Man has a right to his good reputation. A “right” is that which is due to another, and it cannot be denied without injustice. “Reputation” is the opinion held by many about a person’s life and behavior. It is the consequence of that person’s physical, intellectual, and moral qualities and attainments, and as such, it belongs to him, it is his property. It is, as St. Thomas says, one of man’s most precious temporal possessions. Without the good esteem of his neighbors, an individual’s life in society becomes very difficult and even almost impossible.
Detraction is the unjust violation of the good esteem in which a person is held by making known to others some true but hidden fault of that person. St. Thomas says that it is a more grievous sin than theft, since a good name is better than wealth. Calumny differs from detraction only in that what is said of or imputed to another is false in fact and known to be false; in this case, it adds the malice of lying.
To despoil someone of that good esteem without proportionate cause constitutes an injustice, which is more or less grievous according to the harm done and which imposes on the perpetrator the obligation of restitution.
It may be a grave sin, but its gravity is to be measured by the gravity of the fault of which the person is accused, and the extent of the damage done is to be judged by the character, position, office of the detractor and of the detracted, as well as by the circumstances of the hearers.
On the one hand, it must be noted that if a person’s fault is such as to endanger the common good or is committed publicly, then his good reputation is destroyed and can no longer be reckoned among his assets. In such a case, disclosure of the evil deed implies no detraction. Similarly, no injustice is done by revealing the fault of another if it is necessary in defense of oneself or of others.
On the other hand, even if a person’s good esteem in the eyes of his neighbors is founded upon error or ignorance as to the actual conditions, still the knowledge of the real state of affairs by someone does not confer any right to take away the general favorable appreciation which that person, as a matter of fact, enjoys.
When asked about a homosexual of good will who seeks the Lord, Pope Francis famously answered, “Who am I to judge?” This seems to be perfectly in line with Our Lord’s command, when He commanded “judge not, that you may not be judged (Mt. 7:1). On the other hand, the Word of God also has told us that we must “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:24).
To solve the apparent contradiction, we must make distinctions to understand the different senses in which we may speak of “judgment.”
First of all, judgment is an act of our intelligence, by which we perceive the agreement or disagreement between two ideas; in other words, it is, as St. Thomas explains, the mental act by which we assert or deny something—for example, when we make simple statements about the circumstances of our daily lives, such as saying “today is a beautiful day” or “I don’t like sweets,” and even when we assert weightier, doctrinal and moral matters, such as “God exists” or “abortion is a crime.”
These judgments are necessary for living a normal, human life. They are required for the exercise of the moral virtue of prudence, which helps us to discern what we should do at every moment in order to direct all our actions, great and small, safely and assuredly to their ultimate end, God Himself. Therefore, God does not forbid such judgments—in fact, He cannot forbid them without depriving us of what is essential to the nature He has given us.
In our turn, we cannot abstain from making such judgments everyday if we want to live a rational, Christian life—and much less can we abstain if by our office and vocation we are called to guide others towards God.
What Our Lord actually forbids us is what we call a “rash judgment”—that is, the attribution of something morally reprehensible to our neighbor, or the denial of something morally virtuous, without sufficient evidence. It is an assertion, with firm conviction, about someone’s morality, rather than a suspicion or a doubt.
The rash judgment is contrary to charity, which, according to St. Paul, thinks no evil (I Cor. 13:5). St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that, in the absence of clear evidence, doubts about the virtues of another should always be interpreted for the best. The intention of the person making a rash judgment is essentially malicious and rejoices in finding wickedness in his neighbor, in contradiction to the impulse of charity.
It is also contrary to prudence, because that judgment lacks a reasonable foundation; it is based on evidence that, by its very insufficiency, does not allow a conclusive judgment.
Nevertheless, the specific malice of rash judgment consists in its injustice. First, we fail in the justice due to God, because when we judge not merely someone’s external actions but assert his internal sinfulness, without sufficient proof, we offend God by usurping His exclusive right to judge the hearts of men (I Cor. 4:5; Rom. 14:4). We also inflict a moral injury on the person judged, who has the right, if not to a positive good reputation in the eyes of others, at least not to be held in contempt without sufficient reason.
The gravity of the sin we commit with our rash judgment depends on various circumstances. It would especially increase in direct proportion to the gravity of the sins of which we accuse our neighbor, taking also into consideration the dignity of the person accused and the insufficiency of evidence on which we base that judgment.
It does not appear that it would be gravely sinful to take as certain something that could reasonably be considered highly probable. Moreover, knowledge of the depth of the wounds that original sin has left in human nature and our own past experience may reasonably lead us to take precautions against the possibility that another may be sinfully inclined—and that would be simply an act of prudence.
During the Second Vatican Council (and even before), some bishops and theological experts decried the veneration of relics as expression of an outmoded and superstitious piety that had to be eradicated so that the Church could finally catch up with the modern world. Many bishops, parish priests and religious superiors took up the task with unprecedented energy. The relics that were spared destruction during that “cleansing” frenzy of parishes and convents found their way into antique shops and, more recently, into online sellers, such as eBay. Such sellers offer relics that are often of a very dubious provenance, either because they have been stolen or, even more frequently, because they are false.
In any case, canon law (canon 1190) establishes that it is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics, as it is another instance of the sin of simony, that is, the sacrilegious practice of trading sacred things for money.
This prohibition has been recently restated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in the context of the growing number of relics due to the multiplication of beatifications and canonizations. The Congregation also reminded diocesan authorities that a certificate of authenticity is required for the relics to be exposed for public veneration, and also that they cannot be displayed in unauthorized or profane places.
Some sellers on eBay have argued that what is for sale is the reliquary itself, and not the relic, which is added as a “gift.” Nonetheless, a simple examination of those listings shows that that is not the case, because an identical reliquary without the relic sells for a fraction of the price of the one that contains the relic—the difference in costs appears thus to be the “price” to be paid for the relic. Hence, simony…
Nonetheless, it may be argued that, in the case of the eBay relics, if they appear to be authentic, it may be permissible for Catholics to buy the listed relics in order to protect them from the danger of further harm or desecration.