For a very long time I have been pondering a post on this subject. I’ll never get this into the form I dream of, but I am comforted by Chesterton’s assertion in his book, What’s Wrong with the World: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
I wince continually at my failings in these matters and I am ashamed that in the defense of my positions on liturgical issues I injure the Body of Christ. I know that others feel as I do, and I hope that they and others may draw courage and resolution from this tour of the following section of the Summa.
So here it is (accessed from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3072.htm and 3073.htm and 3074.htm, respectfully), with my few contributions in italics.
The Sins against Justice in Everyday Speech
In Questions 72, 73, and 74 of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas sums up centuries of Jewish, Christian, and pagan thought on the spoken and written justice. He discusses defamation, detraction, gossip, and derision.
Defamation Defined In Question 72 Thomas deals with reviling. Reviling (defamation, slander) denotes the dishonoring of a person when a man publishes something against another’s honor, thus bringing it to the knowledge of the latter and of other men. . . . Reviling, properly speaking, consists in words; . . . reviling in a wider sense extends also to deeds.
Our words . . . may do many kinds of harm. Such is the harm done to a man to the detriment of his honor, or of the respect due to him from others. Hence the reviling is greater if one man reproach another in the presence of many: and yet there may still be reviling if he reproach him by himself, in so far as the speaker acts unjustly against the respect due to the hearer. One man slights another by deeds in so far as such deeds cause or signify that which is against that other man’s honor. . . .
The Seriousness of Defamation Words are injurious to other persons, not as sounds, but as signs, and this signification depends on the speaker’s inward intention. Hence, in sins of word, it seems that we ought to consider with what intention the words are uttered. Since then railing or reviling essentially denotes a dishonoring, if the intention of the utterer is to dishonor the other man, this is properly and essentially to give utterance to railing or reviling: and this is a mortal sin no less than theft or robbery, since a man loves his honor no less than his possessions. If, on the other hand, a man says to another a railing or reviling word, yet with the intention, not of dishonoring him, but rather perhaps of correcting him or with some like purpose, he utters a railing or reviling not formally and essentially, but accidentally and materially, in so far to wit as he says that which might be a railing or reviling. Hence this may be sometimes a venial sin, and sometimes without any sin at all. Nevertheless there is need of discretion in such matters, and one should use such words with moderation, because the railing might be so grave that being uttered inconsiderately it might dishonor the person against whom it is uttered. In such a case a man might commit a mortal sin, even though he did not intend to dishonor the other man: just as were a man incautiously to injure grievously another by striking him in fun, he would not be without blame.
It belongs to wittiness to utter some slight mockery, not with intent to dishonor or pain the person who is the object of the mockery, but rather with intent to please and amuse: and this may be without sin, if the due circumstances be observed. On the other hand if a man does not shrink from inflicting pain on the object of his witty mockery, so long as he makes others laugh, this is sinful.
. . . [F]or the purpose of correction [one may] say a mocking word to a person whom one has to correct [that is, in the interest of discipline]. It is thus that our Lord called the disciples “foolish,” and the Apostle called the Galatians “senseless.” Yet, as Augustine says, “seldom and only when it is very necessary should we have recourse to invectives, and then so as to urge God’s service, not our own.”
Since the sin of railing or reviling depends on the intention of the utterer, it may happen to be a venial sin, if it be a slight railing that does not inflict much dishonor on a man, and be uttered through lightness of heart or some slight anger, without the fixed purpose of dishonoring him, for instance when one intends by such a word to give but little pain.
Responding to Defamation Just as we need patience in things done against us, so do we need it in those said against us. . . . For we are bound to hold our minds prepared to submit to be reviled, if it should be expedient. Nevertheless it sometimes behooves us to withstand against being reviled, and this chiefly for two reasons. First, for the good of the reviler; namely, that his daring may be checked, and that he may not repeat the attempt, . . . Secondly, for the good of many who would be prevented from progressing in virtue on account of our being reviled. Hence Gregory says, “Those who are so placed that their life should be an example to others, ought, if possible, to silence their detractors, lest their preaching be not heard by those who could have heard it, and they continue their evil conduct through contempt of a good life.”
The daring of the railing reviler should be checked with moderation, i.e. as a duty of charity, and not through lust for one’s own honor. Hence it is written (Proverbs 26:4): “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like him.”
When one man prevents another from being reviled there is not the danger of lust for one’s own honor as there is when a man defends himself from being reviled: indeed rather would it seem to proceed from a sense of charity.
It would be an act of revenge to keep silence with the intention of provoking the reviler to anger, but it would be praiseworthy to be silent, in order to give place to anger. Hence it is written (Ecclus. 8:4): “Strive not with a man that is full of tongue, and heap not wood upon his fire.”
The Origins of Defamation Reviling is closely connected with anger’s end, which is revenge: since the easiest way for the angry man to take revenge on another is to revile him. Therefore reviling arises chiefly from anger. . . . Pride disposes a man to revile, in so far as those who think themselves to excel, are more prone to despise others and inflict injuries on them, because they are more easily angered, through deeming it an affront to themselves whenever anything is done against their will. According to Aristotle, “anger listens imperfectly to reason”: wherefore an angry man suffers a defect of reason, and in this he is like the foolish man. Hence reviling arises from folly on account of the latter’s kinship with anger. According to Aristotle, “an angry man seeks an open offense, but he who hates does not worry about this.” Hence reviling which denotes a manifest injury belongs to anger rather than to hatred.
Backbiting Defined In Question 73 Thomas deals with backbiting (detraction). Just as one man injures another by deed in two ways – openly, as by robbery or by doing him any kind of violence – and secretly, as by theft, or by a crafty blow, so again one man injures another by words in two ways – in one way, openly, and this is done by reviling him, as stated above – and in another way secretly, and this is done by backbiting. . . . [The backbiter] injures directly, not [another's] honor but his good name, in so far as by uttering such words secretly, he, for his own part, causes his hearers to have a bad opinion of the person against whom he speaks. For the backbiter apparently intends and aims at being believed. It is therefore evident that backbiting differs from reviling in two points: first, in the way in which the words are uttered, the reviler speaking openly against someone, and the backbiter secretly; secondly, as to the end in view, i.e. as regards the injury inflicted, the reviler injuring a man’s honor, the backbiter injuring his good name.
. . . The words of a backbiter are said to be secret, not altogether, but in relation to the person of whom they are said, because they are uttered in his absence and without his knowledge. On the other hand, the reviler speaks against a man to his face. Wherefore if a man speaks ill of another in the presence of several, it is a case of backbiting if he be absent, but of reviling if he alone be present: although if a man speak ill of an absent person to one man alone, he destroys his good name not altogether but partly.
A man is said to backbite another, not because he detracts from the truth, but because he lessens his good name. This is done sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Directly, in four ways: first, by saying that which is false about him; secondly, by stating his sin to be greater than it is; thirdly, by revealing something unknown about him; fourthly, by ascribing his good deeds to a bad intention. Indirectly, this is done either by gainsaying his good, or by maliciously concealing it, or by diminishing it.
The Seriousness of Detraction . . . [I]t is a very grave matter to blacken a man’s good name, because of all temporal things a man’s good name seems the most precious, since for lack of it he is hindered from doing many things well. . . . Therefore backbiting, properly speaking, is a mortal sin. Nevertheless it happens sometimes that a man utters words, whereby someone’s good name is tarnished, and yet he does not intend this, but something else. This is not backbiting strictly and formally speaking, but only materially and accidentally as it were. And if such defamatory words be uttered for the sake of some necessary good, and with attention to the due circumstances, it is not a sin and cannot be called backbiting. But if they be uttered out of lightness of heart or for some unnecessary motive, it is not a mortal sin, unless perchance the spoken word be of such a grave nature, as to cause a notable injury to a man’s good name, especially in matters pertaining to his moral character, because from the very nature of the words this would be a mortal sin. And one is bound to restore a man his good name, no less than any other thing one has taken from him . . .
Detraction Compared to Other Sins against One’s Neighbor . . . The essential gravity of sins committed against one’s neighbor must be weighed by the injury they inflict on him, since it is thence that they derive their sinful nature. Now the greater the good taken away, the greater the injury. And while man’s good is threefold, namely the good of his soul, the good of his body, and the good of external things; the good of the soul, which is the greatest of all, cannot be taken from him by another save as an occasional cause, for instance by an evil persuasion, which does not induce necessity. On the other hand the two latter goods, viz. of the body and of external things, can be taken away by violence. Since, however, the goods of the body excel the goods of external things, those sins which injure a man’s body are more grievous than those which injure his external things. Consequently, among other sins committed against one’s neighbor, murder is the most grievous, since it deprives man of the life which he already possesses: after this comes adultery, which is contrary to the right order of human generation, whereby man enters upon life. In the last place come external goods, among which a man’s good name takes precedence of wealth because it is more akin to spiritual goods, . . . Therefore backbiting according to its genus is a more grievous sin than theft, but is less grievous than murder or adultery. Nevertheless the order may differ by reason of aggravating or extenuating circumstances.
The accidental gravity of a sin is to be considered in relation to the sinner, who sins more grievously, if he sins deliberately than if he sins through weakness or carelessness. In this respect sins of word have a certain levity, in so far as they are apt to occur through a slip of the tongue, and without much forethought.
Reviling is a more grievous sin than backbiting, in as much as it implies greater contempt of one’s neighbor: even as robbery is a graver sin than theft. Yet reviling is not a more grievous sin than adultery. For the gravity of adultery is measured, not from its being a union of bodies, but from being a disorder in human generation. Moreover the reviler is not the sufficient cause of unfriendliness in another man, but is only the occasional cause of division among those who were united, in so far, to wit, as by declaring the evils of another, he for his own part severs that man from the friendship of other men, though they are not forced by his words to do so. Accordingly a backbiter is a murderer “occasionally,” since by his words he gives another man an occasion for hating or despising his neighbor. For this reason it is stated in the Epistle of Clement, that “backbiters are murderers,” i.e. occasionally; because “he that hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).
Anger seeks openly to be avenged; wherefore backbiting which takes place in secret, is not the daughter of anger, as reviling is, but rather of envy, which strives by any means to lessen one’s neighbor’s glory. Nor does it follow from this that backbiting is more grievous than reviling: since a lesser vice can give rise to a greater sin, just as anger gives birth to murder and blasphemy. For the origin of a sin depends on its inclination to an end, i.e. on the thing to which the sin turns, whereas the gravity of a sin depends on what it turns away from.
. . . [A] backbiter more and more loves and believes what he says, and consequently more and more hates his neighbor, and thus his knowledge of the truth becomes less and less. This effect however may also result from other sins pertaining to hate of one’s neighbor.
Countenancing Detraction According to the Apostle (Romans 1:32), they “are worthy of death . . . not only they that” commit sins, “but they also that consent to them that do them.” Now this happens in two ways. First, directly, when, to wit, one man induces another to sin, or when the sin is pleasing to him: secondly, indirectly, that is, if he does not withstand him when he might do so, and this happens sometimes, not because the sin is pleasing to him, but on account of some human fear. Accordingly we must say that if a man listens to backbiting without resisting it, he seems to consent to the backbiter, so that he becomes a participator in his sin. And if he induces him to backbite, or at least if the detraction be pleasing to him on account of his hatred of the person detracted, he sins no less than the detractor, and sometimes more. Wherefore Bernard says: “It is difficult to say which is the more to be condemned the backbiter or he that listens to backbiting.” If however the sin is not pleasing to him, and he fails to withstand the backbiter, through fear, negligence, or even shame, he sins indeed, but much less than the backbiter, and, as a rule venially. Sometimes too this may be a mortal sin, either because it is his official duty to correct the backbiter, or by reason of some consequent danger; or on account of the radical reason for which human fear may sometimes be a mortal sin.
No man hears himself backbitten, because when a man is spoken evil of in his hearing, it is not backbiting, properly speaking, but reviling. Yet it is possible for the detractions uttered against a person to come to his knowledge through others telling him, and then it is left to his discretion whether he will suffer their detriment to his good name, unless this endanger the good of others. Wherefore his patience may deserve commendation for as much as he suffers patiently being detracted himself. But it is not left to his discretion to permit an injury to be done to another’s good name, hence he is accounted guilty if he fails to resist when he can . . . .
One ought not always to withstand a backbiter by endeavoring to convince him of falsehood, especially if one knows that he is speaking the truth: rather ought one to reprove him with words, for that he sins in backbiting his brother, or at least by our pained demeanor show him that we are displeased with his backbiting . . .
The profit one derives from being backbitten is due, not to the intention of the backbiter, but to the ordinance of God Who produces good out of every evil. Hence we should none the less withstand backbiters, just as those who rob or oppress others, even though the oppressed and the robbed may gain merit by patience.
Tale-bearing Distinguished from Backbiting The tale-bearer and the backbiter agree in matter, and also in form or mode of speaking, since they both speak evil secretly of their neighbor: and for this reason these terms are sometimes used one for the other. They differ however in end, because the backbiter intends to blacken his neighbor’s good name, wherefore he brings forward those evils especially about his neighbor which are likely to defame him, or at least to depreciate his good name: whereas a tale-bearer intends to sever friendship . . . Hence it is that a tale-bearer speaks such ill about his neighbors as may stir his hearer’s mind against them . . .
A tale-bearer is called a backbiter in so far as he speaks ill of another; yet he differs from a backbiter since he intends not to speak ill as such, but to say anything that may stir one man against another . . . An informer differs from a tale-bearer and a backbiter, for an informer is one who charges others publicly with crimes, either by accusing or by railing them, which does not apply to a backbiter or tale-bearer. A double-tongued person is properly speaking a tale-bearer. For since friendship is between two, the tale-bearer strives to sever friendship on both sides. Hence he employs a double tongue towards two persons, by speaking ill of one to the other . . .
The Seriousness of Tale-bearing . . . [S]ins against one’s neighbor are the more grievous, according as they inflict a greater injury on him: and an injury is so much the greater, according to the greatness of the good which it takes away. Now of all one’s external goods a friend takes the first place, since “no man can live without friends,” as Aristotle declares.. Hence it is written (Ecclus. 6:15): “Nothing can be compared to a faithful friend.” Again, a man’s good name whereof backbiting deprives him, is most necessary to him that he may be fitted for friendship. Therefore tale-bearing is a greater sin than backbiting or even reviling, because a friend is better than honor, and to be loved is better than to be honored, according to Aristotle.
The species [nature] and gravity of a sin depend on the end rather than on the material object, wherefore, by reason of its end, tale-bearing is worse than backbiting, although sometimes the backbiter says worse things.
A good name is a disposition for friendship, and a bad name is a disposition for enmity. But a disposition falls short of the thing for which it disposes. Hence to do anything that leads to a disposition for enmity is a less grievous sin than to do what conduces directly to enmity.
He that backbites his brother, seems to detract the law, in so far as he despises the precept of love for one’s neighbor: while he that strives to sever friendship seems to act more directly against this precept. Hence the latter sin is more specially against God, because “God is charity” (1 John 4:16), and for this reason it is written (Proverbs 6:16): “Six things there are, which the Lord hateth, and the seventh His soul detesteth,” and the seventh is “he (Proverbs 6:19) that soweth discord among brethren.”
The Specific Kind of Sin Derision Is . . . [S]ins of word should be weighed chiefly by the intention of the speaker, wherefore these sins are differentiated according to the various intentions of those who speak against another. Now just as the railer intends to injure the honor of the person he rails, the backbiter to depreciate a good name, and the tale-bearer to destroy friendship, so too the derider intends to shame the person he derides. And since this end is distinct from the others, it follows that the sin of derision is distinct from the foregoing sins.
Laughing to scorn and derision agree as to the end but differ in mode, because derision is done with the “mouth,” i.e. by words and laughter, while laughing to scorn is done by wrinkling the nose . . . . Yet they both differ from reviling, as being shamed differs from being dishonored: for to be ashamed is “to fear dishonor,” as Damascene states.
For doing a virtuous deed a man deserves both respect and a good name in the eyes of others, and in his own eyes the glory of a good conscience . . . Hence, on the other hand, for doing a reprehensible, i.e. a vicious action, a man forfeits his honor and good name in the eyes of others -and for this purpose the reviler and the backbiter speak of another person – while in his own eyes, he loses the glory of his conscience through being confused and ashamed at reprehensible deeds being imputed to him-and for this purpose the derider speaks ill of him. It is accordingly evident that derision agrees with the foregoing vices as to the matter but differs as to the end.
A secure and calm conscience is a great good, according to Proverbs 15:15, “A secure mind is like a continual feast.” Wherefore he that disturbs another’s conscience by confounding him inflicts a special injury on him: hence derision is a special kind of sin.
The Seriousness of Derision The object of derision is always some evil or defect. Now when an evil is great, it is taken, not in jest, but seriously: consequently if it is taken in jest or turned to ridicule (whence the terms ‘derision’ and ‘jesting’), this is because it is considered to be slight. Now an evil may be considered to be slight in two ways: first, in itself, secondly, in relation to the person. When anyone makes game or fun of another’s evil or defect, because it is a slight evil in itself, this is a venial sin by reason of its genus. On the other hand this defect may be considered as a slight evil in relation to the person, just as we are wont to think little of the defects of children and imbeciles: and then to make game or fun of a person, is to scorn him altogether, and to think him so despicable that his misfortune troubles us not one whit, but is held as an object of derision. In this way derision is a mortal sin, and more grievous than reviling, which is also done openly: because the reviler would seem to take another’s evil seriously; whereas the derider does so in fun, and so would seem the more to despise and dishonor the other man. Wherefore, in this sense, derision is a grievous sin, and all the more grievous according as a greater respect is due to the person derided. . . Such like derision does very much harm: because it turns men away from good deeds . . .
Jesting implies nothing contrary to charity in relation to the person with whom one jests, but it may imply something against charity in relation to the person who is the object of the jest, on account of contempt, as stated above.
Derision considered in itself is less grievous than backbiting or reviling, because it does not imply contempt, but jest. Sometimes however it includes greater contempt than reviling does, as stated above, and then it is a grave sin.