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Do we need a review of Church teaching on reputation and slander?

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If we’ve fallen prey to the bewitchment of online faux-indignation, we have to repent.

Who said this? “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as it’s true.” I’ve seen it attributed to a number of Hollywood figures. What matters is where the statement is right and where it is wrong—and how it can illuminate a recent very unpleasant episode in American politics involving a video of some students from a Catholic high school and a confrontation. With little effort, you can find for yourself the unedited video, and draw your own conclusions.

When an edited version was posted online, a firestorm of indignation ensued, followed by calls for violence and murder. The school of the students immediately condemned the students and threatened them with expulsion. The diocese in which the school was located also condemned the students. Please note that all of this was done by people who did not see or ask for the unedited video (which seems to me to present a very different situation than the one roundly derided online).

There was a rush to judgment by many, without a call for an investigation, for requests to consult with all the parties involved. I don’t expect much from the commentariat of the social media. I believe that I should expect much, much better from educators and Church employees. Now that the full video is available—which, arguably, is exculpatory of the students—I’ve not seen retractions from news media, school or diocesan officials, or those who called for violence.

Speaking to my fellow Catholics: Have we forgotten what the Church teaches regarding the preciousness of reputation, and the evils of calumny, detraction and slander? Do we need a quick survey of Scripture passages regarding gossip? I think that the short answer is “Yes.”

We have to undertake this retrieval of Scripture and Tradition regarding these matters because in our world of unprecedented interconnectedness and speed, lies can burn down reputations and even take lives before anyone makes any effort to find the truth.

Let’s start with this warning from St. James: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is placed among our members, which defileth the whole body, and inflameth the wheel of our nativity, being set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) Strong words!

Speech can be a source of blessing, praise, healing and consolation. Speech can be an instrument for finding and speaking truth; it can be a marvelous font of beauty. It can be the servant of prophets who must sometimes speak truths that are very hard to hear. It can also incite mob violence, cause scandal, and inflict wounds not likely to be healed in this life. We’re all eggshells armed with hammers, and we have to act accordingly.

If we’ve fallen prey to the bewitchment of online faux-indignation, or if we ourselves have been purveyors of what confirms our biases even as they subtract from knowledge and virtue, we have to repent, before it is too late.

Consider these wise words from the great St. John Chrysostom:

The fast of Lent has no advantage to us unless it brings about our spiritual renewal. It is necessary while fasting to change our whole life and practice virtue. Turning away from all wickedness means keeping our tongue in check, restraining our anger, avoiding all gossip, lying and swearing. To abstain from these things—herein lies the true value of the fast.

What if we decided to fast from fomented indignation that the internet so readily facilitates? What if we decided to give people the benefit of the doubt, seeking to understand and striving to find the best in others? This effort St. Ignatius Loyola calls the “Presupposition” in his Spiritual Exercises: “… let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.”

What Scripture, Tradition and the saints teach us is that we take a terrible risk to our souls and the souls of others if we are careless with words and determined to find the worst in others. Recent events in American politics show us the threat to reputation and life that can flare up when we have no regard for justice or truth. We have in our hands the tools to provoke hatred, violence, even civil war! Do we really think that God will not hold us to account for how we use those tools?

When I write next, I will speak of an important new film dealing with the investigation of a Marian apparition. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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