Defamers and Whisperers Accursed by God
© Copyright 2009, T. Stanfill Benns (None of what appears below — in whole or in part — may be used without the express and written permission of the author.)
(Taken from Rev. McHugh and Callan’s “Moral Theology: A Complete Course.”)
Many try to deter others from sins of the tongue and pen by posting pious sermons against these sins to their web sites without first bothering to inform their readers of the true meaning of the words used to describe these sins. Pious condemnations mean little if there is no understanding in the first place of what these sins entail, who they apply to, how they can be committed, their many different variations and the many conditions that make them either mortal or venial sins. It is not uncommon that people use the words that represent these sins, yet are unaware of what they mean. Many people are ignorant of the broad scope of the word defamation (calumny, detraction) as explained in the manuals of Moral Theology. There are many shades and attenuations to these terms and many limiting factors that govern their various applications. To learn of these we turn to the compilation of Revs. John McHugh and Charles McCallan, O. P., “Moral Theology: A Complete Course, Vol. II, whose work is based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and “the best modern authorities.” All emphasis within quotes is the editor’s.
What is defamation?
“Defamation is either detraction or calumny. Detraction blackens a reputation by [unjustly] revealing faults or defects that are real; calumny (slander) injures reputation by stories that are untrue. A common form of calumny is the mixture of truth and falsehood…or of half-truths that convey the impression of what is untrue, (e.g., when a historian narrates that a certain character killed a man and does not give the background of the killing, such as provocation, challenge, mistake; or when a biographer tells of the various crimes of his subjects and glosses over the virtues, or makes no mention of his amendment)…There is also slander (which is oral) and libel (which is written or printed). Libel is more grievous, since it has a permanence not found in spoken words. McHugh and Callan further divide defamation into direct and indirect.
“The following are examples of direct defamation:
(a) sinister interpretation, as when one states that words or acts of a neighbor that were good or at least open to a good interpretation, were dictated by greed, ambition, pride, etc.,
(b) unjust revelation (detraction), as when one reveals secret faults or crimes;
(c) exaggeration, as when one magnifies a venial sin into a mortal sin, an indeliberate fault into an habitual or deliberate sin; or when one distorts a sin of one species into a sin of another, much more heinous species, or accuses a whole class or body of men because one of their members had fallen. Those who add their own detail or circumstances to a defamatory tale as they pass it along are proverbial examples of exaggeration…
(d) false accusation (calumny) is the worst kind of defamation. Innocent XI condemned the proposition that one may probably use calumny without serious sin as a defense of one’s own justice and honor, (DZ 1194).”
The authors explain that direct defamation also can be made by innuendo or insinuation, which merely create suspicion, or by general or more specific terms. In discussing good repute or reputation, they define it as “the public belief that an individual is trustworthy and competent in affairs and duties which pertain to his state or occupation…Ordinary good repute is that which every person needs…Extraordinary fame is that which a person enjoys for unusual ability as a statesman, orator, financial expert, mathematician, or for virtue that is far above the average.
“There is a difference between the right to a true and the right to a false reputation.”
(a) The right to a true reputation is an absolute and universal right, one that does not cease in any case, for truth and justice demand that one should not represent as evil one who is really good. This right applies to an extraordinary reputation as well as an ordinary reputation.
(b) The right to a false reputation is a relative and limited right, one which ceases when the common good on which it rests no longer supports it, (when it cannot be maintained without injustice). Moreover, there is no right to an extraordinary reputation, if it is based on false premises, for the common good does not require such a right and hence it is not detraction to show that the renown of an individual for superior skill or success is built up on advertising alone, or on uninformed rumor.
“Defamation is a mortal sin…[St. Paul] declares that detractors are hateful to God, (Rom. 1: 29, 30)…Detractors are rightfully called an abomination to mankind, (Prov. 24: 9)…” A threefold sort of damage is done by defamation, the authors say. First, those defamed are robbed of their good name and deprived of many spiritual and temporal opportunities. Secondly, the defamer “destroys his own good name [and] disgraces himself before others, since it is well known that defamation is the vice of those who themselves feel inferior or guilty. And worst of all, his sin is seldom repented of or repaired by satisfaction, since the defamer is generally too proud, hateful, jealous or revengeful to acknowledge his error, or is so blind that the thought of the harm he has done and of the grave obligation of satisfaction never crosses his mind. Thirdly, the listener is “scandalized and contaminated by what he hears, his ideals are shattered, his respect for virtue or religion is destroyed and he is encouraged to continue the work of the defamer.”
May the crimes of one already in disrepute be indiscriminately exposed?
Even the right to expose those whose crimes are public or notorious are governed by specific rules; making the fact of their publicity known still must be tempered by charity. “He who sins publicly thereby resigns his right to reputation as regards all those persons and places to which knowledge of his delinquency is likely to arrive…,” but this does not mean that it is not a sin to make such things known without a serious reason, such as the danger of perversion or contagion, especially if the reputation of the individual has been wholly or partly recovered. “Condemnation pronounced in a court of law gives the right to others to make the sentence known in any place, or at any time, but more probably it is mortally uncharitable if made without necessity, since it harms the other person or his family in the reputation which he has honestly recovered…The person who has built up for himself a new reputation has a right to it…”
Here also must be considered many other things, such as the actual nature of such crimes, the circumstances of the offense, whether the conviction or incident was contested, whether there were excusing factors and so forth. Canon Law would have all these things taken into consideration. In the 50 years that have elapsed since a true Roman Pontiff has sat on the papal throne, many grave injustices in American law and the American legal system allow offenders to be punished for crimes the Church would not consider as heinous as the present laws paint them to be. Those actually guilty of heinous crimes often escape prosecution under unjust laws, while their fellows are severely punished. Practices such as plea bargains, exclusion of certain evidence, manner of examination on the stand by attorneys, interrogation techniques by police, painting lesser crimes with the same puritanical brush as far more grievous crimes, entrapment and the inability of the average citizen to afford reliable counsel (since public defenders are overworked and often are forced to take the path of least resistance) have never been reviewed by the Church. As stated above, it also is a species of defamation to allow others to think the worst by insinuation, to mix truths with lies and half-truths and to not mention the fact that the one about whom the revelation is made has amended his ways.
If one has truly been defamed, and is defending one’s true (not false) reputation or dignity, it is allowed to reveal things publicly notorious about third parties to shore up one’s own position. But this hardly applies when it can be conclusively proven that the one claiming to have been defamed is actually himself the defamer. And one cannot injure a reputation or dignity that does not exist or is based entirely on misrepresentations.
When revelation of another’s defects is justified
Those who defame others from a position of authority, or the appearance to certain others of such an authority, increase the harm done. “One who is in an official position, or who is thought to be honest and disinterested, does more harm by defamation than another whose authority is weak,” McHugh and Callan state. By the same token, revelations made about those in a position of authority such as political candidates, public figures and certain others sometimes must be made for the common good. “When a man has used corrupt practices in order to be elected, or when he is incompetent, or when he has been guilty of malfeasance in office,” such revelations may be made under the following conditions: secrecy must not be violated, nor knowledge unjustly acquired used and a good result must be intended of some importance. The authors state: “The innocent and the guilty party are not on the same footing…In doubt about the seriousness of the evil following on revelation, the innocent party is to be favored.”
Rights that have precedence over a false reputation also must be mentioned here. The authors write:
(a) The public good is to be preferred to a false reputation, for the public welfare is the ground for the right to such reputation, the subject himself being unworthy of the good name he bears;
(b) It is right therefore to denounce criminals or conspirators to the proper authorities, or to testify against them. Employers have the duty to discuss together the failings and imperfections of their employees that interfere with the business.
(c) The private good of innocent parties may be preferred to one who enjoys a false reputation. One may reveal secret defects for one’s own defense; for example a person whose life, honor or property is being unjustly attacked may reveal sins of the guilty in order to deter them or weaken their authority;
(d) One may also reveal secret defects for the protection of others. For example, one should put unsuspecting persons on their guard against seducers, imposters, quacks; one should reveal impediments to a marriage (or to an ordination/consecration of one unworthy, as the law demands); one should alert others to the fact they may soon be the victim of a criminal act, and employers should make it known to fellow employers that former employees are criminals or incompetent.
(e) The higher good of the person whose faults are revealed may also be preferred to the lower good of his false reputation, for it is in his best interests that the higher good be promoted. Parents should be told about the misdeeds of their children and superiors about the unlawful or immoral conduct of their subjects.
In addition to all this, the listeners to the defamation are equally guilty for cooperating in sin. The authors say those who give orders for defamation, show how it can be done, protect defamers, and those who participate in the defamation by pointing to its source or joining in the criticisms consent to it either directly or indirectly. The listener who consents directly by supporting or praising the defamer or cheering him on shares equally in his guilt. “They who do such things are worthy of death,” St. Paul says in Rom. 1: 32. “He who spurs the defamer on is more guilty than the defamer,” McHugh and Callan point out. “He who hears the defamer willingly may be more guilty internally than the defamer.” They emphasize that those who commit calumny must make restitution by admitting what they said was untrue, even signing an affidavit to this effect. If the defamation was by detraction, the defamer must explain that his statements were unjust and he had no right to make them. He also may honor or praise the person defamed, or call attention to his reformation, in the case of public sinners or criminals. Listeners directly cooperating in calumny also are bound to make restitution.
Whispering, another sin against one’s neighbor
“Defamation (or backbiting) is the unjust blackening of another person by secret words.” (Detraction and calumny can be either public or private.) “Whispering…, also called mischief-making or tale bearing, is a speech unfavorable to another person secretly made with the purpose of breaking up a virtuous friendship.
(a) It is unfavorable speech, that is the whisperer says something to his listener that will turn the latter against the person spoken about. The thing attributed to the absent person may be either something evil or seemingly evil, but in either case it will be something displeasing to the listener.
(b) It is secret, that is the whisperer speaks privately and usually in the way of confidence to the person whose mind he wishes to impress. Often, however, he goes now to one of the friends, now to another, speaking in different senses to each, to make his work doubly effective. This kind of whisperer is known as double-tongued: “The whisperer and the double-tongued is accursed,” (Eccles. 28: 15).
(c) It is aimed at the breaking up of a friendship, that is, the whisperer intends to destroy the feeling of respect and affection which his listener has for the absent person, or even to instill into the listener’s mind a feeling of disrespect and dislike for the absent person. Whispering is incomplete when it ends a friendship, and complete when it makes enemies of those who had been friends, and sows discord and quarrels: “A passionate man kindleth strife, and a sinful man will trouble his friends, and bring in debate in the midst of them that are at peace,” (Eccles. 28: 11). “When the talebearer is taken away, contentions shall cease,” (Prov. 26: 20). No sin is committed, however, in the breaking up of a sinful or harmful friendship, since these are against charity.”
“Whispering is from its nature a mortal sin, since it is hateful to God, (the soul of the Lord detesteth ‘him that soweth discord among brethren,’ Prov. 6: 19), and deprive man of the boon of a virtuous friendship, the greatest of external good. ‘A faithful friend is a strong defense and he that hath found him hath found a treasure,’ etc., (Eccles. 6: 14-16). Whispering is a greater sin than contumely or defamation, since honor is less esteemed than friendship, and reputation is only a means to friendship…It is not a small matter to destroy friendships that are very necessary, such as the friendship between husband and wife…parent and child.”
Restitution owed by defamers
The above methods are the favored tools of religious cults and those who will go to any lengths to destroy their “most bitter enemy.” As we have seen, those who employ such practices are despised by God, and quite often never repent. Even when they do, seldom can they fully repair the damage done, and hardly ever can they regain the trust of those they have injured. Nevertheless, reparation IS owed to the one whose reputation has been destroyed and such reparation is actually demanded by the Church. This we find in Can. 1935: “Any of the faithful may at all times denounce the offense of another for the purpose of demanding satisfaction (e.g., for slander) or to get damages for losses sustained through the criminal act of another…or out of zeal for justice to repair some scandal or evil. Even an obligation to denounce an offender exists whenever one is obliged to do so either by law or by special legitimate precept, or by the natural law in view of the danger to faith or religion, or other imminent public evil.”
And then there is Can. 2355: “A person who inflicts injury upon another…by words or writing or in any other manner, or who damages his good reputation, may not only be forced…to make due satisfaction, and repair the damages done, but may in addition be punished with appropriate penalties and penances…” As Rev. Leonard Goffine preaches in his sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Catholics have a right to defend their goodname. In serious matters where scandal is involved, Rev. Goffine and all the other moral theologians state that one has the actual obligation to defend a good reputation. But a false reputation, one defended even at the expense of falsifying truths of faith, is indefensible. To pretend that one has the right to such a reputation then use this false right to make unjust revelations about others in one’s “defense” is compounding defamation in a very evil way.
Obligation to denounce heretics
Whether in print or by word of mouth, whatever their religious differences, those believing themselves to be truly Catholic cannot cross moral lines to defame their enemies. If they do they owe them restitution. The only exception to this rule is the obligation to refute the lies and heresies advanced by those who have proven themselves intractable, refused to desist from their errors and insist on falsifying the faith. “Give the enemy no quarter,” Rev. Felix Sarda Salvany commands in his book, “What Is Liberalism?,” a work personally read and commended by Pope Leo XIII. Warning that God’s rights and human respect must never be sacrificed on the altar of liberal charity, Sarda writes:
“Liberalism prefers the tactics of recrimination, and under the sting of a just flagellation, whiningly accuses Catholics of a lack of charity…Narrow! Intolerant! Uncompromising! These are the epithets of odium hurled by Liberal votaries…Are not Liberals our neighbors like other men? Do we not owe to them the same charity we apply to others? Are not your vigorous denunciations, it is urged against us, harsh and uncharitable, in the very teeth of the teaching of Christianity which is essentially a religion of love? Such is the accusation continually flung in our face. Let us see what its value is. Let us see what the word charity signifies. The catechism, that most authoritative epitomy of Catholic theology, gives us the most complete and succinct definition…
“Charity is a supernatural virtue which induces us to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves for the love of God… ‘To love is to wish good to those we love,’” the philosopher says; to God, to our neighbor, that is to everyone. “True love wishes…first of all, supernatural good, ‘for the love of God.’…It follows therefore that we can love our neighbor when displeasing him, when opposing him, when causing him some material injury, and on certain occasions, when depriving him of life…If it is shown that in displeasing or offending our neighbor we act for his good, it is evident that we love him even when opposing or crossing him…When we correct the wicked by restraining or by punishing them, none the less do we love them. This is charity and perfect charity, (all emph. within Rev. Sarda’s quotes here are mine).
“It is often necessary to displease or offend one person, not for his own good but to deliver another from the evil he is inflicting. It is then an obligation of charity to repel the unjust violence of the aggressor; one may inflict as much injury on the aggressor as is necessary for the defense…The love due to a man inasmuch as he is our neighbor ought always to be subordinated to that which is due to our common Lord. For His love and in His service we must not hesitate to offend men. The degree of our offense toward men can only be measured by the degree of our obligation to Him. Charity is primarily the love of God, secondarily the love of our neighbor for God’s sake. Therefore to offend our neighbor for the love of God is a true act of charity. Not to offend our neighbor for the love of God is a sin.
“Modern Liberalism reverses this order. It imposes a false notion of charity; our neighbor first and, if at all, God afterwards. By its reiterated and trite accusations of intolerance, it has succeeded in disconcerting even some staunch Catholics. But our rule is too plain and too concrete to admit of misconception. It is: sovereign Catholic inflexibility is sovereign Catholic charity. This charity is practiced in relation to our neighbor when in his own interests he is crossed, humiliated, and chastised. It is practiced in relation to a third party, when he is defended from the unjust aggression of another, as when he is protected from the contagion of error by unmasking its authors and abettors and showing them in their true light as iniquitous and pervert, by holding them up to the contempt, horror and execration of all. It is practiced in relation to God when, for His glory and in His service, it becomes necessary to silence all human considerations, to trample underfoot all human respect, to sacrifice all human interests and even life itself to attain this highest of all ends…The saints are the type of this unswerving and sovereign fidelity to God, the heroes of charity and religion…
“Liberal charity is condescending, affectionate, even tender in appearance, but at bottom it is an essential contempt for the true good of men, of the supreme interests of truth and of God. It is human self-love usurping the throne of the Most High, and demanding that worship which belongs to God alone…The propagators and abettors of heresy have at all times been called heretics as well as its authors. As the Church has always considered heresy a very grave evil, so has she always called its adherents evil and pervert. Run over the list of ecclesiastical writers — you will then see how the Apostles treated the first heretics, how the Fathers and modern controversialists and the Church Herself in her official language has pursued them. There is then no sin against charity in calling evil, evil, its authors, abettors and disciples, bad; all its acts, words and writings iniquitous, wicked, malicious. In short, the wolf has always been called the wolf, and in so calling it no one ever believed that wrong was done to the flock and to the shepherd.
“If the propagation of good and the necessity of combating evil require the employment of terms somewhat harsh against error and its supporters, this usage certainly is not against charity…The authors of heretical doctrines are soldiers with poisoned weapons in their hands…Is it sufficient to dodge their blows? Not at all; the first thing necessary is to demolish the combatant himself…It is thus lawful, in certain cases, to expose the infamy of a Liberal opponent, to bring his habits into contempt and to drag his name in the mire…The only restriction is not to employ a lie in the service of justice. This never. Under no pretext may we sully the truth, even to the dotting of an ‘i.’ As a French writer says: ‘Truth is the only charity allowed in history,’ and, we may add, in the defense of religion and society…When it strikes, let the sword of the Catholic polemicist wound, and wound mortally…This is the only real and efficacious means of waging war.”
If we do all in our power to learn and propagate Catholic truth; if we are willing to accept correction from others when we err in these matters, we have nothing to worry about where sins of the eighth commandment are concerned. And if we should suffer from defamation by others, the words of Psalm 108 should be our recourse: “…They have detracted me, but I gave myself to prayer.”