Pope Francis has made strong comments against gossip more than once. He has called gossip a form of “terrorism,” an enemy of harmony and has warned that gossip has the potential to destroy the local and universal Church from within. He says gossip is one of the devil’s two favorite weapons of division, the other being money.
Gossip is generally understood to be unrestrained conversation about another concerning details that are not known to be true. It is a sin of carelessness which can be overcome by exercising the virtue of temperance. Calumny is related to gossip, but it is more serious because it is done with the intent to harm and actually does harm a person’s reputation. Calumny is slander under our legal system. The Catechism lists calumny as one of the offenses against truth:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: … of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them (CCC 2477).
Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity (CCC 2479).
This is consistent with what Jesus taught us when he said “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak” (Matt 12:36).
While the sins of gossip and calumny are serious, St. Francis de Sales warns us against being too protective of our reputation and provides guidance on how we can respond to calumny with virtue. In his book, The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, Jean Pierre Camus explains the Gentle Saint’s method.
- Respond with the Truth
Calmly and gently respond with the truth without fear of the consequences.
“The first is truth to which the love of God and of ourselves in God, compels us to bear testimony. Nevertheless that testimony has to be calm, gentle, kindly, given without irritation or vehemence, and with no anxiety about consequences. Our Saviour, when He was accused of having a devil, answered quite simply, “I have not a devil” (John 8:49). If you should be blamed for any scandalous fault, of which, however, you know you are not guilty, say candidly and quietly that, by the grace of God, you are innocent of such a sin.”
- Practice Humility
“But, if you are not believed, humility now claims her right and bids you say that you have indeed many greater faults unknown to the world, that you are in every way miserable and that if God did not sustain you in your weakness, you would commit far greater crimes than you are accused of. This sort of humility is in no way prejudicial to truth, for was it not from the depths of true humility that David cried out saying, that if God had not aided him his soul would have dwelt in hell” (Ps 94:17).
St. Francis de Sales has already told us to respond with the truth. If that fails, then by exercising humility and recognizing our many other faults we might avoid becoming angry and bitter. If we become angry and bitter, then we will not be able to exercise the other virtues needed to weather the storm in a Christ-like manner.
- Practice Silence
“Should the tempest of evil speaking continue, silence steps to the front, and offers her calm resistance to the storm, following the teaching of the Royal Prophet, who says: And I became as a dumb man not opening his mouth [Ps 38:14]. Answering is the oil which feeds the lamp of calumny, silence is the water which extinguishes it.”
A vigorous defense could make us appear to be guilty or it could add fuel to the fire stoked by the calumniator. Many times it is best to let the calumniator’s fire burn itself out. Furthermore, if our reputation is good then it will speak for us and launching a vigorous defense may not even be necessary.
- Practice Patience
“If silence is unavailing, then patience reminds you that it is her turn to act, and, coming forward; shelters you with her impenetrable shield; patience, as Holy Scripture tells us, makes our work perfect.”
- Remain Constant (Faithful)
“If we be still assailed, we must call to our aid constancy, which is a kind of double-lined buckler of patience, impervious to the most violent thrusts.”
Constancy means faithfulness or commitment. If the lie continues, then we patiently remain faithful and committed to the truth.
- Practice Longanimity (Undying Patience)
If the calumniator persists, then continue to exercise patience through the long-suffering.
“But should evil tongues, growing yet sharper and keener, cut to the very quick, longanimity, which is an unfailing, undying patience, is ready to enter the lists, and eager to help us. For when persecution, instead of yielding to our patience, is only the more irritated thereby, like a fire which burns more fiercely in frosty weather, then is the time for us to practise the virtue of longanimity.”
- Practice Perseverance
“And last of all comes perseverance, which goes with us to the very end and without which the whole network of virtues would fall to pieces; for it is the end which crowns the work, and he who perseveres to the end shall be saved.”
Don’t give up! Remember that Jesus said “‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
- Keep Charity (Love) in Your Heart
St. Francis de Sales recognizes that many other virtues play a role in our response to calumny, but he sees charity (love) as the central virtue needed to weather the storm, for charity has the potential to transform situations and people.
“Indeed, who can say how many more virtues claim a place in this bright choir? Prudence, gentleness, modesty of speech, and many another, circle round their queen, holy charity, who is indeed the life and soul of them all. Charity it is which bids us bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us; and this same charity not unfrequently transforms our persecutors into protectors and changes slanderous tongues into trumpets to sound our praise.”
The Gentle Saint does not address the practical measures a victim of calumny might take to protect himself. Coming from a legal background myself, certain practicalities like limiting contact with the calumniator, documenting communications with the calumniator, et cetera, come to mind.
Jesus said “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt 10:16). Based on that, I believe that taking practical steps to protect ourselves from a calumniator is okay as long as our actions are guided by the virtue of justice and founded on truth, humility, patience, and love rather than anger, hate, pride, or revenge.
Quotes take from:
Camus, Jean Pierre. The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales.