Thursday, July 23, 2009

Detraction and rash judgment are two more of the modern Twelve Deadly Sins

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When I give talks on Catholic teaching about journalism, one of my favorite moments is when I discuss the sin of detraction. Detraction is the sin by which one, "without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them," in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Saying that is almost as scandalously countercultural as proclaiming the church's teachings on sexual morality is, and not just for journalists. Many people think that truth is sufficient defense for any statement we might make. Look at the Internet or talk radio or politics and it becomes clear many find truth itself too rigid a standard -- for them, mere sincerity justifies. The idea that speaking a sincerely held opinion -- let alone a known truth -- could be sinful strikes many as bizarre.

But the Eighth Commandment, rightly understood, is about respect for truth in relationships between persons. Truthfulness entails both honesty and discretion. One many never lie. But not every person is entitled to every truth.

The identity thief prowling the Internet has no right to your credit card number. Your nosy neighbor has no right to your medical records or your employment records. The Gestapo isn't entitled to know Jews are hiding in the attic. No one but you, your confessor and God is entitled to know the contents of your confession.

More generally, readers of a newspaper, or your fellow parishioners, aren't entitled to know every stupid or wicked or ridiculous thing you have ever done in this life, even if you happen to be a public figure. "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," the catechism says.

Unless there is a real reason, we don't have a right to damage another person's reputation -- even with the truth, even if he's a jerk.

Think that's tough? Get a load of the teaching on "rash judgment." That's when one, "even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor."

That means if I hear a bad rumor about someone, it is a sin for me to assume it is true unless there is real evidence for it, even if I don't say anything. How much greater must be the sin of the person spreading rumors, who not only sins against truth but tempts others to do the same.

We avoid rash judgment simply and beautifully: Each of us should "interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words and deeds in a favorable way." Giving people the legitimate benefit of the doubt is not just a nice thing to do; it's an obligation.

On this point, the catechism quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola, who said: "Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it."

I'm convinced this is one of the places the devil works on us. My greatest temptation comes when I am most right, when I'm standing up for something really good, or against something really bad. The temptation is not so much to directly lie as to take shortcuts, to not bother checking the context of that damning quote or trying to understand how the person meant it, to not answer an opponent's strongest argument but his weakest one, to insinuate when there is not enough evidence to accuse.

Such temptations grow when we speak among like-minded people, be it readers of a niche publication or friends over a beer.

We are rarely tempted to sin for its own sake. It is in the service of some perceived good that we are most easily tempted to do wrong, especially in a culture that falsely tells us every day that good ends justify evil means.

In a broken world, particularly when we have seen so tragically that illegitimate secrecy can be a cloak for great evil even inside the church, we must be clear what this teaching does not mean. Revealing a moral failing that presents a danger to others is generally a moral obligation, not detraction. Such danger is one objectively valid reason to reveal it.

Likewise, the prohibition against rash judgment is not a call to a naivete, to some warm, fuzzy self-delusion that says no one is really out to do wrong. If you give your bank account number to the next "Nigerian heiress" who turns up in your e-mail inbox, you have not avoided rash judgment; you have been imprudent.

These teachings are simply the application of charity and justice to our speech, and as always, all those "noes" are at the service of a great big "yes." St. Thomas Aquinas sums that "yes" up well: "Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another."

If we are to live with each other -- and especially if we hope to live with each other forever as we pilgrimage to our destiny in God -- we must be truthful with each other, by what we say and do, and by what we don't say and do.

Kyle Eller is the managing editor of The Northern Cross, the newspaper of the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota. Catholic Spirit

OK, that's two of the five that I kinda understand. I'm going to have to find somebody who has written on "Calumny" and "Slander/Libel."

Oh, you've never heard of the Seven Deadly Sins? For Shame!
They consists of "Lust", "Gluttony", "Greed", "Sloth", "Wrath", "Envy", and "Pride". Most analysts say of that bunch, "the last shall be first."
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