The other day, in preparation for Confession, I was reflecting on the “sins against truth” as described in the Catechism:
Catechism #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.
+ To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way. As St. Ignatius of Loyola says: “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.”
Detraction is, in my experience, one of the most challenging of the sins against truth to discern. When do you know you have an “objectively valid reason” for revealing someone’s weaknesses, faults, failing or sins to another?
A moral theology professor of mine offered this handy advice: “If revealing another’s faults or misdeeds is required by charity or justice, and you reveal them with that intention in mind, it is morally permissible. It is always preferable to confront the person in question directly, as Jesus instructed us (Matthew 18:15-17), but sometimes it’s not possible or productive to directly confront … When I say required by charity, I mean you are intending the salvation and well-being of the one whose sins you reveal. When I say required by justice, I mean you are intending the legitimate defense of yourself or others.” However, he added, most of the time when we reveal to others someone’s “dirty laundry,” it’s for neither reason, but is simply cathartic or malicious gossip. “Sinful human beings take a strange and macabre delight reveling in the revelation of another’s tripping and downfall,” he said, “and Jesus diagnosed our concupiscent psychology splendidly”:
Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye (Mt. 7:3-5).
He then, as a reflection on this Gospel text, offered an ascetical remedy for us to try and shared a story from the desert fathers.
Whenever you are tempted to reveal another’s flaw without a clear warrant, try two things. First, remember that God will judge you after the fashion by which you judge. So always ask yourself, “Is this how I desire God to deal with my faults and sins?” Assume he will. Second, before you dig into the juicy news, preface it with this in your heart: “For the glory of God and for the well-being and salvation of this person’s soul — and mine — let me tell you about…” If it doesn’t fit, don’t do it.
Let me share a story that was, and still is, wildly popular in the Coptic Egyptian Church. Its popularity is itself revealing.
St. Moses the Black was converted to Christianity and entered the monastic life in Egypt after abandoning a life of gang violence, alcoholism and crime. One day a monk had been caught in a particularly grievous sin, and the abbot asked Abba Moses to come to the church and render judgment. After a long delay, Moses finally came carrying on his back a leaking bag of sand. When he arrived, the brothers asked him why he was carrying such a thing. He said, “This sand is my sins, which trail out behind me wherever I go. And now I am charged to judge the sins of another.” At that reply, the brothers forgave the monk and attended to their own salvation rather than the sins of their brother.