Can You BELIEVE She Did That!?

As Martina wrote in her post about rash judgment from a few weeks ago, often when we think about the 8th Commandment, we assume it means:

 thou shalt not lie

{read with ominous voice}

However, as she pointed out, detraction is a sin that also falls under the 8th Commandment, and it doesn’t involve lying at all. The opposite, in fact: detraction is the the vice in which we disclose, without good reason, another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them. (CCC 2477) Basically, detraction is gossip.

The problem with detraction (besides the fact that it is sinful) is that IT’S TRUE; therefore, it’s easily justifiable in our minds. While we can still get that little guilty twinge of “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, it’s really not very nice…”, we can convince ourselves that it’s okay because “I’m not lying!” But simply “not lying” isn’t good enough – we must not tell a truth that is damaging to another’s reputation. Everyone is entitled to their good name, and to be given the benefit of the doubt. This is a basic principle of common decency. Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Socrates said, “Regard your good name as the riches jewel you can possibly be possessed of.” Regardless of how TRUE the tidbit of information we are about to share is, if it injures another person’s reputation, it is detraction.

Courtesy of

It’s also important to not spin something neutral into something bad. For instance, if we are having a conversation about how to handle potty training with a friend,* we might feel compelled to mention that ANOTHER friend, Sarah, is also having difficulties with potty training, and how we were JUST talking about this same thing this morning! In fact, her son had already had 2 accidents today. While mentioning this is not bad in itself, SO OFTEN conversations like this can turn into: “Well, he has some discipline problems on top of that. It doesn’t seem like Sarah knows how to handle him. Actually, at church the other day, you should have seen what he was doing! And Sarah didn’t even blink an eye.”… and then the conversation turns into a 10 minute commentary on Sarah’s poor parenting skills.

The internet can be a huge stumbling block for those who struggle with gossip. Before, the avenues for gossip were limited to phone conversations and face-to-face contact with people. Now all we have to do is to turn on our computer, and we have the ability to have contact with millions of other people, most of whom we don’t even know. We could go to the effort to write a blog post about another person that’s annoying us, or we could make it even simpler. All it takes is one Facebook or Twitter update to broadcast to the world the faults of others. Some people are more subtle in their approach: “People who can’t afford necessities shouldn’t be buying luxuries!”, while others are more blunt: “OMGosh, my sister-in-law complains ALL the time about how she can barely put food on the table, and yet she smokes a pack a day and took her kids to the movies last night! $9 a ticket! And they got popcorn! And drinks! That probably cost her $80! How totally irresponsible – I’m so furious! I don’t know how I’ll even be able to have a pleasant conversation with her at Thanksgiving dinner.” Yeah, some people actually do this kind of thing! Not only is this detraction, it is also just completely unclassy. And the unclassy meter maxes out if your sister-in-law is actually on your friend list. (Not that being classy makes something less sinful – often it’s quite the contrary. Gossip is often disguised as something fashionable, and those who refuse to participate may be considered “socially awkward” or “self-righteous.”)

Courtesy of

In fact, most of what counts as “celebrity news” today is really just detraction. Sure, some stories are positive, but the majority of them are negative, broadcasting to the world things that should be kept private, or putting a negative spin on positive news. (And while many people justify it: “These people are in the public eye, so they should expect to be talked about!” Yes, but that doesn’t make it right, and that doesn’t mean we have to participate in it.)

Sins against the 8th Commandment, including detraction, are not only sins against charity (as are all sins), but also sins against justice. Sins against justice require restitution – that is, those who have sinned against justice must repair the harm done to their neighbor, as much as he is able. But making restitution for the sin of detraction is quite difficult – we can’t exactly undo the ideas we’ve planted into others’ heads.

In instructions he gave to a penitent, St. Philip Neri illustrated how difficult it is to undo gossip. The woman confessed that she had been gossiping, and St. Philip told her to climb to the top of the church bell tower, rip open a feather pillow and let the feathers fly into the wind. The woman performed the task and returned, where she was told that the second part of her penance was to go to town and collect each of the feathers that she had scattered. She attempted, but it was, of course, an impossible task – they had blown every which way, and she would never be able to collect them all. So it is with gossip – once the words have left our lips, there is no way to get them all back.

How can we make restitution for this sin, then? We cannot go back and deny the statements we previously made, if they are true, since we would be guilty of lying (and lying, even to make someone else look good, is still wrong.) However, we CAN apologize for the statements we made, and we can praise the person whom we have detracted. Because we have lowered their esteem in the eyes of another, we must seek to restore their reputation. If we have detracted in a group setting, or we know that our gossip has spread beyond the first friend, we must try to restore the reputation publicly, so that all who heard the gossip will also hear the praise.

Of course, the best offense is a good defense. We can avoid situations where we know there will be widespread gossip, if at all possible. If we find ourselves in a situation where others are gossiping, we must not participate in the sin ourselves. Rather, we can attempt to change the conversation, or to say something good about the person to direct the conversation in a different direction. We can also show displeasure over what is being said. Gossip thrives on an attentive listener. If we act bored with what is being said, or appear saddened by what we hear (rather than enthralled with the juicy details), the detractor may realize that we are not the appropriate audience. If all else fails, we should leave the conversation. If we struggle with gossip on the internet, shut it off.

A good rule of thumb is: “Would I say this if the person I’m speaking about were standing in front of me?” Or, as Christ says in Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” If the words about to escape our lips are words that we would not appreciate being said about us, zip it. It isn’t very hard to tell if you’re slipping from innocent conversation into detraction – if you can insert the words “Can you BELIEVE he/she did/said that!?” into the conversation rather seamlessly, then it is likely detraction.

Many have fallen by the mouth of the sword, but not as many as have perished by their own tongue. ~ Sirach 28:22 

In addition to the sinfulness of detraction, relationships are destroyed and feelings are hurt by gossip. We attack those whom we should be assisting along their path towards holiness. St. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.” Let us banish gossip from our hearts and our tongues. Instead of sowing seeds of contention through gossip, let us sow seeds of peace through charity in our words, for Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”


Note: There ARE times where it is permitted to reveal the faults of others; however, they are few and far between. I refer you to Fr. John Hardon’s writings on detraction.


* I apologize to those who are not mothers of toddlers for the potty training reference. Feel free to mentally insert a different example, such as an incident with a coworker.
** All examples in this post are hypothetical, especially the sister-in-law part. No sins of detraction were committed while writing.


This is the second part in a series of posts on the 8th Commandment. Part One can be found here.

Find us on the Gram, Pinterest, & Facebook!