Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
August 2, 2013
The reform of the Church that Pope Francis was elected to lead involves many elements, some of which pertain exclusively to the Roman Curia, others to the Church as a whole. The Holy Father’s reform program has regularly been going deeper and broader than the superficial changes that many were expecting.
One of the urgent reforms he has addressing frequently and ferociously is the spiritual cancer of gossip. The largely Italian bureaucracy of the Vatican curia, and the press corps that covers it, thrive on gossip. Rumors — some true, most false — are aired, spread and repeated without a second thought.
Even during the papal election, gossip and innuendo — which when properly investigated turned out to be not only mendacious but ludicrous — swirled about some of the leading candidates for the papacy, obviously designed to spike their chances.
Pope Francis himself needed to deal with the stir of gossip started by long-time Church haters linking him to the killing and murder of priests in Argentina when he was a Jesuit superior.
But the problem of gossip goes way beyond the Vatican or bureaucratic and political institutions in general. It’s become such a large part of culture that many people no longer even notice it.
Many newspapers, television news and entertainment programs, radio talk shows, and blogs have all become tabloid, dedicating much of their coverage to the latest dirt or hardships facing those in public life.
Political parties and candidates are spending increasing resources on opposition research, focusing not just on the legitimate investigation of an opponent’s past positions, public votes and actions, but also on the nefarious strip-mining of the person’s and his or her family’s private life all the way back to grade school.
The most insidious and widespread form of gossip of all, however, is what takes place regularly at office water coolers, school corridors and playgrounds, certain websites and via social media tools — like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and comboxes — which while offering many possibilities for good, often devolve into potent platforms for gossip.
One of the reasons why many Catholics seldom hear about the sin of gossip much any more is because, sadly, many of the clergy have become so expert at it in their dealings with their brothers in the priesthood and diaconate that their consciences have ceased to be sensitive to it.
Gossip has gone global and it hurts not its objects and subjects, but collaterally damages families, neighborhoods, communities, parishes, the Church and culture.
That is why Pope Francis has been ruthlessly and repeatedly going after it.
In his daily Mass homily on April 9, he highlighted that gossiping comes from the devil.
“When we prefer to gossip, gossip about others, criticize others — these are everyday things that happen to everyone, including me — these are the temptations of the evil one who does not want the Spirit to come to us and bring about peace and meekness in the Christian community.” We need to resist that temptation, he said, by the power of the Holy Spirit, not judging anyone, keeping quiet if we don’t have something constructive to say, and, if we do, then saying it to the person involved and not “to the entire neighborhood.”
“If by the grace of the Holy Spirit,” the Holy Father said, “we succeed in never gossiping, it will be a great step forward [and] … will do us all good.”
On June 13, commenting in his morning homily on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, he talked about the “ugly mechanism” that happens “when we denigrate another person … because we are unable to grow up and need to belittle others, to feel more important.” When “we are not able to keep our tongues in check, we all lose.”
His most extensive treatment of the evil of gossip came during Mass on May 18 when we said that none of us is immune from this evil.
“We all gossip in Church! As Christians we gossip!,” he exclaimed. “The gossip is hurtful. We hurt one another. It is as if we want to put each other down. Instead of growing, I make the other feel small while I feel great. That will not do! It seems nice to gossip … I do not know why, but it seems nice, like sweet honey, right? You take one [spoonful] and then another, and another, and another, and in the end you have a stomach ache. … Gossip is like that, isn’t it? It is sweet at first but it ruins you, it ruins your soul!”
He went on to describe how gossip ruins others as well. “Rumors are destructive in the Church. It’s a little like the spirit of Cain who killed his brother. It kills his brother!” He said that gossiping Catholics become “Christians of good manners and bad habits,” appearing to many to be faithful, while viciously cutting others down.
He described three types of gossip that we must all battle against.
First, “We supply misinformation. We say only half [the truth] that suits us and not the other half, … because it is not convenient for us.” We deliberately allow others to draw a false impression of another. We say a person was arrested but fail to add “in a clear case of mistaken identity.”
Second, we engage in “defamation,” what the Church has traditionally called detraction. “When a person truly has a flaw [and] it is big, they tell it, ‘like a journalist’ does, and the character of this person is ruined.” We can all behave like tabloid journalists, airing the dirty laundry of others in public. But those who engage in yellow journalist share only half the blame; those who eagerly listen to it, or buy papers and magazines featuring it, or drive up the Nielsen ratings of those who televise it, likewise bear responsibility.
Third, Pope Francis says, “is the slander of saying things that are not true,” which has traditionally been called calumny. Pope Francis compared it to the assassination of an innocent brother.
He went on to stress the sinful quality of gossip and call people in the Lord’s name to conversion.
“All three —disinformation, defamation and slander — are sins! They are sins! It is to slap Jesus in the person of his children, his brothers.” Whatever we do to the least of Christ’s brothers we do to him, the Pope reminds us, and to gossip about anyone is to gossip and hurt Christ himself.
“How much damage gossip does!,” Francis exclaimed in a June 19 catechesis on how gossip destroys Church unity. He then begged the 85,000 Christians present, and through them, Catholics across the world, “Never gossip about others. Never!”
It’s important to know how to fight successfully against the temptation to gossip. Pope Francis mentioned it begins with not judging, keeping quiet when we can’t say anything good, and speaking directly to someone if the person needs a fraternal correction.
Other important practices would be regular sacramental confession to heal interiorly not only the sins of gossip but the roots that lead to it, forming the habit of thinking well rather than critically of others, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and, if you can’t help speaking about others, speaking good things behind their back.
St. Philip Neri once famously gave a gossiper the penance of going up to a tower in Rome, ripping open a pillow, and then coming back to him. When the penitent returned, Philip said, “Now go collect all the feathers.” When the man admitted that would be impossible, Philip told him that likewise it’s totally impossible to limit the damage done once we open our mouths with gossip.
Pope Francis is ardently trying to limit that damage and repair it. The reform of the Church, and the Church’s mission in the world, require it.