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Commandments of God - Detraction and Calumny
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The immediate focus of the Eighth Commandment is falsehood that does injury to one's neighbor. Harm to another person's reputation, therefore, is the special prohibition of this divine mandate.
A person's reputation may be injured in various ways, notably by detraction and calumny or slander. Detraction is the unjust violation of the good reputation of another by revealing something true about him. Calumny or slander differs from detraction in that what is said or imputed about a person is not true.
A good reputation is the esteem that one person has formed and entertains about another. It may regard his moral qualities, such as honesty, chastity, or truthfulness; it may regard physical and mental qualities or attainments. In either case, reputation is the object of an acquired right, and consequently to take it away or lower it becomes an act of injustice. Not only the living but also the dead have a right to good esteem. During life we wish to remain in the grateful memory of mankind, and such an expectation can lead us to great exploits.
What needs to be stressed, however, is that a person's good name is something he cherishes even though we may not think he deserves it. No matter; it is his good name, not ours. We may, if we wish, forfeit our good name provided no harm is done to others. But another person's good reputation belongs to him, and we may not do it injury by revealing, without proportionately grave reason, what we know is true about him.
Detraction is consequently a sin against justice because it deprives a man or woman of what they ordinarily value more than riches. Socrates' statement that the way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear highlights the effort required to acquire a good name. All of this, more even than accumulated wealth, can be destroyed by a single criminal act of detraction.
The seriousness of the sin committed will mainly derive from the gravity of the fault or limitation disclosed. But it will also depend on the dignity of the person detracted and the harm done to him and others by revealing something that is hidden and whose disclosure lowers (if it does not ruin) his standing in the public eye.
Not unlike the restitution called for in stealing, detraction demands reparation as far as possible to the injured person's reputation. Often such reparation is next to impossible to make, either because of the number of people informed or the complexity of the situation. But this merely emphasizes the warning of Scripture to "Be careful of your reputation, for it will last you longer than a thousand hoards of gold. A good life lasts a certain number of days, but a good reputation lasts forever" (Si. 41:12-16).
The essence of detraction is the unwarranted disclosure of a hidden failing, which implies that there are occasions when the disclosure can and even should be made.
When the revelation of another person's fault is necessary or very useful, as in defense of self or of others, no injustice is done in revealing it. This would be the case when the failing or defect is made known to parents, or superiors, or for the purpose of seeking counsel or help, or to prevent harm to others, though again, there must be adequate proportion between the lessening of a person's reputation (which is not intended) and the good to be achieved by the disclosure (which is intended). This would cover such contingencies as anticipating unjust harm to oneself in the law courts, or even seeking consolation of a trusted friend by revealing the injustice done.
It is also not detraction to make known what has become juridically notorious, since the culprit has lost his right to esteem in the matter. It is conducive to public security that criminals should be known for what they are. However, since one's reputation may reflect upon a group like an organization or class of people, criminal acts of a single member of that group should not be widely disclosed so as not to jeopardize the reputation of all the persons with whom this one individual is commonly identified. Indiscriminate disclosure of this kind is the seedbed of class prejudice.
All that we said about detraction applies to calumny, with the added malice of falsehood. Moreover, since an untruth was told about another person, reparation is more urgent and mandatory. Somehow the slanderer must not only undo the harm done to his victim's reputation, but he must also correct the falsehood he spoke; it may be with considerable embarrassment to himself.
Excusing factors that might release either the detractor or the calumniator from the duty of repairing the injury inflicted would be, e.g., that the injury no longer exists, or reparation is physically or mortally impossible, or the person defamed excuses his detractor or calumniator at least by an implicit condonation, or (most commonly) reparation would cause the defamer a far greater injury than the one he inflicted.
Closely connected with detraction and calumny are rash judgments, where we entertain an unquestioning conviction about another person's bad conduct without adequate grounds for our judgment. This is not the same thing as seeing someone act in a certain way that is obviously wrong, and spontaneously saying to ourselves, "That is not right." We may be perfectly correct in our assessment of the action and, in fact, would be stultifying our intelligence if we thought otherwise. A sudden outburst of anger that we witness, or a gross failure in justice, or a glaring exhibition of vanity are objectively wrong, and we cannot reasonably deny the obvious.
Where the rash judgment begins is at the point where we go beyond the evidence available to judge the culpability of the action, attribute evil motives, and decide against the character or moral integrity of the person whose conduct we observed.
The sinfulness of rashly judging people, therefore, arises from two sources: the hasty imprudence with which a critical judgment is reached, and the loss of reputation that the person suffers in our estimation because we have judged him adversely.
Hasty imprudence in passing judgment on others is an innate tendency of fallen human nature. We are prone to generalize, without adequate premises, where others are concerned and draw sweeping conclusions about their weaknesses and limitations. It is just the opposite where we are concerned, where the tendency is to excuse and minimize, often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Christ's pointed contrast between these two tendencies brings out the difference:
Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, "Let me take the splinter out of your eye," when all the time there is a plank in your own? Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother's eye (Mt. 7:3-5).
Besides the hastiness to make sweeping conclusions about other people, rash judgments are sinful because everyone has a right to the good esteem of his fellow men. Even if what he has done is conclusive proof of culpability or of defective character, charity forbids our despising a person or, what comes to the same thing, thinking ourselves superior because we are not like him, as St. Paul told the early Christians:
True, my conscience does not reproach me at all, but that does not prove that I have been acquitted: the Lord alone is my judge. There must be no passing of premature judgment. Leave that until the Lord comes. He will light up all that is hidden in the dark and reveal the secret intentions of men's hearts. Then will be the time for each one to have whatever praise he deserves, from God (1 Co. 4:4-5).
In order to control this inveterate tendency to praise ourselves and blame others, it is necessary to leave both ourselves and others in God's hands and trust that, in the final judgment, the truth will then appear. Those who deserve to be rewarded will receive the merit they had earned; those who are to be punished will be visited by their just deserts. In the meantime, i.e., during our mortal stay on earth, all definitive judgments about people, whether ourselves or others, are premature. Only God at the end of time has the right to decide conclusively about the human heart.
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