Exposing the damage of gossip has been a recurrent theme in the preaching of Pope Francis. Employing his now-famous hyperbolic style, the Holy Father has called gossip an "act of terrorism" (March 2015), and those who indulge in it are "cowards and hypocrites" (September 2013) and "bomb droppers" (February 2016).
The word of God is crystal clear about gossip. A small sample:
"And for one who hates gossip evil is lessened" (Sirach 19:6).
"A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends" (Proverbs 16:28).
"He who goes about gossiping reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with one who speaks foolishly" (Proverbs 20:19).
" They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips..." (Romans 1:29).
"For I fear that perhaps I may come and find you not what I wish, and that you may find me not what you wish; that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (2 Cor. 12:20).
"Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not" (1 Tim. 5:13).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, without using the word, tackles it head on:
2477 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.
2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one's neighbor. 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. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity."
And yet gossip remains so tempting and our attitude about it so casual. That roll of the eyeball (timed to be seen by others) when the person leaves the room. That sarcastic comment about a co-worker's fault. That snarky piling-on when the gossip fires get kindled in the staff lounge.
Or, how about the baptized version? "Bob is cheating on his wife with the secretary, the scoundrel, and everyone knows it; we need to pray for him!"
It's especially unseemly among fellow Christians. "Gossip is a disease that infects and poisons the apostolate. It goes against charity, means a waste of energy, takes away peace and destroys one’s union with God" (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way).
So why do we keep doing it?
I see three intertwining motives: 1) self-affirmation at the expense of someone else: 2) a lack of courage to settle differences honestly and directly. The third is less obvious. It's what Rene Girard (1923-2015) called mimetic rivalry. On this view, you and I will readily join in negative speech against a third party because of the strange pleasure in feeling immersed in the group think of scapegoating. When a scapegoat is identified, he or she brings the gossipers "together" in the same contempt (mild or strong) for the other party.
And we all do it. The question is: who many of us will stop doing it?
If you love reading brand new ways of understanding very old truths, I recommend The Girard Reader, which distills the thought of the late Catholic philosopher. It ain't light reading but it's filled with insights into scapegoating, grace, violence, revenge, competition, and grace.
I'd love to hear from you on Facebook. How have you overcome the habit of gossip? Do you think I'm exaggerating its effects?
Be a saint; what else is there?