Questions and Answers
Is it the sin of gossip if I talk to my wife about the people who have done some wrong to me?
Catholic moral doctrine teaches us that one of the most important things a person possesses is his reputation, as it is the basis on which we relate to one another in our social interactions.
St. Thomas lists (II-IIae, qq. 72-76) all the ways in we may harm our neighbor with our words, that is, how we may unjustly damage the reputation or honor of a person, who usually is not present, either by telling lies about him or by inappropriately sharing truths about him. Backbiting is to talk behind somebody’s back, injuring his good name. Calumny is to tell lies that harm somebody’s reputation. Detraction is to reveal certain truths about somebody, which, although true, are not to be shared and which in fact diminish or harm that person’s good name before others. Derision is to make fun of a person, in such a manner that it diminishes his honor and good standing in the eyes of others. Cursing is the spoken wish that some person may suffer some evil or harm.
All these sins of speech are gathered, in our common language, under the name of “gossip.”
The gravity of these sins is variable, according to the degree of harm caused by our words, to the circumstances in which such words are uttered (where, when, in whose presence, what kind of language, etc.), and, most importantly, according to the intention of the person who thus speaks.
Certainly, it is always forbidden to tell lies, and much more if those lies cause any harm to a person’s reputation. It is also forbidden to unnecessarily reveal truths about someone, truths that the person would prefer not to be widely known. Obviously, there may be times when it is necessary to share certain truths about others, in order to avoid the possible damage to a third party—but such disclosure must be made with discretion, that is, only to those who need to know, telling only what is certainly the truth and only the truth that needs to be revealed, not everything else about that person…
Nonetheless, there are times when we need to talk about the defects or the idiosyncrasies of people who are not present—for example, when we seek advice on how to deal with some person or with the consequences of what that person has done to us, or when we need encouragement in a difficult situation in which someone has landed us, or when we simply need to get something “of our chest” before it leads to resentment or other uncharitable acts…
In those cases, and keeping as much discretion as possible, we may speak to someone who we judge to be trustworthy and capable of providing help in the way of reasonable advice or sympathetic support. If I am married, there should be no one closer to me than my wife, no one more trustworthy and supportive in my time of need.
In such circumstances, my words about someone else—even if they are damaging to his reputation—are not gossip, as long as I relay what is certainly true, and do not seek to harm the other’s reputation, and find no joy in exposing his faults, and have no intention of what is said being spread to anyone else. But, still, we must be very careful with this kind of speech, as too easily we may fall into sin.
Are we obliged, always, in all circumstances, to tell the truth and nothing but the whole truth?
Moralists begin to give an answer to this question by first making a distinction between positive and negative precepts.
Negative precepts oblige always, in all circumstances, as they forbid the performance of intrinsically evil acts. For example, the Fifth Commandment indicates that there is simply no possible case in which we could be allowed to kill an innocent.
On the other hand, positive precepts oblige always, but not in every circumstance of our lives. They require the performance of good acts; they are always binding, but not always operative, due to a lack of capacity, or of suitable occasion, or of fitting circumstances… Their application is flexible, because some positive obligations often conflict with other positive obligations. Thus, the precept of loving our neighbor as ourselves indicates that—for example—we must give alms to those in need, but it does not demand from us to give away all our money, because we have the duty to support our own family…
Now, telling the truth is a positive precept and, as such, it does not oblige always. Most certainly, it is never permissible to lie. But that does not mean that we have to tell the truth, the whole truth, always, on every occasion, in every circumstance… We may choose to remain silent, because telling the truth may conflict with another positive obligation—for example, to keep a secret, to protect a reputation, to preserve the common good…
Therefore, sometimes it is licit to hide the truth. St. Thomas (II-IIae, q. 110, a. 3, ad 4um) teaches that although it is never licit to tell a lie, “sometimes it is licit to prudently hide the truth” – that is, sometimes the truth may be hidden for an honest end, to protect goods important for the welfare of soul or body.
But to hide the truth is forbidden if another precept (faith, charity, justice, etc.) demands telling it. In such cases, if the truth is hidden, two sins would be committed, one against truthfulness and the other against the other virtue affected. Thus, it is forbidden to hide the truth when we are urged by the precept of confessing the Faith; or when ex officio (on account of our office or function) there is an obligation to teach the truth to another (especially if we are paid for it); or when a judge who has the right to know the truth legitimately interrogates us; or when a religious superior interrogates his subjects about those things pertaining to their government; or when a confessor interrogates his penitent about things necessary to judge rightly the state of soul…
Conversely, outside these cases and with a sufficiently proportionate cause, it is permissible to hide the truth from the person who questions.
Was Pope Pius IX originally a liberal?
I have read some modern historians who say that Pius IX was a liberal, intent of great liberal reforms of the Papacy and the Church, and that only afterwards he was pressured and frightened into becoming a “reactionary” opposing any liberal concessions or any accommodation with the modern world. Is that true?
Any lie, however outlandish, if sufficiently repeated, will be believed and survive. Thus, by sheer force of repetition, a sharp division of Pius IX’s pontificate into two periods has become a dogma of historiography—first, a period of liberal openness to the modern world, up to 1848, and then, for the rest of the pontificate, a sudden and unexpected betrayal, “an authoritarian and reactionary involution.” In fact, there was only continuity. Pius IX was always himself, no separation whatever between his being and his action—he was pope, and even as a politician, he acted as pope.
Throughout the 19th century, the turn of events had made clear for the popes that the revolutionary movements in Europe and Italy were not simply the expressions of legitimate desires of independence and freedom, but were guided by a precise intent of de-Christianization.
Thus, in the two first years of his pontificate, Pius IX undertook most of those concrete reforms that, although termed “liberal,” were compatible with Catholic principles and his mission as pope, but he never wavered in the principles themselves, and his essential mission was never compromised.
In those first two years, he enjoyed a great popularity, but much of it was based in misunderstandings that had been carefully prepared and orchestrated by the revolutionaries’ manipulation of public opinion. The people had to be kept rejoicing for the first reforms, not so much for what they objectively were, but for being considered as the first steps towards greater liberal concessions—making the people believe that such greater concessions were possible, that the pope intended to yield to them, and was impeded only by the reactionaries in the College of Cardinals, in the Curia, in the government… The aim was not so much to make the pope yield to the demands of liberalization coming from all quarters—something that the true revolutionaries well knew that Pius IX will not do—but to provoke the disappointment of the people, after so many dreams and hopes, a disappointment that could be easily turned into revolution…
Pius IX’s political action had very precise limits, determined by Catholic principles, which he would not trespass to accommodate revolutionary demands. His position was clear, for all those who wanted to see, in his very first encyclical, Qui Pluribus, which already exposes the principles that he will develop years later in the “Syllabus.”
“As a result of the filthy medley of errors which creeps in from every side, and as the result of the unbridled license to think, speak and write, We see the following: morals deteriorated, Christ’s most holy religion despised, the majesty of divine worship rejected, the power of this Apostolic See plundered, the authority of the Church attacked and reduced to base slavery, the rights of bishops trampled on, the sanctity of marriage infringed, the rule of every government violently shaken and many other losses for both the Christian and civil commonwealth—We hope that political leaders will keep in mind that the kingly power has been conferred on them not only for ruling the world but especially for the protection of the Church. We hope that with their aid and authority they will support the objects, plans and pursuits which we have in common, and that they will also defend the liberty and safety of the Church, so that the right hand of God may also defend their rule.”
Thus, Pius IX was one of the less “political” or “liberal” popes that have ever existed, and one of the most deeply faithful to the spiritual mission of the Church. He judged everything from a religious point of view—distinguishing in every occasion the part of man, who in certain circumstances cannot act but in a certain way, determined by his duty and the oaths taken, and the part of God, Who can confound human expectations and make even the most holy desires to remain unfulfilled.