Idle chatter about others can bring about great harm.
One of the more under-rated categories of sin are the sins of speech. There are many ways we sin, but perhaps the most common way is by speech. Too easily, almost without thought, do we engage in gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, uncharitable observations and remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. We can surely cause great harm with a gift capable of such good!
And not only do we sin by commission but also by omission. For frequently we are silent when we should speak. We do not correct when we should. In our age the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s word but too often we fulfill Isaiah 56:10 which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.
Well did James say: Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect! (James 3:2) And too easily do we dismiss sins of speech as of little account. While it may be true that not every sin of speech is serious or mortal, it is possible to inflict great harm with speech and thus have the matter become very serious, even mortal. Jesus warns, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36)
With this in mind, it may be of value to focus in on one aspect of the sins of speech commonly called “gossip.”
In defining gossip in a general way, the term can merely apply to talk of a personal or trivial nature. But the sin of gossip is more specifically considered to be idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. It usually involves uncharitable or inappropriate conversation about others, not present and has a reputation for the introduction of errors and variations into the information transmitted. St Thomas includes it in his treatise on justice (II, IIae 72-76) in the Summa since, by it, we unjustly harm the reputation of others, through either lies or truths shared inappropriately. The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes gossip under its treatment of the 8th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
As he most often does, St. Thomas well distinguishes a number of different forms of gossip (injustice in speech) and we can look at them one by one.
1. Reviling – Dishonoring a person, usually to their face, and often in the hearing of others. It is done openly, audibly and is usually rooted in anger and personal disrespect. It may include name-calling, caricature, profanity and even cursing (which will also be treated later). For the most part, we do not consider reviling to be a form of gossip per se, (since gossip is usually conducted apart from the offended person and reviling to their face). But reviling is a sin of speech that ought to be mentioned here, since it is annexed to the general dishonor and harming of the reputation of others that is at the heart of gossip. Reviling as such is intended to cause personal embarrassment or dishonor.
2. Backbiting – Generally we call this today, “talking behind someone’s back.” Backbiting is the secret and quiet injuring of a person’s good name to others. Here the key point is that the injured person is not present either to defend or clarify what is said. There are two forms of backbiting that St Thomas distinguishes:
A. Calumny – which is telling lies about someone behind their back. The written form of this is called slander.