Getting a Grip on Gossip

The Church reminds us that we have the obligation to correct our brother’s fault for the sake of righteousness out of love …  We are called to do this in a spirit of gentleness and humility.

A First Down Broadmoor Drive
Growing up in a small town, and being one of eleven kids, it was not uncommon for people outside of my immediate family to be talking about “us”—the Hollcrafts. Sure, I used to think, it all made sense. You see, a lot of my older brothers and sisters were well-known on the larger stage of the sporting arena.

That being said, on one occasion, while walking home from school, I was approached by a high school teenager, and he asked me a question, “Are you going to be ok?” My response was quick and robust, “of course, I’m a Hollcraft”. Again, that last name often came with praise and affirmation, but on this occasion, it was different. As I was walking home from school down Broadmoor Drive that late afternoon, I could not help but notice that after our brief exchange of words, there was whispering that was going on with his fellow friends (and laughing). I recall thinking what could they possibly have to say that they did not want to say to me. I remember how uncomfortable it was for me, although seven years old, to know someone was talking about me, or my family. I would later find out that they were talking about my parents. My parents had split up (only to later be reunited), and this was a point of discussion for many people who knew our family. Simply put, while it may have been a mild account, it was my first encounter with gossip (in so far as I can remember).

Every Demographic
Maybe we can all remember our first encounter with gossip, maybe not, but we can all certainly recall a time when we have been directly affected by the words of others. Moreover, just as we can recall a time that we have been hurt by the harsh words of others, so should we be able to identify a time that our own uncharitable remarks have been the cause of great pain. Either way, everyone has been on both sides of the gossip mill.

Furthermore, the gossip mill of sin has its way of penetrating every setting. Whether it is our home and immediate relationships with spouse, sibling, etc.; our work setting and piers at work; or, even our local Church (the last place you expect to see it is where at times it becomes most aggressive); one thing is for sure, as long as we are vested with the flesh and belong to the human race with a fallen nature, we have to be on guard against the snares of the adversary and his plotting to break down the beauty of relationships. There is no one walk of life, or demographic, that is immune from the injustices of speech.

Idle Conversation and the Sin of Gossip
So what is gossip? You can turn to any dictionary which will speak to gossip as idle conversation that goes on about the affairs of other people. For this reason, gossip is poisonous, because as long as it is an idle conversation that does not serve the purpose of praise and the building up of the people of God, it lends itself to a conversation that operates as a negative and is, ultimately, sinful. On this topic, it is important to be mindful of the psalmist in Sacred Scriptures who condemns the whole realm of gossip, “The slanderer of his neighbor in secret–him will I destroy”. For this reason, we see Paul’s advice to Titus: “Tell them not to speak evil of anyone.” In other words, if you do not have anything good to say, then do not say it at all! If there was any doubt to the gravity of gossip, then listen to St. James: “Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (Jas 3:11).While the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) does not specifically use the word “gossip,” it does offer for us some clear direction on the matter of behavior we are to avoid in our fraternal gatherings. At §2477 of the CCC, we learn: “The respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause (someone) unjust injury.” The CCC goes on to say that a person 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.

A more common word used for “detraction” and “calumny” is back-biting. St. Thomas includes the sin of “tale-whispering.” This sin of speech speaks to the way in which we intend to stir up trouble behind someone’s back. This is certainly a close kin to the back-biting of which we are all familiar.

That being said, there is an additional tendency to rationalize ourselves out of gossip by saying that we need to “vent.”  Such an excuse often does not work, because it is often rooted in anger (this is one of the capital sins). Here, I do not discount the need to “exhale” a problem with someone, but that someone needs to be somebody who can draw you deeper into the mystery of Christ. Usually, this is your spiritual director.

Interestingly, the word gossip comes from the Old English word “godsibb,” which means “sponsor, godparent”.  Over the course of time, we have seen this word evolve from a familiar acquaintance, such as a “sponsor” or “godparent,” to “anyone engaging in familiar talk” (a definition applied to social circles in early 17th century Europe), to ultimately bring us to the definition we have today: “the idle conversation about the affairs of other people.” So a word that once spoke to the blessing of relationship is now about the betrayal of relationships. Once again, Satan is busy high-jacking a truth that rightfully belongs to God!

The CCC also makes it clear that just because a statement is objectively true, or proven as a fact, it does not give us a right to share it with whomever, wherever, and whenever. Essentially, conforming ourselves to the “fraternal precept of love,” we are to judge the proper timing of what needs to be shared, and when it needs to be shared, if at all (cf.CCC §2488). In other words, we have not been given the gift of insight for insult, but insight to serve the discernment of what to say, if anything.

Discerning Proper Judgment and the Sin of Omission
And discernment it is. The Church reminds us that we have the obligation to correct our brother’s fault for the sake of righteousness out of love (cf. Mt 18:15-17; Gal 6:1; 2 Tim 3:16, 6:4; Heb 10:24-25). 1 We are called to do this in a spirit of gentleness and humility. What we have in the absence of fraternal correction is the sin of omission, which can ultimately lead to the sin of gossip. What do I mean? Next time you catch yourself in a moment when you have said less than charitable words, ask yourself the question: “Could this moment been avoided by being direct and honest to the one that I’m talking about?” One of the great tools of Satan is the fear of confrontation. Here, we need to pray for the gift of fortitude (courage), which gives us the grace and strength necessary to address with our brother or sister in Christ what needs to be addressed. Otherwise, whatever is not being dealt with festers and destroys relationships. Sound familiar?

On this note, an extended word about judgment. I often hear from different people that they do not confront the issue at hand because they feel like they are “judging” someone. We must remember that God does not condemn the judgment of something if it is breaking down the body of Christ (objective realm of what is external, revealed, and seen), he condemns the judgment of someone when you are critical of why they do what they do; for this you do not know (subjective realm of what is internal, hidden, and unseen; cf. Mt 7:1-5). Hate the sin, love the sinner!

Furthermore, the idea that judgment is wrong is not congruent with the principle of logic. Recently, I was told that I was in the wrong for judging something. I was told “stop judging” (I was simply pointing out the social consequence to a dictatorship). Now, let us pause and consider something here. Is not the statement that I am judging someone a judgment upon me? Yes, it is, and this leads me to my next point. Christ said “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. “I am” is in the imperative sense; the sense that is absolute and demands a response according to what Christ has set up as the objective moral standard, which directs us to the realm of ethics, right from wrong. Christ was constant in his message: “do this, don’t do that”. In essence, he was saying, there is a right from wrong, so avoid the wrong, and live in the Right—Live in Me, because my truth is absolute and unchanging! 2

We, therefore, have the obligation to fraternal correction, because it keeps us in the moral standard set up by Christ. We need each other! Consider, why we would have officers of law if it were not for an objective standard that establishes a right from wrong. I get pulled over by a police officer because I was going over the speed limit by 15 MPH. What would I look like if I said: “Officer, it is okay to go 15 MPH over the speed limit because that is what I think to be okay.”  At the very least, the officer would remind me that going 80 is 15 MPH over the speed limit of 65 MPH.  He is making a statement of fact that is a civil standard for the greater order of the whole of society (this is what we call a moral consensus). Well, Christ has set up moral standards of truth for the greater order of the whole of the Kingdom of God. We have the duty, like that of a police officer, to say: “Hey, you were in the wrong!”  But again, we say it always in the spirit of gentleness and humility, and always understanding the importance of timing, and our appropriateness in how we respond.

A Response
Up to this point, we have discussed what gossip is, and why it falls under the umbrella of sin. The important question is: What are we gong to do about it? Think about it: if gossip is one of those sins that we all “struggle with,” then, let’s start “struggling” with it. St. Augustine once said that “life is a struggle in grace.” With this in mind, let us start our “struggle” in overcoming the sin of gossip. This starts with an authentic “yes” to a life of prayer.

First and foremost, prayer brings us into the presence of God, and in so doing, draws us into the very life of God—charity. We imitate this loftiest virtue of charity by how we are present to the needs of others, and, at once, in our perseverance in prayer. In essence, prayer, and the charity that pours out from it, leads to a life of other-centeredness (It is in the absence of prayer that we give into our selfish appetite, which ultimately leads to the weakening of the will, and the caving into idle conversation.) This ultimately leads to a disposition of unselfishness, the disposition that gives glory to God. A life that gives glory to God is a life that views each and every moment as a sacramental moment. In other words, Christ has revealed to us that each circumstance, and relationship, is pregnant with eternal significance. It is upon arriving at this point, that we can see the importance of prayer as it relates to overcoming the sin of gossip (and sin of omission). Once we have sustained a disposition of unselfishness, we are more readily available to avoid, even tacitly, the idle chatter that has a way of breaking hearts of both men and women.

That being said, frequenting the sacramental life is essential to the task. First, let’s consider the Sacrament of Confession. Confession is God’s way of washing us, again and again, in this oil that heals and renews. For a world that is full of individuals starving for the food of healing, the Sacrament of Confession is a very important part of our response to renewing our relationships. Furthermore, in this sacrament, God gives us the grace of resolve to reconcile and renew relationships that have been fragile, or even broken. Second, let’s consider the Mass. Mass is the sacrament that draws us deeper into a more authentic expression of fellowship, a fellowship that is rooted in the gift of self. Remember what I have already said about what rests at the heart of gossip—selfishness. The Eucharist, as the sacrifice of Christ, is the zone of unselfishness, where we are called to abide in order to receive the strength necessary to be the friend, sibling, and co-worker we are called to be! We can only be who we are called to be, to the extent that we are working on who we are to become. Broken relationships are always opportunities where we can work on who we are to become in Christ.

So once rooted in prayer and the sacramental life, we will begin to see that “being at odds” with a sibling, friend, co-worker, etc., is an opportunity for growth. We ought to equate challenge with opportunity. Interestingly, the word “challenge” is derived from the Latin word “provocation,” which literally means “to call forth,” or “to call out.” In the challenges that we face in our broken relationships, God is calling each and every one of us to be “brought forth” into his light of forgiveness and reconciliation. If someone has committed any one of the aforementioned sins of gossip: rash-judgment, detraction, calumny, or even tale-whispering, we are not to busy our hours with gossip, acting as if our salvation depends upon it (which sometimes it seems like it does), but rather see it as an opportunity to renew our relationships. We are not to allow another person’s weakness dictate how we are to love as friends. Rather, we are to ultimately enter into Christ’s way of loving, in  offering a total gift of self.

A Concluding Point
It is an overarching truth that we fear what we do not know. Often, the slander of other people is a way in which we protect ourselves from the unknown. Our need to bring down other people is only a marker of our own insecurity. For this reason, spiritual masters have remarked that the individual who achieves the sanctity of the tongue, is a person who is not only prudent in building up the people of God, but one who ultimately trusts that God is the source of every encounter, through which we come closer to him. Amen!

 

  1. Cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola. Spiritual Exercises, §22.  In this exercise, St. Ignatius breaks open the importance of interpreting our neighbor’s words. He makes the point that we must be deliberate in understanding our neighbor’s words for what they are, and if they are morally objectionable, than correct him out of love.
  2. In response to Pilate’s question “What is truth?” Christ did not respond with “whatever you make it out to be…we can just agree to disagree.” No, he said nothing and submitted to the cross, which is a lesson for all of us. We are made to see that truth ultimately is a question that will bring suffering and persecution. I note this here, because not always will our “corrections” (even when they are in the spirit of humility) be well-received. We must remember the words of Christ: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:34-39).
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avatar About Dr. Joseph R. Hollcraft

Dr. Joseph Hollcraft is currently host to the Catholic radio program: "The Catholic Hour: Why be Catholic?" which airs weekly in northern California. He is also involved in catechetical ministry across northern California. Dr. Hollcraft has had several articles published in newsletters and reviews, as well as being involved with a number of recording projects for St. Joseph’s Communications. Dr. Hollcraft studied at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and received his Ph.D. from Graduate Theological Foundation, with studies completed at Oxford University. The focus of his dissertation was on “John Paul II and the New Evangelization.” You can follow his weekly reflections at www.joehollcraft.org .

Comments

  1. avatar Carol says:

    This was a wonderful article full of many helpful things to help me overcome my own issues with gossip. It never leaves me feeling good about myself, and I usually sit and ponder afterwards why did you say that? I think that is the Holy Spirit letting me know what I said wasn’t cool.

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