Matters Arising: The Sin of Detraction

Rev. Nicholas Mary, C.SS.R

Fr. Nicholas answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

To bear false witness against someone is clearly wrong, but the sin of detraction is committed when telling the truth. How can that be sinful?

Speaking of the Eighth Commandment (‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’), the Roman Catechism notes that:

This Commandment forbids not only false testimony, but also the detestable vice and practice of detraction, a pestilence which is the source of innumerable and calamitous evils. ... To understand well the nature of this sin of detraction, we must know that reputation is injured not only by calumniating the character, but also by exaggerating the faults of others. He who gives publicity to the secret sin of any man, in an unnecessary place or time, or before persons who have no right to know, is also rightly regarded as a detractor and evil- speaker, if his revelation seriously injures the other's reputation.1

All readily understand the malice of bearing false witness—the sin of calumny—and the courts are there to remedy defamation,2 but the fact that we may not destroy our neighbour's good name even by truthful witness against it without good reason is widely misunderstood or ignored outside Catholic circles. To give "publicity to the secret sin of any man, in an unnecessary place or time, or before persons who have no right to know" might be conceived of as a violation of privacy or a breach of confidence in modern society, but these are different things, even if related. The notion that there is a truth which I may not tell even when I am legally free to do so is alien to a society which believes in an erroneously conceived ‘right to know’ everything.

Fr. Thomas Slater, S.J. explains that:

Even if what is said to the disadvantage of our neighbour be true, we have no right to make it known to his discredit, as long as it is not public, for he still retains his reputation; he still has a right to it, and he must not be deprived of it without just cause. Even the dead retain their right to their good name, for death does not make them non- existent, and men are prepared to do and suffer much for the sake of leaving a reputation behind them. Besides, speaking ill of the dead frequently besmirches the living. Not only individuals but corporate bodies have each their reputation, and detraction may be committed against a religious order, for example, or a diocese, as well as against individuals.

And he explains the malice of the sin of detraction:

Inasmuch as detraction is contrary to justice and charity, which, as we have seen, bind under a grave obligation, it will of itself be a serious sin, though frequently only venial on account of levity of matter. The measure of the gravity of the sin will be the harm which it causes to the person whose reputation suffers. The making known of the grave but secret sin of another with malicious intent or to his serious injury will certainly be a mortal sin.

A right that can be lost

He notes how the right of all to their good reputation can nonetheless be forfeited:

When a man has been tried and condemned in an open court of justice, there is no wrong done him by publishing the fact in the newspapers, or telling it to those who would not otherwise have heard of it. The judicial sentence penalises him and deprives him of the right to his reputation in the matter touched by the sentence. This holds true of distant places and countries, and even of distant times. No injustice, then, is committed against one who has been legally convicted of crime by making this known in a place to which he has come in the hope of its not being known. Uncharitable harm might be done against such a one if he was trying to lead a good life in his new surroundings. Similarly, the sin of detraction is not committed when a sin which is matter of common report in one place is made known in another, if the knowledge of it would be sure to penetrate there before long. It is a disputed point among theologians whether or not sin is committed in such a case if otherwise the knowledge would not penetrate to the place where it is made known. At any rate, it is advisable to keep silence about such cases unless there be some good reason for making known the truth.

If someone is thinking of employing an unknown servant whom we know to have committed theft from her former mistress in another part of the country, we are justified in making the fact known to the person concerned. It does not follow that we are justified in publishing elsewhere the sin of another which was well known indeed to a particular circle or community, but which was not really public. In such a case the right to one's reputation with the outside world has not been lost.

The right to one's reputation is not absolute. We are, of course, never justified in calumniating another by imputing false charges to him. But for just and sufficient reasons we may make known the secret sin of another. There are cases when this is necessary for the public good or for the protection of the rights of the innocent, and in a conflict of rights the stronger [right] should prevail.3

No sin, venial sin, mortal sin

Here Fr. Edwin Healy, S.J. describes some cases in which the sins or defects of another may licitly be revealed, and in which there is no detraction:

1. Anna, in order to bring about Jim's correction, reveals to his father the fact that the boy committed several thefts;

2. In order to obtain good advice about what I should do, I reveal some hidden misdeeds of John to a prudent friend;

3. For the purpose of receiving consolation, I manifest to one [trustworthy] friend an injury done to me, revealing only what is required for this end;

4. That she may not be seduced, I warn Harriet that the man with whom she intends to spend the evening is a dangerous adulterer; 5. In order to prevent harm to Smith, I warn him about a certain physician's lack of medical skill;

6. I describe the crimes of a certain juridically condemned criminal to those who otherwise would hear nothing of them.

Then he lists some examples of a detraction that is venially sinful:

1. John reveals the natural defects or general propensities of Tom, saying, for example, He's lazy—peevish—proud;

2. I manifest a crime that is now hidden but will soon become public through other channels. If, however, my premature revelation would cause serious harm, I am bound under pain of grave sin to delay the manifestation;

3. I preface my statements by They say or I hear when recounting grave hidden sins of others, and thus my hearers accept my remarks as mere rumours. If I foresee that my listeners will probably accept these statements as facts, I sin gravely.

And of some that are mortally sinful:

1. To tell to several persons even one grave, hidden sin of another; for example, Jones committed adultery;

2. To imply in a veiled way that another committed a grave misdeed, though I do not name the sin; for example, He'd never dare to hold up his head again if I told what I knew about him;

3. To say: There is a nun in that convent who once committed perjury, but she covered it up so that no one knew of it. This would throw suspicion of grave sin on many in that community.4


What about the media and biographers?

Whilst there is a certain leeway for newspapers and other media in reporting on the actions of public persons, the latter too have a right to their good reputation unless they have forfeited it. Fr. Healy notes that "it is lawful to print accounts of public crimes, though these accounts should be sifted of what might induce others to sin, [and] allowable openly to criticise the public defects and mismanagement of public officials. Fear of such criticism acts as a wholesome restraining influence on these individuals." Likewise historians and biographers have more freedom to describe the secret sins of public figures than they would have as private individuals discussing these same sins, but still there are limits set by the prohibition on detraction. It might be in the public interest to know, for example, that a certain politician is unfit for office, or that a civil servant is misappropriating funds, or that a construction company is building unsafe houses. However, unless it has a direct bearing on some aspect of the public interest, we have no right to make known (and thus no right to be told) the hidden, private sins of the politician, official or company executive. Likewise it may be of use for our understanding of the past to know and discuss, for example, the very public commission of the seven deadly sins by someone like Henry VIII, but that does not mean that a historian or biographer has unlimited freedom to reveal anything at all that he uncovers through research about his subject for the titillation of his readership or the satisfaction of mere idle curiosity.

Those that listen to detraction

The Roman Catechism includes those that entertain detraction in the same category as those that generate it:

Nor are those to be dissociated from the ranks of evil-speakers, or from their guilt, who, instead of reproving, lend a willing ear and a cheerful assent to the calumniator and reviler. As we read in St. Jerome and St. Bernard, it is not so easy to decide which is more guilty, the detractor, or the listener; for if there were no listeners, there would be no detractors.

Here are some examples of how those that listen to detraction may participate in the sin of the detractor, again from Fr. Healy:

1. If one deliberately provokes another to detraction, one sins in the same way as the person who is uttering the injurious remarks. For example, Gossip Susan praises Jane's virtue in order to get Martha to reveal Jane's secret sins;

2. If one internally approves and rejoices over the slander to which one is listening, one sins; but since the sin is merely internal, there is no question of reparation;

3. If one merely refrains from trying to put a stop to the other's detraction, one's sin is ordinarily venial. Such a person acts thus through carelessness or human respect. Scrupulousness or real timidity would free his action from any guilt. A superior, however, could sin grievously against charity in this if the matter were of importance and concerned his subjects. 

Repairing the damage

Finally, as the sin of detraction "violates commutative justice", Fr. Healy explains, "it involves the obligation of making reparation for the foreseen injury inflicted. Hence the detractor must try not only to repair the harm done to the other's good name, but also to make up any foreseen temporal loss that resulted from the defamation (e.g. loss of customers)." How this works, and what is to be done when it is impossible to repair the harm done will be familiar from the more general kind of restitution to be made as a consequence of breaking the Seventh Commandment, but let us conclude with some examples of circumstances excusing from reparation given by Fr. Healy:

Any one of the following reasons would release either detractor or calumniator from the obligation of repairing the injury he inflicted on another's good name:

1. The injury no longer exists, either because the defamation has been completely forgotten or because the other's good name has been restored by a court decision or by a convincing defence of the victim by his friends, etc;

2. The crime, which was revealed to a few, has since become public in a way that was independent of the detractor's action (e.g. by a newspaper exposé);

3. Reparation is morally or physically impossible. This occurs if those in whose presence the detractor spoke are unknown or cannot be reached, or they cannot now be influenced to change their opinion in the matter;

4. The one defamed excuses the detractor from the obligation of making restitution; for example, by stating that he prefers that no more be said about the matter. This condonation may be merely tacit;

5. Reparation would cause the calumniator a far greater injury than the one he inflicted. If, for example, his life would be endangered by repairing the calumny, he may omit the reparation while the danger exists. If no one believed the detractor, no actual injury was inflicted and no reparation is necessary.

Our Lord solemnly warns us, ‘Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and pharisees, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ The much neglected Catholic teaching on the need to avoid detraction is an excellent example of the kind of justice which must abound in us even as the world ignores it. †

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  • 11. McHugh, OP & Callan, OP, (transl.), The Catechism of The Council of Trent, (Wagner, New York, 1934), pp. 457–8.
  • 22. In the English legal tradition, defamation is ‘the collective name for the torts of libel and slander.’ It ‘requires the publication of a false statement about another person that has the effect of discrediting that person's character or reputation. To constitute an actionable defamation, the statement must be communicated to a third party. If the defamatory statement is in permanent form (e.g. in writing, or a cartoon or recorded image), it will constitute a libel; if it is in non- permanent form (e.g. spoken), it constitutes a slander.’ Article: ‘Defamation’ in Julian Webb (ed.), The Penguin Dictionary of Law, (Penguin, London, 2009), p. 148.
  • 33. Fr. T. Slater, S.J., A Manual of Moral Theology for English- Speaking Countries (Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1925), 5th rev. ed., vol. I, pp. 286–7.
  • 44. Fr. E.F. Healy, S.J., Moral Guidance (Loyola U.P., Chicago, 1942), pp. 249–255.