The Importance of the Value of Reputation, Part II

Go to Part I

As the Church was the sign and sacrament to the world, there was a direct link between the reputation of the Church’s ministers and the mission of the Church itself.1 A particularly clear example of this was given by Pope St. Gregory the Great (reigning from 590 to 604) in a homily on Ezekiel. In it, he warned about “derogatory words” concerning those whose duty it was to preach, lest someone be given an excuse to turn his back on the Gospel and turn aside from an honest life.2

This same principle was also at work in the vigorous defense of reputation seen in the writings of other Church Fathers. Tertullian, for example, took pains to defend the Christian community as a whole against the many false accusations that were being made against them at the end of the second century.3 St. Basil the Great, having been defamed by the false charge of blasphemy, asserted that he felt compelled to defend himself against such charges.4 His younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, came to Basil’s aid after his death in 379, writing a vigorous defense of Basil against the attacks of the Arian bishop Eunomius.5 St. Cyprian of Carthage, meanwhile, in defending Pope Cornelius (who had been defamed by the Novatian heretics), stated in a letter written around the year 251 that defamation was always the devil’s work, wounding the servants of God with lies and defaming their good name by false accusations.6 A century and a half later, St. John Chrysostom would agree, equating the “false accusers” referenced in St. Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy with “accusers,” who, aware that they have no good in themselves, find a contorted consolation in finding fault in the lives of others.7

One of the clearest expositions by a Church Father of the value of bona fama, particularly as it applies to the lives of the Church’s sacred ministers, is found in De officiis (On the Duties of the Clergy) by St. Ambrose. Emphasizing the strong connection between a cleric’s good reputation and his ministry, Ambrose points out that ministers of the Lord must enjoy a good reputation, not only among the faithful but by those outside the community as well, lest the work of evangelization and witness suffer:

We note how much is required of us. The minister of the Lord should abstain from wine, so that he may be upheld by the good witness not only of the faithful but also by those who are without. For it is right that the witness to our acts and works should be the opinion of the public at large, that the office be not disgraced. Thus he who sees the minister of the altar adorned with suitable virtues may praise their Author, and reverence the Lord Who has such servants.8

Ambrose’s work was modeled on Cicero’s famous work, written in 44 B.C. (also entitled De Officiis), laying out the best way to live out a moral life. Time and again throughout his treatise Ambrose urges that sacred ministers do all they can to preserve their good name and reputation. This is not seen as an end in itself but rather aimed at leading souls to God: Ambrose cites examples of Old Testament figures of upright life such as Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and Daniel as holy and wise leaders in whom people could rightly put their trust. If a minister is going to be in a position to give advice to others, Ambrose says that there must be nothing that could be held against him that would detract from his witness or dissuade people from going to him for advice.

None of what has been recounted above means that these same Church Fathers were timid in their criticism of either sinful conduct or heretical beliefs. On the contrary, abundant evidence suggests that the Fathers could be very direct in their criticisms of those whom they feared were attacking the unity of the Church and her Creed.9 This hardly amounts to a contradiction; rather, it serves as a reminder of the Church’s teaching on self-defense. One does not offend against charity or justice when harnessing the power of weapons — or words — in justifiable defense against serious threats.10

The Magisterium of the Twentieth Century

The teaching in the twentieth century on fundamental rights such as bona fama was in complete harmony with what had been taught before.11 Nevertheless, as the Church continues to exercise its saving mission in the world, it continues to reflect on what God has revealed and strives to better share that which has been entrusted to it. As a result, deeper insights and different ways of communicating truths about the human condition and the moral law are always possible.12

Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII

Whether exercised through ordinary papal magisterium or through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s teaching during the twentieth century manifests a profound development in the conception of bona fama as flowing from the inherent dignity of man. The contrast of this teaching against the historical realities of that bloodiest of centuries is stark. Pope Pius XI, for instance, writing just after the end of World War I, observed sadly that man’s personal dignity and the value of human life had been among the casualties of the war.13 He placed the blame for this deplorable state of affairs squarely on those who held the misguided notion that all authority comes from men, that laws and government should exist without recognizing God’s authority. The pope also reflected that it was precisely because of this false assumption that the law had lost its essential connection with justice. Pius XI commented that even the pagan Cicero had recognized that true law could not be derived except from divine law.14

Fifteen years later, on the brink of another world war, the same pope would lament in Mit brennender Sorge that “not only moral doctrine, but also the foundations of law and of its administration” had been severed from “true faith in God and from the norms of divine revelation.”15 He lamented the neglect of respect for the natural law, written by the hand of the Creator on the tablet of the human heart, and which reason, not blinded by sin or passion, can easily read.16 Writing later that same year in the encyclical Divini Redemptoris, the pope said that Communism not only strips man of his true liberty, but robs human personality of all of its dignity.17 Despite its promises of an earthly paradise, this evil system destroys the foundations of the social order, ignoring the true origin and purpose of the State, as it denies “the rights, dignity, and liberty of human personality.”18

When Eugenio Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in March 1939, the world was on the brink of the bloodiest war in human history, with virulently anti-Catholic governments extending their influence all over the planet. So it is somewhat ironic that against this backdrop we see the Church’s voice nevertheless remaining clear and powerful on the subject of man’s dignity and man’s rights. Over a Vatican radio broadcast delivered to a global audience on Christmas Eve 1942, the pope forcefully condemned the many evils that were then causing so much harm across the world. He called for people of good will to unite in a solemn vow not to rest until society was brought back to the “unshakable center of gravitation of divine law,”19 pleading that such a vow was owed to all those who had been killed or otherwise harmed in the war. He added that this obligation was also due to those who, “without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked for death or gradual extinction.”20 He declared it was the “original and essential purpose of social life to preserve, develop, and perfect the human person,” and that this would only be possible if the respect due to God and to the human person, made in the image of God, was acknowledged.21

This remarkable address also included a comprehensive list of fundamental human rights, including such things as the right to develop physically, intellectually, and morally; the right to worship, both in public and in private; the right to marry and to raise a family; the right to earn a living and to be paid a just wage; the right to engage in religious works of charity; to pursue a state in life, and therefore to pursue a religious vocation; as well as the right to be free from arbitrary juridical authority.22 In many ways the list of rights resembles those in declarations and constitutions that would come about years later, such as the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the section on the “Obligations and Rights of all the Christian Faithful” in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. To an audience of Catholic jurists at the end of 1953, Pope Pius XII returned to these same themes, noting that basic human rights such as “the right to respect and to a good name” find their source in the nature that God has created, and not because they are granted by the authority of the State.23

Pope St. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council

The centrality of the human person in the social order was likewise an important theme of the pontificate of Pope St. John XXIII (1958–1963), especially his two social encyclicals, Mater et Magistra24 and Pacem in Terris.25 It was this foundation that provided the basis for the pope’s specific reference to the right of reputation. In the first of these documents he states, plainly, that the entirety of the Church’s social teaching rests on one basic principle: “Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause, and the end of every social institution.”26 The Church constructs her social teaching, he says, “on this basic principle, which affirms and defends the sacred dignity of the human person.”27

Expanding on that notion two years later in Pacem in Terris, the pope begins with a long and detailed list of the rights (and corresponding duties) of man, rooting them all in man’s dignity, given that human beings are creatures made in the image of likeness of God, endowed with intelligence and freedom, and lords of creation. These rights and duties flow as a direct consequence from his nature as a being with intelligence and free will, and are thus “universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.”28 Included among these rights, immediately after the right to life and bodily integrity, the pope lists man’s natural right to be respected and to his good name.29 This right also applies corporately, to those collective groups of human beings known as States, which also enjoy a right to a good name30 with a concomitant duty not to injure the reputation of another nation.31

John XXIII extended the influence of his brief papacy for years after his death by virtue of the ecumenical council he began in 1962. The Second Vatican Council had an enormous influence on the Church’s self-understanding as the People of God and on the role of the faithful in her threefold munera of sanctifying, teaching, and ruling. The growing understanding of, greater appreciation for, and developments in the conception of the rights and duties of the human person as such, and particularly as baptized members of the Mystical Body of Christ, have left an impact on life both inside and outside the Church proper, whether individually or corporately.32 Nevertheless, in a “hermeneutic of reform in continuity,”33 and in keeping with all that has been said before about the nature of authentic rights, it must be pointed out that even though the Second Vatican Council may have articulated the rights of the faithful in new ways, it was not the creator of such rights. On the contrary, given the Church’s continued teaching — as so ably demonstrated by its twentieth-century popes — authentic human rights arise from man’s very nature, not because some authority, no matter how benign, grants them.

This said, we can turn to the impressive list of rights that appears in Gaudium et Spes,34 the Church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The list explicitly includes the right to bona fama. Because of the “exalted dignity” proper to the human person, and his “universal and inviolable” rights and duties, all human beings must have available to them “everything that is necessary for the leading of a truly human life.”35 What follows is a list very similar to what had been proposed by Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Eve radio message and by Pope St. John XXIII in Pacem in Terris: “food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.”36

These passages are significant not only for their direct content, but because they serve as a source for Canon 220 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Direct reference is made therein to the paragraphs cited above from both Gaudium et Spes as well as Pacem in Terris.

Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II

The two popes most directly responsible for the implementation of the Second Vatican Council in the years immediately following its close were Pope St. Paul VI (1963–1978) and Pope St. John Paul II (1978–2005), both of whom continued to develop the themes expressed by the Council Fathers on the subject of human dignity and natural human rights. In countless homilies, speeches, apostolic letters, and encyclicals, both pontiffs were tireless defenders of the dignity of the human person and the authentic rights that flow from his nature as a rational and free being created by God.

Throughout his papacy, Paul VI spoke of the issue of human dignity, from his major social encyclicals stressing the fundamental rights of man37 to the numerous World Day of Peace messages in which he directly confronted the topic. In his message for January 1, 1969, for instance, he specifically referenced the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one must forget or neglect it, for it calls all to the fundamental recognition of the full, dignified citizenship of every man on earth.”38 Noting that the theme of the World Day of Peace itself linked the promotion of human rights to the cause of peace, he reiterated that true peace cannot exist “where human rights are not respected, defended, and promoted” and “where man’s personality is ignored or degraded.”39

Similarly, throughout the many documents produced during his long pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II relentlessly reinforced the message of man’s fundamental dignity.40 This was an especially important task when this dignity was under attack, as he noted in his message to the United Nations, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.41 Establishing authentic human rights on the firm foundation of the dignity of the human person, the pope stated that “it is respect for this dignity that gives birth to their effective protection.” Then, citing his predecessor John XXIII, he added a comment especially appropriate to the right of reputation: “The human person, even when he or she errs, always maintains inherent dignity and never forfeits his or her personal dignity.”42 He would return to this same point many times in his teachings, perhaps most notably in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in which he made specific reference to the value of bona fama:

The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods. “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness” are moral rules formulated in terms of prohibitions. These negative precepts express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of persons in marriage, private property, truthfulness and people’s good name.”43

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

With respect to the specific right of bona fama, we can also profit by looking at another post-conciliar document: the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When announcing its release in 1992, Pope St. John Paul II drew a strong connection between the Catechism and the Second Vatican Council, the principal task of which was “to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine.”44 Observing that even after its official conclusion the Council did not cease animating the life of the Church, the pope gave credit for the inspiration for the Catechism to an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that had met in Rome marking the twentieth anniversary of the close of the Council. With its publication, the pope affirmed, and along with the revised codes of canon law for both the Latin and the Eastern churches, the catechism was intended to help renew the “whole life of the Church, as desired and begun by the Second Vatican Council.”45

The Catechism gives ample attention to bona fama. In the section “Life in Christ,” when addressing “offenses against truth” under the Eighth Commandment, it makes a specific reference to Canon 220 of the 1983 Code when it states: “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.”46 It then lists several types of harms against someone’s reputation; i.e., someone is 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.47

The Catechism then goes to describe these acts in more detail, specifying that 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.”48 The Catechism ends its section on offenses against truth with this paragraph:

Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven. When it is impossible publicly to make reparation for a wrong, it must be made secretly. If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another’s reputation. This reparation, moral and sometimes material, must be evaluated in terms of the extent of the damage inflicted. It obliges in conscience.49

That there are juridical implications of such duties is clear. What is also manifest is the consistency of Magisterial teaching, throughout the twentieth century, demonstrating that the good of bona fama is not only something to be praised in word, but to be honored in deed.


The repercussions of attacks on a juridical good as fundamental as bona fama are both serious and complex. Not only does an act of defamation harm the individual victim, but it also damages the person who took the bona fama unjustly. Even more important are the consequences for the community as a whole, which cannot long endure the uncertainty created by arbitrary attacks on the reputations of its members. As this article has shown, such principles have been known to the human community since Old Testament times. Moreover, the consistent witness of the Christian community has made clear the importance of bona fama, from the days of the primitive Church through the Patristic period up to the Magisterium of the most recent century.

We note in conclusion that such evidence stands for the proposition that the good of bona fama has been valued, in a variety of contexts and time periods, as a fundamental human good. This article has also referenced several well-known artistic works, emanating from diverse cultures and at various points in history, that also testify to enduring truths concerning the good of bona fama. The extent of all this evidence suggests that there would be something profoundly inhuman, and therefore deeply disturbing, about any community that neglects to care for the right to reputation of its members. Such attentiveness for reputation is particularly important when the prevailing cultural zeitgeist militates against the right to bona fama by demanding quick guilty verdicts so as to quench the popular thirst for vengeance.

Owing to the power of speech itself, along with the close link between a person’s name and his very identity, we saw how the witness of Sacred Scripture, the early Church, and centuries of theological tradition have established the foundations on which the current juridical framework protecting a cleric’s right to bona fama rests. Authentic developments in magisterial teaching on the issue of reputation support the conclusion that respect for bona fama is not only an essential element of any human community, but that it is particularly important in the life of the Church, especially for its clergy. In light of such evidence, it is incomprehensible for an ecclesial community professing fidelity to the incarnate Word of God to ignore or downplay a right so fundamental as the right to reputation. We have seen how our bona fama is linked to our physical, mental, social, and spiritual health; we have also examined how closely connected is a person’s name to his very life. In this light, then, we can more easily see the fundamental hypocrisy at work if one professes caritas but permits calumnia.


  1. Liguori cites the “rigorous discipline” of the early Church, as evidenced in, inter alia, the writings of St. Jerome, imposing strict moral requirements on candidates for holy orders; including, for example, the idea that any post-baptismal mortal sin disqualified someone from orders. Liguori, Selva, 194.
  2. St. Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, book IX, n. 17, in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 76, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1865), col. 877.
  3. Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book I, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 109–28.
  4. St. Basil the Great, Epistola CCXXIII, “Adversus Eusathium Sebastenum,” in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 18, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1857), col. 1316–21.
  5. Sr. Thomas Aquinas Goggin, The Times of Saint Gregory of Nyssa as Reflected in the Letters and the Contra Eunomium (doctoral dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1947), 152.
  6. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle X, to Antonianus about Cornelius and Novatian, in Patrologiae Latinae Tomus, tom. 3, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1865), col. 801.
  7. John Chrysostom, Homily VIII (on 2 Timothy 3:1–4), in Patrologiae Graecae Tomus, tom. 33, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris: Ateliers catholiques, 1864), col. 643.
  8. Ambrose, De officiis, I, 256, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896).
  9. See, e.g., The Satirical Letters of St. Jerome, trans. Paul Carroll (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1956).
  10. See, e.g., Ambrose, De Officiis, II.125: “If you are a priest — or if you are anyone else either, for that matter — you are not to go about provoking quarrels. . . . Where the cause of God is concerned, however, and the communion of the church is at stake, even to turn a blind eye is no small sin.”
  11. See, e.g., Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891).
  12. See, e.g., Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (Dec. 7, 1965).
  13. Pope Pius XI, Encyclical “On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ,” Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio (Dec. 22, 1922), n. 21.
  14. Pius XI, Ubi Arcano, n. 28.
  15. Pius XI, Encyclical “On the Church and the German Reich,” Mit brennender Sorge (Apr. 10, 1937).
  16. Pius XI, Mit brennender Sorge, 181.
  17. Pius XI, Encyclical “On Atheistic Communism,” Divini Redemptoris (Mar. 19, 1937).
  18. Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, 72.
  19. Pius XII, Radio message “Con sempre nuova freschezza” on Christmas Eve (Dec. 24, 1942), AAS 35 (1943): 9–24.
  20. Pius XII, “Con sempre nuova freschezza,” 24. The reaction of The New York Times to the pope’s address was striking. After a headline “The Pope’s Verdict,” the article stated that the pope “is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent. The pulpit when he speaks is more than ever like the Rock on which the Church was founded, a tiny island lashed and surrounded by a sea of war.” The New York Times (Dec. 25, 1942), 1.
  21. Pius XII, “Con sempre nuova freschezza,” 12.
  22. Pius XII, “Con sempre nuova freschezza,” 19.
  23. Pius XII, Address to the Union of Catholic Italian Jurists, (Dec. 6, 1953), AAS 45 (1953): 794–802, 795.
  24. John XXIII, Encyclical “On Christianity and Social Progress,” Mater et Magistra (May 15, 1961).
  25. John XXIII, Encyclical “On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty,” Pacem in Terris (Apr. 11, 1963).
  26. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 453.
  27. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 453.
  28. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 259.
  29. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 260.
  30. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 281–82.
  31. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 282.
  32. See, e.g., Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (Nov. 21, 1964); Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae (Dec. 7, 1965); Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem (Nov. 18, 1965).
  33. The phrase “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” is adapted from the words of a Christmas address that Pope Benedict XVI gave to the Roman Curia in 2005, in which he counterposed the phrases “hermeneutic of discontinuity” and the “‘hermeneutic of reform” to warn against a misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia (Dec. 22, 2005), AAS 98 (2006): 40–53.
  34. Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (Dec. 7, 1965).
  35. Gaudium et Spes, 1046, no. 26.
  36. Gaudium et Spes, 1046, no. 26.
  37. Paul VI, Encyclical On the Development of Peoples Populorum Progressio (Mar. 26, 1967); Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (May 14, 1971).
  38. Paul VI, Message “For the Celebration of the Day of Peace” (Dec. 8, 1968), AAS 60 (1968): 769–74, 772.
  39. Paul VI, “Day of Peace,” 769–74, 772.
  40. See, e.g., John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptor Hominis (Mar. 4, 1979); Encyclical “On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum,” Centesimus Annus (May 1, 1991).
  41. John Paul II, Message “To His Excellency Dr. Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the United Nations Organization” (Dec. 2, 1978), AAS 71 (1979): 121–25.
  42. John Paul II, Message “To Secretary-General,” 121–25.
  43. John Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Aug. 6, 1993), par. 13.
  44. John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution “On the Publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” Fidei Depositum (Oct. 11, 1992).
  45. John Paul II, “On the Catechism,” 115.
  46. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), par. 2477. Hereafter CCC.
  47. CCC, 2477.
  48. CCC, 2479.
  49. CCC, 2487.
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. Avatar G. Poulin says:

    If the church thinks that its mission is to enhance human dignity in every way possible, and to make the world a more just and equitable place, then the church is mistaken. The mission of the church, given to it by Jesus himself, is to grow and nurture the church. Theological reflection can lead us to deeper insights about the truth, or it can lead us away from truth altogether. I fear that in the modern era it has mostly done the latter.

  2. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Dear Michael,

    I appreciate your article. We would all be better to heed your conclusions.


    Tom Showerman
    Fowlerville, MI


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