The Danger of Detraction
“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” – Matthew 15:10-11
Referencing this saying of Christ, St. Francis of Assisi said, “the tongue is the instrument of life and death to man, not on account of the food it takes, but on account of the words it utters.”
What is Detraction?
The Catechism lists three particular sins under the category of offenses against truth: rash judgement, calumny, and detraction.
Most serious Christians, and even non-Christians, recognize the seriousness of rash-judgement (assuming the worst about someone without good reasons) and calumny (harming another person’s reputation by lying). It’s easy to see that these are evil. But, in my experience, detraction isn’t seen as being as serious as these.
This is something I often struggle with, and I know many people who do. Particularly when someone hurts me, I’m tempted to tell the world. It seems like justice at the time, but in reality it’s just a form of revenge, and it springs from sinful pride.
Just how Bad is Detraction?
On the surface, it might seem odd that the Church considers detraction an offence against truth, since it specifically deals with telling the truth about someone. I view it this way: detraction is not just untruth, it is rather an abuse of the truth. It uses the truth as a weapon to hurt another person.
“Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not so many as have fallen because of the tongue.” – Sirach 28:18
Those who have “fallen because of the tongue” include not just those who commit detraction, but also those who listen, and those whose reputations are attacked. The Church considers detraction to be very serious, and often a mortal sin.
St. Francis of Assisi gives a description of detraction that seems incredibly harsh, but it speaks to the depth of his understanding of the horror of sin:
“The sin of detraction is the impediment to the very source of piety and grace; it is abominable in the sight of God, because the detractor feeds on the blood of the souls which he has murdered with the sword of his tongue.”
How to Respond to Detraction
We need to be very careful, not only of committing detraction ourselves, but also of approving or encouraging it. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the question of hearing detraction, and immediately points to Romans 1:32, which says about certain sins (specifically including detraction), “they who do such things are worthy of death: and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them.”
St Thomas adds: “Accordingly we must say that if a man listens to backbiting without resisting it, he seems to consent to the backbiter, so that he becomes a participator in his sin. And if he induces him to backbite, or at least if the detraction be pleasing to him on account of his hatred of the person detracted, he sins no less than the detractor, and sometimes more.”
So how do we respond? It’s not always necessary to accuse the person of detraction, but if you recognize that someone is committing this sin, be careful at least not to approve of it, and to defend the person if possible.
“Detraction is the poison of conversation. Never let anyone who is given to this fault meet with any applause or approbation from you. On the contrary, do what you can to justify your neighbour, or else show your displeasure by a significant silence, or by turning the conversation, where this is practicable.” – St. Leonard of Port Maurice
May God bless you, and if you have committed the sin of detraction, please seek out the sacrament of confession.