The "angelic doctor" has helpful advice for talking about others without falling into the sin of detraction.
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady of the United States. It may sound harsh to those who are fond of gossip, but it’s a fair assessment; gossip quickly falls into denigration or criticism. But what about privately between spouses? Are discussions about other people between husband and wife gossip, or just sharing?
Your first thought might be that a private conversation between spouses that takes a merciful, non-judgmental tone is definitely fine. But it turns out the answer isn’t so simple. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, distinguished several criteria for whether or not it’s justifiable to talk about other people.
In good conscience, it sometimes happens that we speak about other people—their difficulties or their defects—because they’ve hurt us or had a negative impact on us. We find in our spouse a listening ear for this overflowing emotion. Is that gossip? Similarly, is it betraying a friend to confide his or her secret to our spouse? How can we distinguish between “news” and harmful gossip?
Gossip—or the sin of detraction, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas—consists of weakening someone’s reputation: “Detraction is the denigration of another’s reputation by words.” This can happen in four ways: “The first, when you impute a false thing to someone; the second, when you increase his guilt by the story you tell about it; the third, when you reveal a secret; and the fourth, when you say that a good deed was done with a bad intention.” In these cases, one is sure to be involved in gossip, even if one is speaking to the benevolent and attentive ear of one’s spouse.
A matter of intention
According to St. Thomas, “the sins of words are to be judged chiefly by the intention of the speaker.” This is where we must bite our tongues before speaking. What is our true intention when we speak about someone? There may be a motive other than the weakening of someone’s reputation: “Sometimes, however, words are spoken that diminish one’s reputation, without any such purpose in mind, but with another purpose in mind.” In this case, the theologian admits, “it is not in order to detract, but one detracts only materially and by accident.”
Again, “if the words by which one diminishes the reputation of others are spoken for a good or out of necessity, observing all the circumstances, there is no sin and it cannot be said that it is a detraction.” What are those extenuating circumstances that allow people to be spoken of without it being an evil? “The first is that the secret is not revealed to more people than is necessary; the second is that the revelation must produce a good effect; the third is that it is made with a right intention; the fourth is that it is a matter of doing good or avoiding a significant evil.”
The responsibility of the listener
St. Jerome said, “Take care not to defile your tongue or your ears; that is to say, do not speak ill of others or listen to those who do.” St. Thomas adds, “Whoever hears a detractor that he could stop, and whoever takes pleasure in his detractions, is guilty of the same crime as he is.” Stopping gossip thus becomes a couple’s mission, a path to sanctification: Both spouses have a role to play in knowing how to discern what is good or not, or useful or not, to talk about.
In case it can help, here is a very concrete piece of advice from Pope Francis, an ardent fighter against gossip: “A Christian, rather than gossiping, should bite his tongue.”