Taken from THE CATECHISM EXPLAINED
Written by Fr. Francis Spirago; Edited by Fr. Richard Clarke, SJ
with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, New York, 1927
SECTION B: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT OF GOD
In the Eighth Commandment God forbids us to detract from our neighbor's honor, or bear false witness of any kind.
1. THE PROHIBITION AGAINST INJURING OUR NEIGHBOR IN HIS HONOR
1. A good reputation is a precious possession, for it enables us to gain riches for time and for eternity.
An honorable reputation, or a good name, consists in being well thought of, and well-spoken of by our fellow-men. The opposite of honor is shame. "A good name is better than great riches; and good favor is above silver and gold" (Prov. xxii. 1). A good reputation is the best thing on earth; it is a talent entrusted to us by God, for he who has a good reputation can do a great deal of good, because he has influence over others. The esteem of others is essential to real happiness; who can enjoy his life if he knows that he is despised by his fellow-men? A man without a penny will often get an excellent post merely because he has a good character. And those who are highly thought of are more careful to lead an upright life than those who have no reputation to preserve. An honorable name is to a man what the peel is to an apple; while it is whole, the apple keeps sound for a long time, but if the skin is once cut, the fruit rots quickly.
2. Above all we ought to strive to acquire a good name among men, and for that reason we ought to let our good works be known, and we ought to defend our character if it be aspersed to any great extent.
It is God's will that we should strive after honor, for He implanted within us feelings of honor and an abhorrence of disgrace. To suppress this instinct would be to act at variance with His appointment. Hence we ought to perform our good works openly. Our Lord expressly enjoins this upon us when He says: "So let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in Heaven" (Matt. v. 16). Our good works should be like a sweet odor, pleasing to men as a perfume is to the nostrils (2 Cor. ii. 15). Good works are the best means of defending our good name, and silencing the tongue of detractors (1 Pet. ii. 12). We ought to consider what may be good not only before God, but also before men (2 Cor. viii. 21). "Let your modesty be known unto an men" (Phil. iv. 5). "From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves" (1 Thess. v. 22). It need hardly be said that our good works must not be performed in view of pleasing men, and courting their praise, or we shall receive no reward from God (Matt. vi. 2). It is our duty to defend ourselves when our name is aspersed. All manner of accusations were brought against the early Christians; some of their ablest men published" apologies " and sent them to the emperor. Our Lord did not disdain to justify Himself, when, for instance, it was said of Him that He cast out devils by the aid of the prince of the devils (Matt. xii. 27); or again, when a servant of the high priest struck Him (John xviii. 23). St. Paul repeatedly spoke in his own defense, before the council and the governor (Acts xxii. 26). Yet it is not well to be over-sensitive about one's honor, and go to law about trifles. An amicable adjustment of differences and reconciliation, is better than quarreling and bringing accusations. To be very touchy in regard to one's honor is likely to give an appearance of truth to the slander, for it looks as if we were not quite sure of ourselves; besides it provokes the calumniator to go to greater lengths. After all, a man whose life is without reproach need not fear the permanent loss of his good name; only the evildoer, if he fall into disgrace, cannot retrieve his character. It is just the same as with one's hair; shave it off and it grows again quickly; but if it is pulled out by the roots, the bare place remains. David rightly compares the tongue of the slanderer to a sharp razor. In the matter of self-defense one must know how to keep the medium. Strong and generous characters are not affected by trifles; they bear them in silence, only giving expression to their just anger in matters of importance. St. Francis of Sales tells us that only when grave and disgraceful crimes are imputed to us, such as no man can allow himself to be charged with, should we take steps to clear ourselves. Finally, be it remarked, much more can be done by bearing an affront patiently than by displaying great anxiety about our good name. Many eminent servants of God, by the calmness with which they bore the revilings of godless men, were the means of converting their accusers.
Yet we ought not to strive too anxiously to obtain the esteem of men, or else we shall lose the friendship of God as well as the esteem of men; moreover in some cases it is impossible to enjoy at the same time the favor of God and the favor of men.
He who is over-solicitous to obtain honor among men, makes this, and not God, his chief aim. Such a one is arrogant and ambitious, and will consequently be humbled by God (Luke xiv. 11). How deeply the proud Absalom was humbled! Likewise the ambitious Emperor Napoleon. Honor is a capricious goddess: if we run after her, she flies from us; if we fly from her, she pursues us. She allows no force to be put upon her; but there is a price at which she may be purchased, and that is uprightness and humility. It is impossible to serve God and to please men (Gal. i. 10). All who lead a truly Christian life are despised and reviled by men (1 Cor. iv. 13; 1 Pet. iv. 14), and even counted as fools (1 Cor. iv. 10). There are some silly people who mete out honor or disgrace not by the standard of virtue, but by things that are of no real value; riches, position, dress, etc. But whatever your exertions, you cannot please at all times, and all persons.
3. Furthermore, we ought to refrain from everything that may wound our neighbor's honor. Thus suspicion, detraction, slander, and abuse are forbidden, also listening with pleasure when our neighbor is spoken against.
Suspicion implies malice of heart ... detraction, slander (both of which are directed against the absent) and abuse (which is directed against one who is present), are sins of the tongue; listening with gratification when another is evilly spoken of, is a sin, if it is in the evil speaking that we take pleasure.
1. Suspicion consists in supposing evil of one's neighbor without reasonable grounds.
The Pharisee in the Temple took for granted that the publican was a sinner and how greatly he was mistaken (Luke xviii.) Job's three friends thought he must needs be ungodly merely because he was afflicted by God. Simon the Pharisee thought the Magdalen, when he saw her at Our Lord's feet, was still a sinner, but he deceived himself; she was then a penitent (Luke vii. 39 seq.). When St. Paul, shipwrecked on the island of Malta, lighted a fire, a viper, coming out of the sticks, fastened on his hand; in consequence of this the inhabitants of the island instantly judged him to be a murderer, pursued by Divine vengeance (Acts xxviii.). A goldsmith had an apprentice who bore a very good character. One day he found two precious stones concealed in a hole in the wall close to the boy's head. He directly accused him of theft, chastised him soundly, and drove him out of the house. Soon after he again discovered two stones in exactly the same place. He watched, and found they were put there by a magpie which he had in the house, and deeply regretted his rash judgment, when it was too late to repair his fault. If he had detected the boy in dishonesty, he would not have done wrong in suspecting him. People judge of others by themselves; for the affections are apt to mislead the understanding. He who is not evil himself does not lightly think evil of others, whereas a bad man readily concludes his neighbor to be as bad as himself. Molten metal takes the shape of the mold into which it is poured; so every mans judgment of what he sees and hears takes its shape from his own feelings. The most wholesome aliments disagree with the man whose digestion is out of order; thus a corrupted mind always takes an evil view of things, while a good man puts the best construction on everything. "I would far rather err," says St. Anselm, "by thinking good of a bad man than by thinking evil of a good man." "Charity thinketh no evil" (1 Cor. xiii. 5). The just man, in whom dwells the spirit of love, even when he sees an action which is unquestionably reprehensible, does not allow his thoughts to dwell on it; he leaves the judgment of it to God. This is what St. Joseph did, in regard to his spouse, the Blessed Virgin (Matt. i. 19). "Let none of you imagine evil in your heart against his friend" (Zach. viii. 17). Trust others, if you would have others trust you. Trust engenders confidence, and mistrust the want of it.
2. Detraction consists in disclosing the fault committed by another without necessity.
This sin, the lessening of our neighbor's reputation, is an act of injustice towards him. For if he is really guilty of some secret sin, still he has not lost the good opinion of others, and of this we rob him if we publish his misdeeds. We are not justified in robbing a man of the esteem he enjoys, even though he has no right to it, any more than in taking from him money which he has gained unjustly. Nor must we speak evil of the dead. Let nothing but what is good be said of the departed. Some people, like hyenas, who tear from their graves and devour dead bodies, deface the memory of the dead by their malicious words and bring to light faults long since forgotten. Like insects which alight, not on the sound part of the apple, but on the decayed portion, detractors do not enlarge on the virtues of the deceased, but they pitilessly dwell upon their faults. They may be compared to dogs who prefer carrion to fresh meat, for they pass over the good which they cannot help seeing in their neighbor, and care to keep alive the remembrance of his failings. The sin of detraction is one most frequently met with. "Rarely," says St. Jerome, "do we find anyone who is not ready to blame his neighbor's conduct." This comes from pride, for many people imagine they exalt themselves in proportion as they decry others. Detraction is a hateful sin. It is an ugly and shameless thing to do, if one goes to a stranger's house and spies into every corner; but how much more so to scrutinize and criticize our neighbor's course of life!
Mud should be covered over, not stirred up, for no one can touch it without defiling himself. "O fool! " exclaims St. Alphonsus. "Thou dost declaim against the sin of another, and meanwhile, by evil speaking, dost commit a far greater sin than that thou blamest in thy neighbor." Besides the detractor in disclosing the faults of another, discloses his own, for he shows that he has no charity. However, to speak of another man's sin is not wrong, unless one has the intention of lowering him in the eyes of others; it is not detraction to tell some one else of it in order to prevent a repetition of the sin. One may also blame the fault of another, if this may be useful to a third person; but it must be done from a sense of duty, and the sin rather than the sinner is to be condemned. The crime of any malefactor who has been brought to justice may be freely spoken of, as it is already made public. Tale-telling is a form of detraction; it consists in repeating to another what a third person has said of him. Tale-telling ruins the peace of families, and is a fruitful source of feuds. It is worse than ordinary detraction because it not only destroys the reputation of one's neighbor, but puts an end to friendly relations and brotherly love. Therefore God says:
"The whisperer and double-tongued are accursed" (Ecclus. xxviii. 15).
3. Slander consists in attributing to one's neighbor faults of which he is not guilty. If the accusation is made publicly it is called a libel.
Slander or calumny is taking away a man's good name. Putiphar's wife accused Joseph to her lord of having attempted to lead her astray (Gen. xxxix). The Jews accused Our Lord before Pilate of having perverted the nation and forbidden to give tribute to the emperor (Luke xxiii, 2). Exaggeration of another's fault also comes under the head of calumny. The motives that actuate the slanderer are generally revenge, hatred or ingratitude; his sin is twofold, for he lies, and at the same time destroys his neighbor's reputation. "He that backbiteth secretly is like a serpent that biteth in silence." Some slanderers accompany their calumnies with a jest, or accentuate them with a witty or amusing speech. This is the greatest cruelty of all, for the slander which might have passed in at one ear and out at the other, is then firmly lodged in the mind of all who hear it. Again, slanders that are prefaced by words of eulogy make more impression on the hearer, just as an arrow flies with more force and penetrates more deeply if the bow be drawn back first. Of such persons David says: "The poison of asps is under their lips" (Ps. xiii. 3).
4. Abuse consists in making public the low opinion which one has of another.
In evil speaking one makes known a man's fault behind his back, abuse utters it in his presence. Abuse therefore stands in the same relation to detraction as robbery to theft. While, detraction and slander undermine the good opinion others have of a man, abuse aims at depriving him of the outward respect that is shown him. Semei reviled King David; be called him a man of Belial, and threw the right does not need such weapons; truth conquers of itself. Sneers and sarcasms are a form of this sin. Their object is to make a man ridiculous before others and put him to confusion. By such unkind speeches one may deeply wound one's neighbor, and fill him with bitter resentment. " The stroke of a whip maketh a blue mark, but the stroke of the tongue will break the bones" (Ecclus. xXviii. 21).
5. He who takes pleasure in listening to detraction commits the same sin as the speaker to whom he listens.
He who asperses his neighbor's good name kindles a fire, and he who listens to him throws fuel on it. Were it not for the latter, the former would soon be silent. St. Ignatius says we should not talk about our neighbors faults did we not find eager listeners. St. Bernard says he cannot decide which is more blameworthy, the man who slanders his neighbor, or he who lends his ear to the slanderer; the only difference is that one serves the devil with his tongue, the other with his ear. What do I care to know that such a one is a wicked man? The knowledge only does me harm. How much better to spend one's pains on scrutinizing one's own conduct. Our Lord exhorts us to do this: "Cast first the beam out of thine own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to take out the mote from thy brothers eye" (Luke vi. 42). It is those who are blind to their own faults who are most keenly alive to the faults of others. Never listen to detraction. St. Augustine had these words inscribed upon his dining table: "There is not place at this table for those who love to defame their neighbor." "Hedge in thy ears with thorns, hear not a wicked tongue" (Ecclus. xxviii. 28). Slander is a three-edged sword; at one blow it inflicts three wounds; it wounds the slanderer, for he commits a sin; it wounds the slandered, because he is robbed of his good name; it wounds the hearer, for he also falls into sin. And since the slanderer injures the soul of him who listens to his calumny, he imitates the serpent, whose poisoned words were the means of driving Eve out of Paradise.
4. He who has injured his neighbor's reputation is strictly bound to restore his good name; either by apologizing, if the offense was committed in private, or by publicly retracting his words, if they were spoken before others.
Anyone who has unjustly diminished his neighbor's reputation, is bound to make satisfaction, according to the nature of the offense. It is not enough to draw the arrow out of the wound. the hurt must be healed; nor is it enough to desist from evil-speaking; the injury done must be set right. That is bitter to human nature, for it requires no slight self-humiliation. Moreover, it is almost impossible fully to make amends for calumny; it is easy to break a seal, but difficult to repair it so that no one can perceive that it has been broken. An ink spot is soon made on a sheet of paper, but no efforts will remove all traces of the blot.
5. Those who do not endeavor to repair the harm they have done by slandering their neighbor, cannot obtain pardon from God, nor absolution from the priest.
What are the Reasons which should Deter us from Injuring our Neighbor's Good Name?
1. He who is severe in his judgment of his neighbor, will in his turn be judged severely by God.
Our Lord says: "Judge not, that you may not be judged" (Matt. vii. 1). "For with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again" (v. 2). "Condemn not and you shall not be condemned" (Luke vi. 37). A monk who on account of delicate health had not been very regular in the performance of his religious duties, displayed great cheerfulness when his death drew near. On being asked the cause of this, he replied: "I have never judged any one, even when I had just cause for complaint; therefore I hope that God will not judge me."
2. To judge one's fellow-man is to commit an offense against God, for it is an usurpation of His rights.
"There is one Lawgiver and Judge; but who art thou that judgest thy neighbor'" (Jas. iv. 12.) "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant?" (Rom. xiv. 4.) Only He Who is omniscient can claim the right to judge others, for the intrinsic evil of an action depends upon the intention of the heart, and that is hidden from man.
3. He who robs another of his good name is often severely punished by God upon earth; not infrequently he is overtaken by the same calamity which he sought to bring on his neighbor. A man of evil tongue shall not be established upon the earth (Ps. cxxxix. 12). Jezabel, the wife of King Achab, suborned two wicked men to falsely accuse Naboth, who would not give up his vineyard to the king, of blasphemy. Retribution eventually fell upon her; she was thrown from the palace window, trampled upon by horses and eaten by dogs (3 Kings xxi.). It is now no uncommon thing for the slanderer to meet with the self-same fate which he prepared for another, as the following story shows: St. Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal, had a favorite page, who used to distribute her alms. One of the king's servants, who was jealous of the large share of the queen's favor enjoyed by that page, calumniated him to the king, one day when he was out hunting. The king believed the calumny; and going up to a lime-kiln which he saw in the forest, he said to the proprietor: "Tomorrow I shall send a young man hither, who will ask you whether you have executed the king's orders; seize him instantly and cast him into the kiln." On the following morning the king dispatched the queen's page to the lime-burner with the message agreed upon. On his way thither the young man passed a church, and as the bell was ringing for Mass, he went in and assisted at the holy Sacrifice. Meanwhile the servant who had slandered him, curious to know his fate, followed him as he thought, to the lime-kiln, and on arriving, eagerly asked if the king's orders had been executed. Almost before he had uttered the question, he was thrown into the furnace. When the queen's page shortly made his appearance, he was told that the royal behest had been obeyed, and the workmen expected a reward. On his return to the palace, the king was astonished and horrified, and saw clearly that he had been foully deceived. "He hath opened a pit and dug it, and he is fallen into the hole he made" (Ps. vii. 16).
4. He who indulges a habit of detraction is in danger of losing his soul.
The pulse does not always correctly indicate the progress of a fatal disease, but if the tongue becomes black, it is a sure sign of approaching dissolution. So many people are assiduous in their prayers, are diligent churchgoers, and are considered to be pious, but their tongue, wherewith they blacken the character of others, infallibly indicates the mortal disease of their soul. To blast a man's reputation is a great sin, because his good name is better than great riches (Prov. xxii. 1). It is a kind of murder, because it destroys a man's life as a citizen, i.e., his social standing, which depends on the repute in which he is held. It is also sinful because thereby one causes distress to one's neighbor. The man of honor values his good name above everything. He would rather part with his money, with all he possesses, with life itself, than lose his honor. Hence we may conclude how grievous a sin is detraction. "Railers shall not possess the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. vi. 10). "Detractors ... are worthy of death" (Rom. i. 32). "Whosoever shall say to his brother, thou fool, shall be in danger of Hell fire" (Matt. v. 22). The magnitude of sins against one's neighbor depends upon the harm that is done. On account of this, it matters greatly who the individual is who slanders his neighbor; if he be a man of position and respectability, the sin he commits is liable to be grievous, for the esteem in which he is held gives weight to his words. In the case of one who is known to be a tattler, on the other hand, the sin is slight. Again it makes a difference who the individual is whose name is aspersed. The higher his position, and the greater the respect due to him, the worse is the sin. It is but a venial sin to speak against one who has already lost his character. But let the evil speaker beware, for if he has not already fallen into mortal sin, he is on the high road to it.