Slander: A Cancer in the Christian Life

We are approaching the great Solemnity of Christmas, when we relive the birth of the one and only Savior of the World. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: "Christ’s disciples have ‘put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.’ By ‘putting away falsehood,’ they are to ‘put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander’" (no. 2475). As we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, I would like to reflect on the sin of slander. Slander is defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia as "Knowingly uttering, communicating or attributing falsehoods about another for the purpose of bringing harm … Often slander involves omitting details, so that the reputation of the person is blackened by the story … Slander is often excused as being necessary in some circumstances, but the classical Catholic tradition has held that it cannot be justified or rationalized (cf. Canons 128, 220)" (p. 927). Slander in Catholic moral theology is divided into two subsets: detraction and calumny. Detraction is defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia as "An unjust verbal attack or injury to another, it is the revelation of truths about another, either for the purpose of injuring another or for some other reason. Detraction differs from calumny, which reveals false material about another for the purpose of defaming the other person. Detraction is wrong even if it does not spring from malicious intent. It is malicious because it destroys what can be irreplaceable: a person’s good reputation. Detraction can come about either by spoken word or by actions which disparage the good done by another. Innuendos are often more damaging than explicit statements of fact" (p. 322). So, detraction reveals true information about another that other persons have no right to know. Calumny is the telling of falsehood about someone to others. Understanding the Catholic moral tradition helps us to see why a person sins if they bring allegations, substantiated or unsubstantiated, to the attention of the public. Whether the allegation they lodge in the public forum is true (detraction) or false (calumny), it is a sin to allege wrongdoing about another that will harm their reputation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: "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" (no. 2477). Scripture is very clear on God’s displeasure with the gossip and the slanderer. The Book of Proverbs teaches us: If you have a problem with your neighbor "…discuss the matter with him privately. Don't tell anyone else, or others may accuse you of gossip. Then you will never regain your good reputation" (Prv 25:9-10). And, in the Book of Levitcus the Lord teaches us: "Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people. Do not try to get ahead at the cost of your neighbor's life, for I am the LORD" (Lv 19:16). There are proper ways to conduct ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ if we suspect or find our neighbor is guilty of wrongdoing. Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Mt 18:15-17). In Christian charity sometimes we must confront one of our brothers or sisters when they are in serious sin. This we must do in charity and work for their conversion. In the case of crimes, these must be reported immediately to the proper civil and ecclesial authorities. Christ clearly outlines for us the proper channels for addressing wrongdoing in the Church, and as disciples of Christ we must conform ourselves to His teaching. As we prepare for the approaching Solemnity of Christmas, therefore, let us examine our lives to see if we ourselves are guilty of slander. A divisive spirit is the child of Satan who is the father of division. Let us, therefore, put aside any divisiveness, gossip, slander, rash judgment or behavior not befitting a child of God. Let us instead embody the fruits of the Holy Spirit which we received at Baptism and Confirmation. "…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control … If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (Gal 5:22-25). As we prepare to receive the Christ Child, let us take to heart the words of our Savior: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Let us, therefore, put away all rash judgment, gossip and slander, and put on Christ, living in the fullness of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2002