Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"Gossip is not the Gospel"
by Bishop Blase J. Cupich
(From the May 19, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)
A nationally known columnist once remarked that “gossip is the tawdry jewel in the crown of democracy.” Our right to free speech, she explained, makes gossip not only possible but even inevitable.
It struck me when I heard that comment that there is something wrong here, or at least her interpretation of our democratic rights is missing something.
My experience over the years as a pastor tells me that such a “defense” of gossip does not take into account the damage it does to people, especially when it robs them of their good name. I believe it also does damage to our society and institutions.
Of course, there are different kinds of gossip. The most serious and malicious is called calumny. Calumny is an out-and-out lie, something which is a total falsehood, aimed at destroying or harming the reputation of another or others. This is the most insidious and malicious form of “gossip” because its untruth leads people to make false judgments about the victim beyond the original lie. Repairing the harm is nearly impossible. Remember Sister telling us in catechism class about picking up all the feathers after emptying the pillow case on a windy day?
A second kind of gossip depends on partial truths, or better, a rash judgment. This is assuming as true the moral fault of someone with particular and insufficient information. We all recall those childhood games of whispering something down a row to others, only to end up laughing at how the original utterance came out so differently.
For example: John went outside for a walk on a winter day, John went outside and slipped on the ice, John broke his leg, John is crippled for life, John could never go out for a walk again.
Too often, however, this kind of whispering gossip based on half-truths is not laughable. Half-truths spoken with arrogant self-assurance lead over time to a full lie and someone’s good name is harmed.
But, the most common kind of gossip comes in the form of disclosing, without any objectively valid reason, another’s faults and failings to people who do not know them. This kind of gossip is often referred to as detraction. We detract from the good name of someone by divulging information that others have no right to and which will not benefit society, let alone the victim.
Perhaps it is the most common kind of gossip because people have convinced themselves that they can justify it. After all, what they are telling others is not untrue.
The question is, however, is it the full truth about a person? Are our faults the whole story about who we are? I imagine no one of us would really want to sign our name on the dotted line to defend that statement.
St. Paul put this in a different perspective when he wrote to the people of Corinth about this form of gossip. He spoke of it as a sin against charity – “love does not take pleasure in the faults of others.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps us understand the seriousness of all these forms of gossip. They “… 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)
Just as we defend human dignity when it comes to the right to life for all human beings, so must we do so when another’s natural right to respect and honor is so casually harmed and victimized by gossip. In the long run, gossip undermines our sense of human solidarity as it lets us live in the illusion that we live in a world of “them” and “us.”
Maybe that is why I reacted negatively when the columnist noted above characterized gossip as the tawdry jewel in the crown of democracy. Do not the documents constituting our nation offer a rationale for democracy with the opening phrase: “In order to form a more perfect union”?
When gossip divides us, it pays no homage to democracy. Instead of the tawdry jewel, it is perhaps better to call it the tawdry tarnish, which needs to be rubbed out so that the crown of our democracy and our life of faith in the Church can shine as they should.
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