Fatal Detraction: The Sin No One Talks About

It's easier to think the worst of others than the best, but what is that "dark joy" doing to our souls and society?

Fatal Detraction: The Sin No One Talks About

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Every now and then I’m reminded of just how clever Satan can be, especially during Lent.

Consider, for example, a pernicious little sin that seems to have taken root and grown in the age of social media: detraction. I’ve been seeing it more and more. Nobody really talks about it or the harm it inflicts — though the pope has stressed, often, the inherent evil of its close cousin,  gossip. (The pontiff has even compared gossip to terrorism.)

So what’s the big deal? Let me count the ways.

First, the catechism teaches that detraction is a sin against the eighth commandment:

2477 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.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

2479 Detraction and calumny 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.

And the media, we are reminded, bear a special responsibility:

2494 The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity:

The proper exercise of this right demands that the content of the communication be true and — within the limits set by justice and charity — complete. Further, it should be communicated honestly and properly. This means that in the gathering and in the publication of news, the moral law and the legitimate rights and dignity of man should be upheld. 

2495 “It is necessary that all members of society meet the demands of justice and charity in this domain. They should help, through the means of social communication, in the formation and diffusion of sound public opinion.” Solidarity is a consequence of genuine and right communication and the free circulation of ideas that further knowledge and respect for others.

2497 By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information. They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals. They should not stoop to defamation.

No less a figure than the Rev. John A. Hardon, SJ, had this to say about the sin of detraction:

Another person’s good reputation belongs to him, and we may not do it injury by revealing, without proportionately grave reason, what we know is true about him.

Detraction is consequently a sin against justice because it deprives a man or woman of what they ordinarily value more than riches. Socrates’ statement that the way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear highlights the effort required to acquire a good name. All of this, more even than accumulated wealth, can be destroyed by a single criminal act of detraction.

The seriousness of the sin committed will mainly derive from the gravity of the fault or limitation disclosed. But it will also depend on the dignity of the person detracted and the harm done to him and others by revealing something that is hidden and whose disclosure lowers (if it does not ruin) his standing in the public eye.

Not unlike the restitution called for in stealing, detraction demands reparation as far as possible to the injured person’s reputation. Often such reparation is next to impossible to make, either because of the number of people informed or the complexity of the situation. But this merely emphasizes the warning of Scripture to “Be careful of your reputation, for it will last you longer than a thousand hoards of gold. A good life lasts a certain number of days, but a good reputation lasts forever.” (Si. 41:12-16)

During this time of penance and prayer, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we have, knowingly or not, been guilty of detraction. Have we intentionally taken away the good name of another? Have we sought to damage someone’s reputation (even if we thought they had it coming)?  Have we entertained the dark joy of gossip?

During Lent, it’s important to remember that chocolate isn’t the only temptation we need to resist.  But other enticements can be just as alluring and unhealthy — and far more damaging to our souls. During this Year of Mercy, we are called to extend the hand of mercy to our brothers and sisters and see more and more their inherent dignity.

It’s something we need to add to others — not detract.