Gossip: does it rate as a sin?

Dear Father, at my workplace there is culture of gossip which I find distressing. We are constantly talking about one another’s faults, especially those of our bosses. Is this a sin and is there anything I can do to help my workmates refrain from it?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Unfortunately gossip is a common phenomenon in workplaces, schools and universities, groups of friends and even families. There is somehow a morbid curiosity to know the sins and faults of others and to pass them on.

Even as we engage in gossip, we recognise that it is toxic and disruptive of harmony and charity, yet we go on indulging in it.

Where does gossip fit into the moral law, especially the Ten Commandments?

It is a sin principally against the eighth commandment: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. Everyone has a right to a good name and gossip undermines or even destroys another’s reputation. In this area it is very helpful to apply the Golden Rule of not doing to others what we would not want them to do to us.

If we would not want to have our good name ruined by others’ malicious gossip – and none of us would – we should not indulge in gossip ourselves.

The term gossip is not a formal one in moral theology, but rather a colloquial one that refers in general to idle talk about others’ affairs, especially their faults. There are two principal sins against the eighth commandment that fall under the general name of gossip: detraction and slander.

Detraction is disclosing without an objectively valid reason, another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them (cf. CCC 2477).

In this case someone has committed an objective fault but it is not generally known.

Gossip or detraction consists in revealing that fault to others without a valid reason.

For example, it would be gossip or detraction to reveal that someone was drunk at a party, was caught speeding or was having an affair.

We can all make mistakes but we don’t want others to know about them.

What is more, once a good reputation has been blackened it is almost impossible to restore it completely.

Only in exceptional circumstances would there be a valid reason to reveal another’s hidden fault. For example, if we knew that someone was habitually using illicit drugs we could reveal this to a close family member of the person concerned so that they could help him or her. Or if we knew that someone had committed a crime, we would be obliged to report this to the police.

But we do not disclose it to persons who have no need or right to know.

The other sin, slander, sometimes called calumny, consists in telling lies that harm the good reputation of another (cf. CCC 2477). Here someone makes up a story that another was drunk or was caught speeding in order to discredit the person, when in fact nothing of the sort happened.

This is obviously a more serious sin since it leads others to think that someone committed sins they never committed. It is a sin not only against charity and justice, since we all have a right to a good name, but also against the truth. Again, we can apply the Golden Rule and ask how we would like it if someone made up malicious lies about us.

In general we should always observe the popular saying that if we cannot say something good about another we should not say anything at all. Scripture is very clear about the evil of gossip. For example, we read in the book of Proverbs: “A perverse man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Prov 16:28).

How often friendships have been broken when someone gossiped about another! At the very least, people who formerly thought well of another now think badly as a result of what they have heard through gossip. The precious good of a good name can be so easily lost through gossip.

What can we do to overcome this harmful custom? First, we should show no interest in listening to gossip, and we should certainly not pass on anything we have heard, some of which may turn out to be lies or at least exaggerations.

And we should look for an opportunity to say something good about the person being maligned. In any case, we can often end the conversation by saying: “Let’s pray for him, or her.” In short, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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