Once the emperor was coming to visit the monastery, and the monks urged the abbot, a well-known holy person, to honor the emperor’s request for a few words of guidance. The abbot said, “If the emperor is not edified by my silence, he will not benefit from my words.”
–From the sayings of the Church Fathers
Our faith calls the Son of God the “Word”: clearly words have power. Christ says we will have to “answer on Judgment Day for every careless word” [Mt 12:36] — clearly words can do damage. Words are cheap today — everybody expects “spin,” despite Jesus’ saying, “Say ‘yes’ when you mean yes, and ‘no’ when you mean no; everything else comes from the Evil One.” [Mt 5:37] We need to take care for our habits of speech.
Our moral tradition gives guidance about harmful speech: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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…. Charity and respect for truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. … Everyone should observe an appropriate respect regarding persons’ private lives. [CCC 2477-2492]
“To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way.” There’s a good rule of thumb to live by. It would make life so much more pleasant in families, among friends, and in our parish — even if it might lead to more silence around the water-cooler. There’s no doubt that living according to our faith will be swimming against the cultural tide.
By these standards a lot of everyday chatter is damaging to our souls and to our community. But then, we don’t have to look to these standards to see that: We need only look at the mistrust, hurt feelings, self-doubt, cynicism, and other evils that infect our families, neighborhoods, parish, and hearts. We see, and suffer, the effects of thoughtless speech every day. Why not begin today to follow the old proverb to “Say nothing which does not improve on silence”?
Gossip is a plague in our culture, and it’s a sin. It needs to stop. More next week. Until then, Peace.