The Importance of the Value of Reputation, Part I

Note: This article is derived from a part of the author’s JCD thesis, “The Right of a Cleric to Bona Fama” (Pontificia Università della Santa Croce, 2022).

It is difficult to put a price on the value of someone’s reputation. Throughout Scripture and Tradition, the importance of bona fama has been clear. Yet in today’s internet culture, where a lifelong reputation can be destroyed in a matter of minutes, the concept of a “good name” is under attack. This is particularly true for Catholic priests in the wake of the international scandal fueled by the clerical sexual abuse crisis. This article analyzes how the good of reputation is seen in Sacred Scripture, the witness of the Early Church, and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church leading up to and flowing from the Second Vatican Council.

Universal Appreciation for Bona Fama

One preliminary point must be made concerning the definition of terms. The notion of a “good name” is a phrase commonly used in English as a synonym for both “reputation” and “good reputation.” The Latin phrase bona fama is employed in canon 220 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is generally translated as “good reputation.”1

Even a brief survey of cultures as disparate as the ancient Greeks2 and Romans3 to the early medieval Germans4 to the modern systems in Europe and in the Americas5 share a respect for reputation, and, notwithstanding their different juridical frameworks, have tried to prevent and to punish acts of “defamation,” i.e., the unjust removal of one’s fama or good reputation. Such unanimity also explains the existence of a strong anthropological basis for the notion of bona fama. The perspectives of artists, philosophers, theologians, and lawyers appear to converge when it comes to explaining the importance of the good of bona fama for the human person.

In his work on the topic of defamation, the moral theologian Ángel Rodríguez Luño points to the findings of modern psychology to show that the desire to be esteemed is firmly rooted in the human psyche.6 This is true whether that esteem is seen as coming from others (family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, etc.) or from one’s sense of self-worth. This means, among other things, that man has a natural inclination to act in accord with securing such a fundamental spiritual good as his own bona fama. The failure to achieve this, often described as “shame,” can have dramatic consequences for one’s mental health.7

This is precisely how bona fama has been understood throughout human history, as well-known stories illustrate. Hector and Achilles, set against each other during the Trojan War but united in their desire to be respected and remembered, feature prominently in The Iliad of Homer.8 Beowulf, in a story composed some sixteen hundred years after Homer, demonstrated a similar set of motivations — and tragic flaws.9 Whether one considers complex characters such as Othello and Hamlet in the plays of Shakespeare10 or the relatively uncomplicated figures in modern stories,11 it is clear from both simple observation and academic research that the importance of cultivating and defending one’s positive sense of identity, especially with respect to one’s standing within a given community, appears with such frequency that its value among human communities cannot be doubted.12

This desire for a positive identity is as true for larger-than-life heroes such as Homer’s Ulysses, who sought eternal fame, as it is for simple schoolgirls like the humiliated and falsely accused Jane Eyre, the eponymous character in Charlotte Brontë’s nineteenth-century novel, who wants to regain her sullied reputation and find her place within her small boarding school community.13 Likewise, the scurrilous attack on the good name of the young woman Hero in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing provides the central drama of the play; absent widely shared assumptions about the importance of honor and reputation, the story would lose its meaning.14

Similarly, famous works such as Gioacchino Rossini’s 1816 Italian opera The Barber of Seville,15 Arthur Miller’s 1953 American play The Crucible,16 and Thomas Vinterberg’s 2012 Danish film The Hunt17 lack their power without a universal appreciation for the good of bona fama. These and other famous works of art illustrate a basic, enduring, and cross-cultural appreciation of the good of a positive reputation, of bona fama. But before proceeding further, it is appropriate to place the concern for bona fama in its proper context, at least with respect to followers of Jesus Christ and those who belong to His Church. After all, not only did the Lord suffer the most serious false accusations in all of history and an ignoble death by crucifixion, but he promised that those who followed him should expect similar treatment. (Mt. 10:16–22; Mk. 13:9–13; Lk. 21:12–19; Jn. 15:18–20.)

The Reputation of a Follower of Christ

Christ’s prediction, of course, has come to pass: innumerable Christians have been falsely accused of various crimes throughout the long history of the Church, and many have been killed as a result. The Acts of the Apostles, for instance, recounts the false charge of blasphemy leveled against the proto-martyr St. Stephen (Acts 6:11) and the “many serious charges” made against St. Paul (Acts 25:7). Countless martyrs were thereafter swept up in the purge that occurred in Rome after Nero falsely accused the Christians of starting the fire that ravaged the city in 64 A.D.18 Such false accusations have relentlessly continued to the present day.

Even a partial list of such incidents is instructive; the variety of crimes and the rich diversity of times, people, and places is stunning. St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria and one of the leading lights at the Church’s first ecumenical council in 325, was falsely accused of murder by his Arian enemies.19 The sixth century witnessed the torture and execution of scholar and statesman Boethius, famously accused on a false charge of treason by Emperor Theodoric.20 St. Methodius was accused of heresy in the ninth century by those opposed to his missionary efforts among the Slavic peoples,21 and St. Helen of Skövde was wrongly executed in twelfth-century Sweden for the murder of her son-in-law.22 St. Peter of Verona,23 a thirteenth-century Italian Dominican, had an understandable reaction to being falsely accused of sexual misconduct: Kneeling before a crucifix, he is said to have lamented his unjust fate to the Lord, who responded: “And I, Peter, what did I do to deserve my Passion and death?”24

The list of falsely accused saints includes a trio of holy women from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The monarch St. Elizabeth of Portugal was accused of treason by her own husband (who later repented),25 while the mystic St. Catherine of Siena, among other calumnies, was forced to endure accusations of immoral living that had been made by one of the sick elderly women for whom Catherine was caring.26 Even more famous is St. Joan of Arc, burned at the stake for heresy, among other charges.27 So too with St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, both executed on false charges of treason by King Henry VIII of England in 1535.28 St. John Bosco was not only baselessly accused of sedition by the political authorities in eighteenth-century Italy, but also had to come to the defense of one of his priests who had been wrongly stripped of his faculties to hear confessions by the local archbishop.29 More recent examples of the phenomenon of false accusations include the famous case of St. Damien de Veuster, falsely accused of sexual immorality as he cared for those stricken with leprosy on the island of Molokai,30 Blessed Miguel Pro, wrongly accused of complicity in an attempted assassination in Mexico,31 Venerable Pius XII, falsely accused of complicity with the Nazis during World War II,32 and St. Padre Pio, the famous modern mystic who suffered accusations of fraud for many years.33

The list could go on. The lives of these heroic people witness to the fact that a false accusation, however unjust, is not the end of the story for a follower of Christ. Nevertheless, in order for the Church to better accomplish its mission to be “light of the world,” it is essential that the right to a good reputation be respected. This is true for all the baptized, but takes on an even greater importance with respect to the Church’s ordained ministers, who are given the responsibility to bear witness to Christ in both word and deed as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). The integrity of their mission and their witness is brought home from the moment of their diaconal ordination, during which they are reminded to “believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

It is critical to place a discussion of the importance of reputation within a proper context, particularly as the right relates to the ordained clergy of the Catholic Church. The long list of saints who have suffered defamation (or violent death) does not suggest that bona fama (or human life) is unimportant within the Church. Followers of Christ do not give up their natural human rights on their baptismal day;34 neither may those who exercise authority in the Church violate those rights with impunity.

This reality is particularly important when considering the right to bona fama of an ordained minister of the Church, who by virtue of his divine calling must give a coherent witness with his life to the People of God, as well as to those who are not yet Christians. At stake is nothing less than the effectiveness of the Church’s salvific mission, which hinges largely on the reputation of those who adhere to its creed, practice its moral teachings, and receive its sacraments — but especially upon those ministers who preach in the name of the Lord, administer the sacraments, and serve the ecclesial community in visible positions of leadership.

Just decades after Pentecost, St. Paul made clear the link between the reputation of the Church’s clergy and its evangelical witness, famously cautioning Timothy not to “lay hands too readily on anyone,” lest the ministry suffer because of scandal triggered by men ordained without proper preparation. St. Paul also urged his former student to “keep himself pure” (1 Tim. 5:22). Throughout the centuries that followed, especially as the Church grew in the understanding of the inestimable dignity of the priesthood established by Christ, more saints developed this theme. St. Alphonsus Liguori, in a collection of writings on the dignity and duties of priests, cited St. John Chrysostom, who taught in the fourth century that “he who honors a priest, honors Christ, and he who insults a priest, insults Christ.”35

Such exalted dignity is surely not due a priest because of any merit of his own, Liguori adds, but only because the priest has been chosen by God to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, an offering so sacred and infinitely meritorious that it surpasses all other acts of sacrifice or worship that could be offered by any being or collection of beings — angelic or human.36 As such, Liguori recalls that St. Ambrose referred to sacerdotal dignity as the “most excellent thing in the world,” transcending even the dignities of kings.37 How much more damaging is it then, Liguori asserts, when a priest mars this dignity through his own evil conduct: “By his bad example the scandalous priest brings disgrace even on his own ministry, that is, on his sermons, Masses, and all his functions.”38 Citing St. Caesar of Arles, Liguori compares priests who cause scandal to decoy birds used by hunters to catch their prey; in the same way, Satan uses them to ensnare others.39

Closer to our own era, St. Josemaría Escrivá echoed many of the same points in a famous homily in the 1970s entitled “A Priest Forever.”40 Escrivá affirmed that priests enjoyed an “incomparable dignity,” again, not because of any merit of their own, but in light of their reception of the sacrament of Orders, which he said “equips the priest to lend Our Lord his voice, his hands, his whole being.” This exalted dignity, he continued, is a “greatness which is on loan: it is completely compatible with [one’s] own littleness.” Escrivá went on to quote St. Catherine of Siena, who once related the following words from the lips of Our Lord regarding the respect owed to priests:

Because the reverence you pay to them is not actually paid to them but to me, in virtue of the blood I have entrusted to their ministry. If this were not so, you should pay them as much reverence as to anyone else, and no more . . . Therefore you must not sin against them, because if you do, you are really sinning not against them but against me . . . To me redounds every assault they make on my ministers: derision, slander, disgrace, abuse. Whatever is done to them I count as done to me. For I have said and I say it again: No one is to touch my Christs.41

Despite this great and unearned dignity, it is a sad fact that some priests over the years have betrayed the Lord and besmirched their reputations through evil conduct. It is not accidental that the famous saying “Corruptio optimi pessima” appears to have been drawn from an analogy made by Pope St. Gregory the Great between the collapse of ecclesial and military leadership: Once the leaders fall, he reasons, the rank and file are doomed.42 By violating their sacerdotal dignity, priests also harm their brother priests, scandalize the rest of the faithful, and represent a stumbling block to those outside the Church. All the more reason, then, for the ecclesial community to consider the true value of the good of bona fama and to jealously safeguard the good name of all those who serve honorably in their capacity as an alter Christus. In light of the connection between a person’s reputation and his basic human dignity, all those who proclaim to follow Christ have both the right and the duty to foster and preserve the right of bona fama inside and outside the Church founded by the Divine Word.

The Testimony of Sacred Scripture

Nowhere is the concern for bona fama more evident than in the divinely inspired books of Scripture, which demonstrate an enduring and profound concern for the fundamental human value of a good name. This is particularly clear in the Wisdom books, although it is also manifest in other parts of the Bible as well. Some of the most dramatic stories from the Old Testament echo this theme, whether it is the false charge against Joseph by the wife of Potiphar in Genesis (Gen 39:1–23), the litany of false accusations against Job (see chapters 4–37), or the horror faced by Susanna in front of the lecherous judges who falsely accuse her in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 13:1–64).

Beyond the power of the spoken word in general,43 Scripture also emphasizes that the name of someone is much more than the combination of symbols and sounds by which a person is called. Rather, a name refers to the very essence of the one named: this is why the Divine Name must be treated with such reverence, and is the reason that from time immemorial neither the Jews nor the Christians dared to pronounce the four-letter Hebrew word (tetragrammaton) used to indicate the name of the Lord — something akin to YHWH — but instead employed the term “Adonai,” or “Lord.”44 The Second Commandment makes respect for God’s name abundantly clear: “You shall not invoke the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7).

The phrase “the name of the Lord” is used dozens of times in the Old Testament,45 perhaps most particularly in the Book of Psalms, with reference to its power to save, as in “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8).46 Jesus emphasized and amplified this concept of the power of the name of God in his teaching, not only when teaching his disciples to hallow the name of God in the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:9), but also when promising that “whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (Jn. 16:23; emphasis supplied). Similarly, Mark’s Gospel recounts both the scene in which Our Lord enjoined His disciples to welcome the little children “in my name” (Mk. 9:37), and the occasion when he told them not to be disturbed by reports of those outside their company who were casting out demons in the name of Jesus: “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me” (Mk. 9:39; emphasis supplied).

In another place we read how the seventy-two disciples “returned rejoicing” from their apostolic work, telling the Lord that “even the demons are subject to us because of your name” (Lk. 10:17). Among the many other places in the New Testament47 where the very essence of Jesus is linked to his holy name, one of the clearest instances is in the canticle in the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9–11).

What is true regarding the sanctity of the name of God is also true, though in a more limited way, for his creatures, each of whom God calls by name (see Isa. 43:1, Jn. 10:3). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, it is for this reason that everyone’s name, being “the icon of the person,” is “sacred,” demanding “respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it.”48

With respect to the specific issue of the power of one’s good name, we see throughout the Scriptures not only an echo of the perennial human concern about the loss of one’s place in the broader community if one’s good name is lost,49 but also a warning about the various forms defamation can take and the variety of harms that can result from it: to the victim, to the perpetrator, and to the entire community. The teaching contained in the Old Testament about defamation is rooted in the vision of the “just man” as one who “fears the Lord.” He, as a result, is thus entitled to enjoy a good reputation in the eyes of his neighbors. The Psalmist, for example, exalts: “Blessed the man who fears the Lord . . . his righteousness shall endure forever” (Ps. 112:1–3). The author of the Book of Judith, meanwhile, celebrates her because Judith “feared God greatly,” so “no one had a bad word to say about her” (Jth. 8:8).

The importance of the good put at risk by acts of defamation is underscored in the Torah. First, there is the Eighth Commandment of the Decalogue prohibiting false witness (Exodus 23:1). Then, in Leviticus, the good of one’s reputation is linked to one’s very life: “You shall not go about spreading slander among your people; nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake” (Lev. 19:16). A husband who falsely impugns the premarital virginity of his wife, according to Deuteronomy, is to be whipped and fined for having dared to have “slandered a virgin in Israel” (Deut. 22:13–19).

The Wisdom books expand on this theme, noting that while all lies are evil and should be shunned (e.g., Proverbs 4:24, Wisdom 1:11, et al.), defamatory acts that occur based on untruths merit special condemnation: “Whoever slanders a neighbor in secret I will reduce to silence” (Ps. 101:5). Specially noxious are those acts arising from false testimony offered at trial (e.g., Proverbs 6:19; 19:5; 19:9; 21:28; and 24:28). Being relieved from the burden of a false accusation is a particular sign of the saving power of God’s Wisdom: “She did not abandon a righteous man when he was sold, but rescued him from sin. She went down with him into the dungeon, and did not desert him in his bonds . . . [she] proved false those who had defamed him, and gave him eternal glory” (Ws. 10:13–14).

The most thorough treatment about defamation, however, appears in the Book of Sirach, one of the last Old Testament books to be written (c. 175 B.C.). Employing a common image of those who slander as having a forked tongue, the author cautions: “The tongue can be your downfall. Do not be called double-tongued; and with your tongue do not slander a neighbor. For shame has been created for the thief, and sore disgrace for the double-tongued” (Sir. 5:13–14). He continues by counseling: “Never repeat gossip, and no one will reproach you. Tell nothing to friend or foe; and unless it be a sin for you, do not reveal a thing. For someone may have heard you and watched you, and in time come to hate you. Let anything you hear die with you; never fear, it will not make you burst!” (Sir. 19:7–10). Another verse, quoted in paragraph 2477 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with reference to the sin of detraction, warns that “slanderers sully themselves, and are hated by their neighbors” (Sir. 21:28). The Book of Sirach then concludes its treatment of sins of speech with a series of dramatic images:

Cursed be gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many. A meddlesome tongue subverts many, and makes them refugees among peoples. It destroys strong cities, and overthrows the houses of the great. A meddlesome tongue drives virtuous women from their homes, and robs them of the fruit of their toil. Whoever heed it will find no rest, nor will they dwell in peace. A blow from a whip raises a welt, but a blow from the tongue will break bones. Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as by the tongue. (Sir. 28:13–18)

The author ends his discourse on defamation with a blessing and a curse: “Happy the one who is sheltered from it, and has not endured its wrath; / Who has not borne its yoke nor been bound with its chains. For its yoke is a yoke of iron, and its chains are chains of bronze; / The death it inflicts is an evil death, even Sheol is preferable to it” (Sir. 28:19–21).

Turning to the New Testament, it is very early in the Sermon on the Mount where the Lord emphasizes the foundation of the New Law; i.e., going beyond what was announced to Moses to a more radical formulation made possible by the coming of the Messiah and the Redemption wrought by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. With respect to the intrinsic link between someone’s name and his very life, the Lord states:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, “You fool,” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt. 5:21–24)

This passage not only articulates the specific injunction not to insult others (i.e., by calling someone a “fool”), but once again reaffirms the vital link between demonstrating respect for the physical life of another (both externally and internally) and showing respect for the name another person uses in public life. Some later versions of this same Gospel passage, including the version used by St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his Adversus Haereses at the end of the 2nd century, include an additional word in the Greek Scriptural text (εἰκῇ) which tempers the force of the earlier version by noting that the anger must be “without cause” or “rash.”50 Yet given St. Paul’s famous invective against the “foolish” or “stupid” Galatians (Gal. 3:10) — who endangered their salvation by forsaking the true doctrine concerning faith and works — the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount clearly was not to be taken in a strict, literal sense, even if the “without cause” language does not appear in the best modern versions of the Bible.51

The nascent Christian community readily took such teaching to heart. Aware not only of its precarious status vis-à-vis the Roman Empire but also of the fundamental law of caritas entrusted to the Church by the Risen Lord (John 15:9–12), the early Church expressly discussed the notion of defamation in its earliest teachings. There is the famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew concerning correctio fraterna, where in Our Lord’s outline of the appropriate methods for fraternal correction the presence of respect for the good reputation of the one corrected is evident (Mt. 18:15–17). In the First Epistle of St. Peter, moreover, we read him urging the first Christians to “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, insincerity, envy, and all slander” (1 Pet. 2:1). Similarly, in the Epistle of St. James, we read: “Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law” (James 4:11). Such teaching was also not to be understood in a literal and narrow sense, as St. Peter’s harsh and public condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira — for their deceit of the early Christian community in the matter of some donated property — makes abundantly clear (Acts 5:1–11).

St. Paul showed particular concern for his own good reputation repeatedly in his letters, not only because for a good Jew honor was more important than life itself (1 Cor. 9:15; Sir. 10:28–29), but because he knew what was at stake with respect to the preaching of the Gospel should he lose his good name (2 Cor. 5:12, 5:20; 6:3; Gal. 1:1). After all, it mattered a great deal how followers of Christ comported themselves in the presence of others; they had been instructed to be the “light of the world” and that their light had to “shine before all” (Mt 5:14–16), and it surely was not only the Philippians who were called to demonstrate to “all others” their “epikeia,” or upright conduct (Phil 4:5). Paul unceasingly urged Christians to use the gift of speech carefully (see, e.g., Eph. 4:29–31; Col. 3:8; 4:6), warning against those who slander (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Cor. 12:20), and specifically cautioning that those who spread gossip and scandal merit a place in hell, next to those who practice sexual perversion, theft, or commit murder (Rom. 1:26–32; 1 Cor. 6:9–10).

When writing to his disciples Titus and Timothy, he gave concrete advice with respect to the good reputation of others. Paul enjoined Titus, then in charge of the Church on the island of Crete, to be sure to name as priests and bishops only those men who were “blameless” (Titus 1:6–7) and to guard against slanderers who could disturb the community (Titus 2:3; 3:2). Paul specifically cautions Timothy, then presiding over the church in Ephesus, to be careful and selective about those he ordains (1 Tim. 5:22). Paul also warns him not only to avoid those who spread slander (2 Tim. 3:3), but to never “accept an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19) It is difficult to understand the relevance of such an injunction unless there were actual or plausible fact situations to which the advice applied.

With respect to the issue of the reputation of the Church’s ordained clergy, St. Paul made repeated references to the importance of ministers being held in good repute. In his first letter to Timothy, for example, St. Paul lists the qualities necessary for the office of bishop. In noting that a candidate for such a noble office must be “irreproachable” (1 Tim. 3:2) Paul added that he “must also have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, the devil’s trap” (1 Tim. 3:7). Similarly, when writing to the Christian community in Corinth, Paul affirms how the participation of Titus in his ministry will help avoid financial scandal: “[F]or we are concerned for what is honorable not only in the sight of the Lord but also in the sight of others” (2 Cor. 8:21; see also Rom. 12:17; 1 Thess. 5:15). In articulating such standards, of course, St. Paul was not unique. From its earliest days, the Church was concerned about the good reputation of its ministers. Before the apostles laid hands on the first deacons, they had made it clear that those whom the community selected must be “reputable . . . filled with the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).

The Witness of the Early Church

Even as early as 70 A.D., the time at which the Didaché appears, we see the importance the early Church placed on good reputation: when choosing ministers, the author (anonymous, writing in Greek in Syria or Palestine)52 exhorts the Christians of the first century to elect men “worthy of the Lord, humble men and not lovers of money, truthful and proven; for they also serve you in the ministry of the prophets and teachers.”53 Some two centuries later, in one of the earliest attempts to compile the ius vigens of the nascent Church, the Didascalia Apostolorum echoed similar criteria for the selection of church leaders. In addition, this same collection of norms (originally written in Greek, but later written in Syriac and in Latin)54 also included guidance for bishops when investigating accusations of wrongdoing. Specifically, they are told to be on guard against false accusations, to “investigate wisely” those who are accused, to judge fairly and without bias, to “reprove before all the Church” those who deserve it, but nevertheless to welcome back into the fold all those who repent of their wrongdoing, “for even our Lord and Saviour did not completely reject and cast out the publicans and sinners, but even ate with them.”55

The author of the Didaschalia takes special pains to caution against making rash judgments after an accusation, and issues a strongly worded warning to bishops who fail to administer justice. He compares them to the perverted elders in the Book of Daniel who brought false witness against Susanna. If a bishop fails to give the accused an adequate hearing, or if he should condemn someone without providing the accused with an opportunity to defend himself against the charges, the Didaschalia warns: “Ye have become partakers before God with him that hath brought the false witness, and ye shall be punished with him before God.”56

The dangers associated with defamation did not escape the attention of the Fathers of the Church, whose writings contain numerous examples testifying to the unfortunate reality of detraction in the early Church. St. Ephrem of Syria, for instance, used the example of Miriam, the sister of Moses, to show how damaging the sin of detraction could be. In Numbers 12, Miriam was struck with leprosy after having “spoken against” her holy brother. From the physical corruption of her body through the disfiguring disease of leprosy, Ephrem reasons, we are able to better understand the spiritual corruption of her soul, which was sullied by the detestable sin of detraction.57

Similar teachings are found in the writings of other Church Fathers, including St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 125-c. 203), who wrote in his Adversus Haereses that when the apostles chose their successors, they made sure the men were “perfect and without reproach” before they handed on their authority to them.58 Another example comes from St. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310–c. 367), who, when commenting on Psalm 118, noted that an injury to another’s good name does not necessarily require a direct and obvious malevolent act; it is enough for the person to adopt an attitude of false friendship.59 St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386), in his Catechesis, bluntly advised Christians to “abandon idle talk,” and to “neither detract nor listen willingly to a detractor.”60 Striking a similar chord in a letter to a group of monks, St. Basil the Great (330–379) cautioned the members of the community to avoid anyone who slanders; moreover, they should avoid saying anything about an absent brother with an intention to slander, for it was considered to be slander even if the remarks were true.61

St. Jerome (c. 347–420), meanwhile, in addition to counseling against even listening to defamatory words, calls defamation a vice that turns those who were once friends into enemies, acknowledging that at times even those people who carefully try to avoid all other sins seem nevertheless to fall victim to this pernicious habit.62 Reflecting on the Scriptural guidance regarding fraternal correction, St. Augustine (354–430) suggested that if it became necessary to correct the sins of a neighbor, such correction should always be done with discretion; for example, correcting a person might need to be delayed until the right moment presents itself. In any event, revealing another’s faults to other people unnecessarily is a sign not of fraternal love, but of contempt; correcting the sins of another should not cause the one who corrects to fall into sin.63 So committed was St. Augustine to this teaching that he famously had the following words displayed by his dinner table: “Quisquis amat dictis absentum rodere vitam, hanc mensam indignam noverit esse sibi.”64

An incident recounted by St. Augustine in one of his many letters shows the saint’s commitment to the value of bona fama. Around the year 404, while attending a council of bishops in Carthage,65 Augustine wrote to the church in Hippo concerning a scandal that had arisen in a monastery over which Augustine had jurisdiction. A priest named Boniface had accused one of the deacons of inciting him to commit some kind of immorality. The deacon, in turn, then accused Boniface of exactly the same charge. Entrusted with deciding the matter, Augustine admits of his own difficulties in reaching a judgment.66 He concedes that he was more inclined to believe the priest Boniface’s version of the events, evidently suspecting that the deacon had simply made his accusation in retaliation. As a result, Augustine decided to refrain from ordaining the deacon, waiting for such moment until the suspect would provide some other legitimate and clear excuse (justa et manifesta causa) for being expelled from the community.67

When the deacon pressed his claim, however, demanding that either he be ordained or Boniface be removed from priestly ministry, Augustine decided to seek heavenly assistance. He sent both men to the well-known tomb of the martyr St. Felix of Nola in the hope that God would reveal the truth of the matter in some fashion. While in Milan, Augustine explains, he had come to know of the efficacy of such visits: after having been brought to the tombs of certain saints, even demons had confessed their deeds, and on at least one occasion, a thief who had intended to deceive everyone by perjuring himself at a holy shrine could not do so, even admitting his sin and restoring the stolen property.68

So while Augustine awaits the return of the two unlikely pilgrims, he writes his letter to the community in Hippo, explaining the case and expounding on the damage of calumny and slander. He justifies his refusal to remove the priest’s name from the list of clergy while the case is pending, given that he is unwilling to anticipate whatever divine judgment may result from the visit to the tomb of St. Felix, and because he does not want to violate a decree from a council in Carthage (which had been held in 387)69 that had forbidden the suspension of a cleric who had not yet been proven guilty, after having had an opportunity to defend himself. Thus, Augustine tells the faithful, if they want to exclude the priest’s name from the list of local clerics, that is their decision. He then cites 1 Peter 5:8 in warning his readers of the harm that can come through attacks on bona fama, and notes that when the devil cannot devour someone outright by ensnaring him in evil conduct, he tries to blacken his reputation and thus break him under the weight of calumnies and slanders.70

Augustine’s concern here is not only for the good of the individual believer, but for the whole Christian community. The next part of this same letter laments the fact that reports of such scandals lessen the reputation of all those in the Church, even if such conclusions are unfounded and unfair. He wonders why, when some bishop, cleric, or religious has fallen, the immediate judgment drawn by enemies of the Church is that all others are all like that, just waiting to be unmasked.71 Yet if a wife or mother of one of these critics is ever caught in adultery, no one leaps to the conclusion that all women are adulterers. No, he laments, when some charge, whether true or false, has been made about those in a sacred calling, the enemies of the Church are relentless in their efforts to disseminate the bad news as widely as possible.72 Still, he counsels, true Christians should be neither surprised nor dismayed by the inevitable scandals that will arise from both actual crimes and false allegations within the Church. After all, he reasons, the ark of Noah had its Ham, the house of David had its Absalom, the band of disciples had its Judas, and even heaven itself once had Lucifer and the rebellious angels.73

Elsewhere St. Augustine sounds a theme echoed by other Fathers of the Church; namely, the extent to which one’s zeal for defending one’s bona fama is an ordinary, essential element for the life of a follower of Christ. While commenting on the story of Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus with the precious nard in John 11, Augustine observes that the entire house was filled with the oil’s pleasant aroma.74 This reflects, Augustine suggests, those of good character who live well in the sight of the Lord; their good example perfumes the world in which they live. As Rodríguez Luño points out, Augustine uses this story to justify St. Paul’s energetic and unreserved defense of his own honor, done not for reasons of pride, but for the very sound theological reason that the lives of those who profess the name of the Lord ought to reflect their union with Christ. Otherwise, Augustine states, the consequences are dire: Those who call themselves Christian but who live wicked lives inflict an injury on Christ Himself; it is through such conduct, Augustine asserts, quoting Romans 2:24, that “the name of the Lord is blasphemed.”75 More positively, the converse is also true; namely, that those who live lives that reflect well the love of Christ are pleasing to the Lord. Augustine concludes this point with a reference to a corresponding passage in St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Listen to the apostle: We are a sweet savor of Christ in every place.”76

Thus one can readily see that the Fathers’ consistent valuing of the good of bona fama goes well beyond the spiritual effects of the sin of detraction or even the moral duty of mutual charity. Rather, the Fathers recognized that a lack of respect for the good name of others could threaten not only the cohesion of the community, but their ability to witness to the Gospel. We saw earlier that before the end of the first century, Pope St. Clement I was already emphasizing the importance of this principle. Writing his letter to the Christians in Corinth as the third successor to St. Peter, he expressed concern about the reputational harms coming from that community. First, as noted above, he lamented that the “venerable and illustrious name” of the entire Corinthian Church had suffered grievously on account of the conflicts within it. Second, he scolded them for allowing the unjust treatment of certain faithful bishops who had exercised their ministry “blamelessly and honorably,” but had been unfairly removed from ministry. He warns that “our sin will not be slight if we remove from the episcopate those who blamelessly and in a holy way have offered its Sacrifices.”77

To Be Continued

  1. 1983 Code of Canon Law, c. 220, in Code of Canon Law Annotated: Latin-English Edition (Montréal: Wilson and Lafleur, 2004).
  2. See, e.g., Herodotus, The Histories, 7.10, ed. Robert B. Strassler, trans. Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2007): “For slander is a most terrible crime, one in which two people commit the injustice and a third is the victim of it. The one who slanders commits an injustice against the one who is not present, while the person who listens to him does wrong by believing him before learning if his claims are accurate. And the man who is absent from their talk is wronged, being slandered by the one and assumed to be bad by the other.”
  3. See, e.g., Augustine’s reference to a writing from Cicero in Book II of his De Civitate Dei. An English translation renders the quotation thus: “Though our Twelve Tables attached the penalty of death only to a very few offences, yet among these few this was one: if any man should have sung a pasquinade, or have composed a satire calculated to bring infamy or disgrace on another person. Wisely decreed. For it is by the decisions of magistrates, and by a well-informed justice, that our lives ought to be judged, and not by the flighty fancies of poets; neither ought we to be exposed to hear calumnies, save where we have the liberty of replying, and defending ourselves before an adequate tribunal.” Augustine, The City of God, II.9, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 48.
  4. Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe, ed. Thelma Fenster and Daniel Lord Smail (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
  5. Van Vechten Veeder, “The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation, Part I” in Columbia Law Review 3, no. 8 (1903): 546–73, 546–49.
  6. Ángel Rodríguez Luño, La difamación (Madrid: Ediciones Rialp, 2015), 34–35. See also Philippe Rochat, Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  7. See, e.g., Annette Kämmerer, “The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame,” Scientific American, Aug. 9, 2019.
  8. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014).
  10. Lily Campbell, Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1930).
  11. Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, for example, famously muses in The Two Towers whether he and Frodo “will ever be put into songs or tales.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 321.
  12. See generally Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949).
  13. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 59–62.
  14. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV, Scene 1.
  15.  Gioacchino Rossini, The Barber of Seville, Burton D. Fisher, ed. (Miami: Opera Journeys, 2005).
  16. Arthur Miller, The Crucible (New York: Viking Penguin, 1953).
  17. The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (2012; Los Angeles, CA: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2013), DVD.
  18. Tacitus, The Complete Works of Tacitus, 15.44, ed. Moses Hadas, trans. Alfred John Church (New York: Modern Library, 1942).
  19. John J. Delaney, Dictionary of Saints (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 75.
  20. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (New York: Macmillan, 1962), xiii.
  21. Delaney, Dictionary of Saints, 169.
  22. Delaney, Dictionary of Saints, 279.
  23. Delaney, Dictionary of Saints, 462.
  24. Joseph M. Esper, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Books, 2001), 116.
  25. Esper, Saintly Solutions, 195.
  26. Joseph M. Esper, More Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Books, 2004), 85.
  27. Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 430.
  28. Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 379, 392.
  29. Augustin Auffray, Blessed John Bosco (1815–1888), trans. W. H. Mitchell (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1930), 272–77, 299–300.
  30. Irene Caudwell, Damien of Molokai, 1840–1889 (New York: Macmillan, 1932). The appendix to Caudwell’s book includes the remarkable “Open Letter to the Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu” by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which he, though not a Catholic, comes to the vigorous defense of Fr. Damien’s character (p. 189–203).
  31. Esper, Saintly Solutions, 116.
  32. See Ralph McInerny, The Defamation of Pius XII (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001); Margherita Marchione, Pope Pius XII (Milan: Ancora Editrice, 2003), 16, 117–18.
  33. Esper, More Saintly Solutions, 85–86.
  34. Javier Hervada, “La ‘lex naturae’ e la ‘lex gratiae’ nella base dell’ordinamento giuridico della Chiesa,” in Ius Ecclesiae 3 (1991): 49–66 (stating, among other things, that Christians do not lose their natural human rights upon becoming members of the Church).
  35. Alphonsus Liguori, The Complete Works of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori: Dignity and Duties of the Priest or Selva, vol. 12, ed. Eugene Grimm (Brooklyn, NY: Redemptorist Fathers, 1927), 24.
  36. Liguori, The Complete Works, 25.
  37. Liguori, The Complete Works, 29 (citing Ambrose, De Dignit. sac. cc 2, 3).
  38. Liguori, The Complete Works, 149.
  39. Liguori, The Complete Works, 147.
  40. St. Josemaría Escrivá, A Priest Forever (Makati City: Sinag-Tala Publishers, 1975). The homily was delivered on April 13, 1973.
  41. St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, ch. 116, trans. Suzanne Noffke (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 216.
  42. St. Gregory the Great, Moralium Libri, sive Exposito in Librum B. Job, lib. 14, cap. 35, no. 43 in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 75, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1862).
  43. See, e.g., Gen. 1:3 (God creating by means of His word); Gen. 2:19–20 (Adam naming the animals).
  44. See Letter to the Bishops’ Conferences on “The Name of God,” Prot. N. 213/08/L, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (29 June 2008), in Notitiae: Commentarii ad nuntia et studia de re liturgica, vol. 45 (2008): 181–184.
  45. See, e.g., 1 Sam. 17:45 (David responding to Goliath: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts”); 1 Kings 18:24 (Elijah’s challenge to the prophets of Baal: “You shall call upon the name of your gods, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. The God who answers with fire is God”); Prov. 18:10 (“The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the just run to it and are safe”); Isa. 59:19 (Those in the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those in the east, his glory”); Joel 3:5 (“Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will escape harm”); Mic. 4:5 (“We will walk in the name of the Lord, our God, forever and ever”); Zeph. 3:9 (For then I will make pure the speech of the peoples, that they all may call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one accord.”); Mal. 3:20 (“But for you who fear my name, the sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings”).
  46. See also Psalm 20:8 (“Some rely on chariots, others on horses, but we on the name of the Lord our God”); Psalm 99:3 (how “great and awesome” is name of the Lord); and Psalm 118:26 (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”).
  47. See, e.g., Acts 3:6 (Peter to the man crippled from birth: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk”); Rom. 10:13 (“everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”); James 5:14 (enjoining the sick to be prayed over and anointed “with oil in the name of the Lord”).
  48. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), par. 2158.
  49. See, e.g., Barry Nichols, An Introduction to Roman Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 215-16 (discussing the status of infamia under Roman law).
  50. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, IV.13.1, IV.16.5.
  51. For example, neither the Douay-Rheims nor the New American Bible translations of this verse contain the phrase “without cause.”
  52. Brian Ferme, Introduction to the History of the Sources of Canon Law: The Ancient Law up to the Decretum of Gratian (Montréal: Wilson and Lafleur, 2007), 36–37.
  53. Didaché, 15.1, in William A. Jurgens, trans., The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970), 4.
  54. Ferme, 40–41.
  55. Margaret Gibson, trans., The Didascalia Apostolorum in English (London: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 54–55.
  56.  Didascalia, 62.
  57. “Eighty Rhythms Upon the Faith, against the Disputes,” in Selected Works of S. Ephrem the Syrian, trans. J.B. Morris (London: Oxford, 1847), 195.
  58. St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, lib. 3, cap. 3, no. 1, col. 762–63.
  59. St. Hilary of Poitiers, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, ed. Anton Zingerle (Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1891), 22:419, 484–85.
  60. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis, I, 19, in Patrologiae Graecae Tomus, tom. 19, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1861), col. 336.
  61. St. Basil the Great, Epistola XXII, “De perfectione vitae monasticae,” in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 18, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1857), col. 1094.
  62. St. Jerome, Epistula ad Celantiam, 148, in Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae, in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, ed. Isidore Hilberg (Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1918), 56:341–46.
  63. Augustine, “Contra Epistolam Parmeniani,” III, 1, in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 43, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1865), col. 83.
  64. Possidius, “Vita Sancti Aurelii Augustini,” in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 32, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1865), col. 52.
  65. The Fathers of the Church, vol. 12, trans. Sr. Wilfried Parsons (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1951), 375.
  66. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 33, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1865), col. 267–72.
  67. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, col. 269.
  68. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, col. 269.
  69. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson, The Letters of St. Augustine (New York: MacMillian, 1919), 306.
  70. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, no. 5, col. 270.
  71. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, no. 6, col. 270.
  72. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, no. 6, col. 270.
  73. Augustine, Epistola LXXVIII, no. 6, col. 272.
  74. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium tractatus, 50.7.
  75. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium tractatus, 50.7.
  76. Augustine, In Ioannis Evangelium tractatus, 50.7, citing 2 Cor. 2:15.
  77. St. Clement of Rome, Epistola ad Corinthios I, 44.1, in Patrologiae Graecae Tomus, tom. 1, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1856), col. 164–65.
Michael J. Mazza About Michael J. Mazza

Dr. Mazza is a civil and canon lawyer who advocates on behalf of clerics, religious, and lay people. He can be reached at He has degrees from the College of St. Thomas (B.A., Theology, summa cum laude), the Notre Dame Apostolic Catechetical Institute (M.A., Religious Studies), the Marquette University Law School (J.D., summa cum laude), and the Pontificia Università della Santa Croce in Rome (J.C.L., magna cum laude, and J.C.D., summa cum laude). His doctoral thesis in canon law is entitled “The Right of a Cleric to Bona Fama” and is available on


  1. “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” (Prov. 6:16 – 19).

    Arguably all of these things are involved in slander and defamation. A false accusation, or simply a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion, is rooted in the accusers pride and envy. A systemic undermining of The Church and the moral order allows these things to happen without consequence. While Dr. Mazza is advocating for The Church and Clergy, we can help fight this battle in the culture as well. The first and foremost way to do that is through prayer, especially for those around you that might be victims of Satan’s poison of pride injected by our culture. Thanks, Dr. Mazza. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Avatar Marie Schick says:

    Excellent article!!! Only highlights how much we have moved away from any scruples to be truthful. It was always joked that politicians and car salesmen always stretched the truth, but now so many people and the majority of politicians can look right into the television cameras and defame their opponents without even blinking an eye.
    For someone to defame an innocent priest who offered his life to the Lord, can there be a just punishment for him/her? And what about the innocent priest that was defamed? Where’s his Justice?

  3. Avatar Francesco Neri says:

    Bona fama, as reflective of and consequent to our participation in the goodness of God, seeks to protect and honour that which is inherently good in us as flowing from our creation in the image and likeness of God. I have a duty in justice not to do anything that might deliberately undermine the good fame of my fellow man and in this way justice prepares the way for a charity enabling an authentic love of neighbour. Truly then, charity and justice, are the two co-determining principles of all authentic human action that build up the City of God. Dr Mazza’s brilliant article – a tour de force jurisprudentially, biblically and patristically – beautifully shows how important bona fama is to this task, a task that is all the more critical in our time when the means and modes of directly attacking the bona fama of my neighbour have multiplied on all sides to the extant that not only may I be defamed, but socially ‘cancelled’! The provident nature of Dr Mazza’s work could not be more apparent.

  4. Avatar E Green says:

    Bearing false witness is nothing new to human history. It’s a bit disheartening to realize that mankind continually falls into the same sin throughout the ages without learning anything. Particularly unjust is the mistreatment of a group of people due to the sins of a few. Dr. Mazza’s enlightening article, which thoroughly traces examples of calumny from the beginning of human history to the present, stirs up the reader’s desire for justice for the innocent and encourages us to defend the bona fama of our fellow man, especially those who serve in persona Christi.

  5. Avatar Fr Paul Pecchie says:

    I look forward to reading the next installment of Dr. Mazza’s well needed appreciation of Bono Fama in these chaotic times in the church. The tragic revelation of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has caused many needed and long overdue changes in the way Church leadership handles these cases. As important as these changes were the downside has been the handling of accusations made in general and especially false accusation in particular. Most alarming is for those men who are long deceased being named to diocesan sex abuse lists with no course of defense.. The Bishops’ failure in the past has caused an over zealous approach to claims of abuse resulting in”guilty until proven innocent.” This has resulted in unfounded claims ruining the reputation of the innocent as well as canonical law and civil law principles of justice being violated. In Dr Mazza’s article he clearly shows through the diginity of the person, Scripture, Patristics and Church law.the importance of Bono Fama. Being a civil lawyer as well as, a Canon Lawyer, enables him to have a complete understanding and cogent presentation of the topic. Hopefully as we proceed within the Church we will be more prudent in how we deal with this issue especially those in Church leadership. An English translation of footnote 64 relaying the famous phrase displayed by his dinner table: “Whoever loves to chew with words on the life of the absent,let him know he is unworthy of this table.” Good Advice!