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August Afternoon Conversation - Patrick Stewart

I was only telling the truth!

A couple of months ago I was asked to speak to the students at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College about gossip. I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for some guidance. Here I learned that the origin of the word “gossip” is the old English word godsibb, “denoting the spiritual affinity of the baptized and their sponsors.”

Some traditional uses of the word gossip were “a godfather or godmother” or “a female friend invited to be present at a birth.”

Isn’t it interesting that a word which originally denoted this closest and most intimate relationship of trust is now used more often to describe “a person who habitually indulges in idle talk, especially the spreading of rumors and discussion of the private concerns of others”?

The evolution of the word itself says something profound about the betrayal that lies at the heart of gossip: our failure to recognize and uphold the life of Christ in another person.

What exactly do I mean when I use the word gossip? There are some truly vicious varieties that lie outside the scope of this discussion. I assume we already know, for instance, that we should not actively spread lies about other people (calumny). What is more common among “good Catholics” are two things: detraction; and indiscretion. I will consider these in turn.

Detraction is broadcasting the faults and failings of others unnecessarily (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2477).

This sin is expressed colorfully in Genesis 9, where Noah, the first man to grow grapes, becomes the first man to experience intoxication and falls asleep naked in his tent. Ham comes in, sees his father, and — scandalized — runs back out to tell his brothers all about his father’s embarrassing behavior. Not only did Ham tell his brothers, but this incident even made it into the Bible!

Shem and Japheth, by contrast, refuse to see their father’s nakedness and, walking backwards, cover him with a cloak. For his sin of detraction, Ham is cursed, while Shem and Japheth receive their father’s blessing.

Have I covered the nakedness of my neighbour? Have I treated him as I would wish to be treated when my faults are seen and known? You might say, “Well, I was only telling the truth!” Yes, you were telling the truth, but you were telling it unnecessarily.

The sin of detraction involves spreading information that is true. However, it is a sin to broadcast someone else’s faults and failings to people who don’t need to know about them. The Catechism tells us that detraction is an offense against justice and charity, because it destroys a person’s reputation and honor, to which everyone enjoys a “natural right.”

The Catechism is also clear that both the one who engages in detraction, and the one who believes it, are guilty of the sin of “rash judgment”: too quickly and “without sufficient foundation” believing in “the moral fault of a neighbour.”

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.

(St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises 22, qtd. in CCC 2478)

I must include the caveat that in recent years our perspective on “detraction” has been affected by revelations of abuse in the Church and elsewhere. In other words, we are very aware now that there are some instances in which we (laypeople) must absolutely disclose the sins of another person to the right person, because silence comports an immense risk of harm.

But in general, when I’m dealing with someone’s annoying habits, bad breath, tendency to be late for Mass, arrogance, inability to cooperate, demanding personality, etc., this is all material I should be bringing to prayer for my own conversion of heart. It is not something I should be discussing with my friends and neighbors.

Indiscretion is another variety of gossip and it is the betrayal of confidence, spreading information about someone that was not meant to be shared.

Maybe my best friend is depressed because her boyfriend broke up with her; she is struggling with suicide and eats ice cream all day long. If someone asks me, “How is she?” I should probably not tell them all those details, just as — if I am entrusted with someone’s care giving — I should not tell anyone else the details of their bathroom needs or medical diagnoses.

What are the repercussions of gossip for the victim? She feels trapped in judgment, incapable of redemption; she feels like nobody notices her good works or good qualities; she may become discouraged from trying to be better (why bother, when people still see me the way I was 10 years ago?).

In cases of indiscretion, she feels betrayed, unable to trust you or others, unable to confide in anyone. In other words, the consequences are among the worst imaginable: loss of confidence in her redemption, in God’s grace and mercy.

If the consequences are so bad, then why does gossip remain a common and often-overlooked sin of “good Catholics”?

Unfortunately, there are lots of social benefits to gossip. As every 12-year-old learns, speaking about the faults of someone who is absent is one of the quickest (albeit uncreative and childish) ways to form bonds with others. People find me very interesting when I gossip: I am feeding their desire to hear human interest stories, drama, and scandal.

Gossip can also be a form of boasting, showing that I am in the know about the affairs of others.

On the other hand, maybe I am “venting”: I am speaking in order to defuse the tension I feel about a difficult interaction. My friends validate my perspective on the conflict, and that makes me feel better, but in the meantime, I have exposed the faults of the person I’m venting about.

Perhaps most fundamentally, we gossip because we don’t want to see our own faults and failures. People seem to become most obsessed with the affairs of others or fall most naturally into blame, fault-finding, or accusation, when their own self-esteem has suffered a blow.

Perhaps, for instance, when we are venting about someone else, we are in fact embarrassed about the way we handled a conflict with them. We unconsciously try to make the other party look unreasonable so that nobody will notice that we ourselves really made a mess of the situation.

If I recognize that I have a problem with gossip, what can I do about it? One might start by making a resolution not to gossip and not to listen to others’ gossip.

As with any resolution, we will fail, but the point of the resolution is just to begin noticing my failures. By bringing these failures to confession and starting again each time, we will find that the Lord’s grace acts on our nature to liberate us.

If we have trouble recognizing whether we are gossiping or not, a good measure is to ask ourselves, “If that person were present, would I say this about them?”

To prevent indiscretion, I also find it helpful to make a plan for how I will respond when asked about situations involving other people’s confidentiality. I don’t want to be dishonest, but I need to pray about how honest I can be before it becomes gossip.

So maybe in the case of my best friend, if someone asks me, “How is she?” I will plan to say something like this: “She’s going through a rough patch; pray for her” or “Thanks for asking. She might appreciate it if you asked her that yourself.”

The saints are noteworthy for their absolute refusal to speak ill of others and, even in the worst circumstances, their ability to always see the good in each person. When we pray for this grace, and when God enlightens our eyes to see how much he loves every person he has created, then we begin to be “gossips” in the original sense of the word: “godparents.”

Lord, help us to see your light shining inside others rather than seeing their darkness and sin. Help us learn to encourage one another and to be faithful guardians of each other’s dignity. Help us to find more interesting things to talk about than other people’s problems.

Restoration May/June 2024

August Afternoon Conversation (2014) by Patrick Stewart