chores in the dark for more than an hour that evening. On another occasion, when a customer for her daughter’s dressmaking business told an uncomplimentary story about someone while waiting in her home, Drana pointed to a sign that announced speaking against others was not welcome in their home. Infuriated, the woman stormed out of the house and the family lost her business. Drana was unmoved, however, and told the children: “We can do without money, but we cannot do with sin.”
When our conversation is charitable and focuses on what is true, good, and beautiful, it edifies others and builds deeper communion among people.
That kind of resistance to backbiting St. Thomas Aquinas would praise. He taught that if a person does not resist backbiting, he seems to consent to it and shares in that person’s sin. Aquinas also notes that a person might sin even more than the backbiter himself if he induces the man to backbite (“So tell me more about that . . .”) or if he enjoys hearing the critique on account of his hatred for the person being detracted.
Finally, one even more sinful use of speech is tale-bearing. Similar to backbiting, it seeks to disparage someone’s good name and seeks to do it in secret. But tale-bearing is worse because it does so with the specific intention to divide friendships. The Book of Sirach refers to this kind of sin when it states, “Curse the whisperer and deceiver, for he has destroyed many who were at peace” (Sir. 28:13). According to Aquinas, tale-bearing is worse than detraction in general or backbiting, because friendship is an even greater good than one’s honor or good name.
Though gossip, detraction, backbiting, and tale-bearing can cause injury to other’s good name and divide people from each other, God intended that we use our speech for good. When our conversation is charitable and focuses on what is true, good, and beautiful, it edifies others and builds deeper communion among people. The following exhortation of St. Paul to the Philippians is also quite applicable to the way we should approach our conversations: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II Q. 73,Art. 2.
Copyright © 2018 Edward Sri