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The Devil’s Weapon

“The tongue no man can tame, an unquiet evil, full of deadly poison. By it we bless God the Father: and by it we curse men, who are made after the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.” ... James 3:8-10

Backbiting (malicious gossip) is “denigration of a neighbor's reputation by means of secret words” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. This sin of the tongue is eminently destructive for it robs a man of what is most precious to him: his reputation.

This sin can be carried out in eight specific ways:

  1. Because of vanity he imputes things against his neighbor that never happened or adds to the truth imaginary circumstances that are either a lie or a detraction.

  2. When he makes known a hidden or unknown fault. He is telling the truth but he should not be saying things to hurt his neighbor's reputation.

  3. By exaggerating a crime. This is most common when we talk about the vices of others.

  4. Relating something that in itself is not evil but suggesting it was done for evil purposes.

  5. By praising someone with coldness or reticence.

  6. By shaking your head or rolling your eyes so as to have it understood that the person being praised does not deserve it.

  7. Especially when being questioned by a neighbor, by your silence, implying your neighbor is blameworthy, when in fact, he is not guilty and you know it.

  8. By denying guilt when publicly accused, thereby making the accuser seem like a liar. You should justify your actions in some other way.

Watch out for the person who begins speaking of another with praise, then changes to criticism and finally ends with pity. Backbiting inflicts great harm and is very hard to heal.

Backbiters harm themselves, for the stone he casts will almost always fall back upon himself; he harms his listener by pouring deadly poison in his ears; he harms the reputation of the person he is speaking about.

No One's True Friend

We have an instinctive propensity for criticizing other people's behavior. Everything that seems blameworthy in our sight turns into vice at once. This rashness of judgment is often accompanied by envy. The envious person tries to calm his bad temper by disparaging others.

By telling listeners “don't reveal what I say,” you are no less guilty. Why do you ask him to keep silence? You should have kept silence first. You have not remained silent, and you would shut other people's mouths.

Backbiting should be avoided like the plague. How painful to have to retract what you said and undergo the shame of such a restoration. It is easy to return clothing, money, or personal property unjustly acquired; but restoring a reputation, what a burden. If you try to praise someone you have previously denigrated, you are wasting your time. What you said has taken root too strongly, and too many people know about it.

The backbiter considers it a pleasure when he finds something to criticize in others. He is filled with joy when he can invent and relate things that do not even exist.

As St. Augustine says, “since you get angry with others when they speak evil against you, get angry with yourself when you speak evil against someone else.”

“Oftentimes those who reveal the crimes of others are more sinful than those who commit them,” says Guillaume Perald.

When Theocritus was asked what is the most ferocious animal of all, he answered, “In the mountains and forests, I think it is lions and bears. In the cities and towns, it is money-lenders and backbiters.” The backbiter often delivers great blows while making little noise. The wounds he leaves are scarcely visible, but he inflicts mortal damage to the reputation of others. Beware of him! Run from him! The backbiter is deadlier than a snake in the grass, and there is practically no remedy for his venom. “A person who backbites performs the devil's work. Backbiting is an unruly demon,” says St. John Chrysostom.

Killing someone with the pen is no less a homicide than killing him with the sword.

Duty of the Hearer

Take heed not to lend an ear and listen to backbiters willingly. On the contrary, let them see that you do not care for this sort of conversation. If you lend a favorable ear to a gossiper and spur him on to speak, you incite him to proceed with still greater freedom, boldness and excess. “Where there are no listeners, there are no backbiters,” observes St. Jerome.

If you cannot interrupt the backbiters' conversation, at least try to temper it. Presume the good intentions of those who are absent by saying “we never really know all the extenuating circumstances. Rumor always blows things out of proportion.” A sincere friend not only avoids backbiting, but also does everything he can to bring it to a halt.

— Taken from Sins of the Tongue by Father Bélet