Sermons of the Curé of Ars: Sermons for all the Sundays and Feast Days of the Year
“And the sting of his tongue was; loosed; and he spoke right.” —Mark vii. 35.
SYNOPSIS.—Detraction a very common sin, although one of the most vicious and one of the most harmful. It brings the saddest consequences in its train. The different ways in which we may become guilty of detraction, and other sins often caused by it. Definition of detraction. Calumny. Exaggeration of faults. Making known the faults of others without good reason. Disparaging the good actions of others. Detraction by significant silence. Pretended pity. Tale bearing. How we should act when slandered or calumniated. How slanderers must accuse themselves in Confession.
It is greatly to be desired that it might be said of each of us what the Gospel says of this deaf mute, whom Christ healed, “He spoke right.” Alas, on the contrary, can we not be reproached for very frequently speaking wrong, when we speak of our neighbor? In fact, what is in that respect the behavior of the greater part of the Christians of today? They criticize, censure and generally denounce the actions of their neighbor: this is of all evil habits the most common, the most widespread, and perhaps the most vicious and the most harmful. It is a vice which we can never sufficiently detest; a vice, which brings in its train the saddest consequences, and spreads harm, and affliction everywhere. Ah, that God would give me the coal with which the angel cleansed the lips of the prophet Isaias, so that I might purify the tongues of all men. How much misery would be banished from the face of the earth, if we could exterminate backbiting, slander, and defamation of character! If, my dear brethren, I could inspire you with great horror of these great wrongs, you might be delivered from them forever- more, and I will therefore attempt to show you:
What detraction is; in what different ways we may become guilty of it, and what other sins are very often caused by it.
I will not attempt to show you the enormity and heinousness of this vice of detraction, which causes so much misery, and which is the origin of so many other sins, of so much hatred, even of murders, and lifelong enmities. This vice spares neither good nor bad; it is enough for me to tell you, that this vice is one of those that are responsible for most of the souls that go to hell. It is necessary to know the many various ways in which we may become guilty of this sin, so that knowing this evil, we may the more easily avoid it, and avoid the harm which it causes in the lives of others.
If you ask: What is detraction, I have to answer: It consists of making known a defect or fault of our neighbor unnecessarily, and in such way as to cause him injury, to his good name or otherwise. This may happen in various ways.
When we impute something bad to our neighbor which he has not committed, a defect which he does not possess, we commit calumny; a most detestable act, which unfortunately, and in spite of its great wrong, is very common. This is not detraction, it is more sinful, but from detraction to calumny is only a small step. If we are honest, we must admit that we invariably add something to, or magnify the bad which we know of our neighbor. A slanderous story that has passed from tongue to tongue, no longer resembles that which was said at first, it has been so much engrossed and aggravated; from which fact we must conclude that a detractor is almost invariably also a calumniator, and a calumniator is a very wicked person.
We exaggerate as a rule the bad that our neighbor does. When you notice any one commit a fault what do you do? Instead of covering it with the mantle of charity, or at least trying to excuse it, you like to exaggerate it.
St. Francis of Sales says: “Do not say this or that one is a drunkard, and a thief, because he once stole or was intoxicated; Noah and Loth were intoxicated once, and yet neither the one nor the other were drunkards.” St. Peter was not a blasphemer because he blasphemed once. A person is not vicious, because he once fell into sin, even not if this happened several times; therefore, we run danger of being guilty of detraction if we accuse them.
When Simon saw Magdalen weeping at our Saviour’s feet, he said: “This man, if he were a prophet, would know surely that this woman at his feet is a sinner.” He was greatly mistaken: Magdalen was no longer a sinner, but a holy penitent, because all her sins had been forgiven her.
Consider the proud Pharisee, who in the Temple praised his own good works, and thanked God that he was not like others, adulterers, extortioners, and thieves, or like the publican. He denounced the publican as a sinner, when at that very moment this publican was justified.
“My dear children,” exclaimed St. Francis de Sales, “since God’s mercy is so great that one moment suffices for Him to pardon the greatest crimes, how dare we say, that a man who yesterday was a great sinner, is the same today!” We invariably deceive ourselves if we think badly of our neighbor, no matter what reasons we have for our opinion. We are also guilty of detraction when without sufficient reason we disclose secret faults or bad actions of our neighbor.
There are persons who think that if they know anything bad about their neighbor, they may tell it to others, and make it a subject of conversation. This is a grave error. Our faith enjoins upon us nothing so much as love of our neighbor. Reason itself tells us that we should not do to others, what we do not wish done to ourselves.
Let us look at this subject more closely: Would we like it if someone saw us commit a fault, and then went and made it known to everybody? Certainly not; on the contrary, were he charitable enough to hide it, we should feel very grateful to him. Consider how annoyed you feel when anyone says anything derogatory of you or your family. Justice and charity are opposed to this carrying of tales. As long as our neighbor’s faults are concealed he preserves his good name; but as soon as you make them known his reputation is injured and you thereby cause him a greater injustice than if you robbed him of his belongings, for the Holy Ghost tells us that a good name is above riches.
We commit the sin of detraction when we put a disparaging interpretation on our neighbor’s good actions. Such persons impute motives to you, which you never had; they slight all your doings and sayings: If you are pious and perform your religious duties faithfully, you are in their eyes, a hypocrite. They say sneeringly, that you are a saint in church, but a devil at home. If you do good works, they claim that you do them from pride, to show yourself. If you avoid association with evil doers, they call you an idiot. If you look carefully after your affairs, they say you are miserly. Yes, dear brethren, we may say with truth, that the tongue of the detractor is like a worm which gnaws all good fruits: that is to say, the best actions of man, and seeks to make them look bad.
We may commit the sin of detraction even by significant silence; when someone is praised in your presence, you remain silent; the expression of your face, your scornful, significant smile causes suspicions of the one who is being praised. Others clothe their evil work in the dress of pretended pity. “You know So-and-so,” they will say. “Have you heard what happened to him? Ah, it is too bad that he was so careless! You would hardly have believed that he would do such things!” St. Francis says that such detraction is like a poisoned arrow that is dipped into oil, so that it may penetrate deeper. But the most atrocious detraction and the most lamentable in its consequences is that, when we carry back to others what has been said of them. Such informants produce the most frightful evils, arouse hatred, even bloodshed.
To understand how culpable such persons are, the Holy Ghost says: “God hates six things; but the seventh he abhors, and that is ‘tale-bearing.’”
Here we have briefly the various ways in which we can commit the sin of detraction. Examine your heart and see whether you have not been guilty in one of these ways.
We must not be anxious to believe all the bad that we hear about others; even if appearances are against the accused, we should not readily believe. Remember that St. Francis de Sales was once accused of having killed a man, so that he might live with his wife. The Saint left it all in God’s hands, and had no fear for his good name. To those who advised him to defend himself, he made answer that he would leave the task of making reparation to the care of the one of whose permission his good name had been smirched.
That calumny is one of the greatest afflictions for man is proved by the fact that God permitted the Saints, to whom He sent the greatest trials, to be calumniated. If detraction or calumny is our share, the best thing that we can do, is to keep silent, beseech God that we may bear it for love of Him, and pray for our calumniators. Console yourselves with the thought that God permits it to befall those whom He regards with a merciful eye. When anyone is calumniated, God has decided to lead that one to a high state of perfection. We ought to commiserate those who slander us; but tor ourselves personally we should rejoice; for these are trials which will count for us in heaven.
Let us return to our subject, because our chief object is to learn how the detractor injures himself. Detraction may easily become a mortal sin, and certainly is a mortal sin in important matters, where grave results are the consequence. St. Paul numbers it amongst those sins which close heaven against us. The Holy Ghost says that the detractor is cursed by God, that he is an abomination before God and men.
Detraction is great or small according to circumstances, or to the dignity of the person spoken of. It is a greater sin to make known the defects and faults of our superiors, our parents, of husband or wife, brothers, sisters, or relations, than those of strangers, because we should have more charity for our friends than for others. To speak badly of persons consecrated to God, of the servants of the church, is a much greater sin on account of the lamentable results to religion and of the detriment to their position. The Holy Ghost speaking by the mouth of the prophet says: “To abuse and revile His (the Holy Ghost's) servants is to touch the apple of His eye”; that means nothing can offend Him more. This sin consequently is a crime, the enormity of which surpasses all comprehension. Christ also said: “Whosoever despises you, despises me.”
After all this, dear brethren, you will readily admit, that for a good Confession it is not sufficient to say that you have slandered your neighbor; you must also say whether it happened from levity, hatred or revenge, or whether we sought to injure our neighbor’s reputation. We must mention of what persons we spoke; whether it was about superiors, parents, or persons consecrated to God, and whether we spoke this to one or many persons: all this is required for a good Confession.
Some people, when asked whether their detraction injured their neighbor, answer no. You are in error, my friends! Every time that you reveal an unknown fault of your neighbor’s, you injure him; for in every case you lessen the respect which those who are listening to you, had for him. Hence we may conclude that we can hardly ever say anything bad of our neighbor without in one way or another injuring his good name.
But, you will say, when it is already known, then there is no more harm. My friends, if the whole body of some unfortunate person was covered with leprosy, except a small part, and if you said: Because nearly the whole body is covered with leprosy this place ought to be covered too, would this be charitable and just? You must, on the contrary, have compassion upon the unfortunate person, conceal and excuse his faults as much as possible.
Consider, whether it would be right, if, seeing a sick man on the brink of an abyss, we would take advantage of his feebleness and of his perilous position to push him down? Now we do the same thing when we dwelt upon the know defects of others. But you will say, may we not tell them to a friend under the seal of secrecy? There again you are in error, for why should you expect others to keep a secret when you cannot yourself do so? It is like saying to a person: “My friend, I want to tell you something, but be wiser and more reliable than I; do not break the secret which I am about to break.” The best thing is to be silent in matters that do not concern us, no matter what is said or done do not meddle with anything, except to work for your own salvation. The Holy Ghost says: “Those who speak too much do not always speak well.”
I hope to God, that my words have made a lasting impression upon your minds and hearts, and that you have realized the great wrong of evil speaking. I may safely say that a majority of us have suffered one way or the other by detraction, slander or calumny, and the bitter woe and heartache caused by these sins are perhaps not unknown to you. Be careful then, not to do to others that which you do not wish done to you. Sometimes, when desiring to pay a high tribute to the good qualities of a friend, we say: “He never speaks ill of others.” This proves that we are conscious of the wickedness of evil speaking. Let us then try and earn this high tribute for ourselves, and let us show to our neighbor the mercy which on our last day we shall expect of God. Amen.