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Slander and Detraction

5 min • Digitized on December 25, 2021

From The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales, page 90
By His friend, Jean Pierre Camus, Bishop of Belley


There is a difference between uttering a falsehood and making a mistake—for to lie is to say what one knows or believes to be false; but to mistake is to say, indeed, what is false, but what one nevertheless thinks in good faith to be true.

Similarly, there is a great difference between slandering our neighbour and recounting his evil deeds. The wrong doing of our neighbour may be spoken of either with a good or with a bad intention.

The intention is good when the faults of our neighbour are reported to one who can remedy them, or whose business it is to correct the wrong-doer, whether for the public good or for the sinner’s own.

Again, there is no harm in speaking among friends of harm done, provided it be from friendliness, benevolence, or compassion; and this more especially when the fault is public and notorious.

We slander our neighbour, then, only when, whether true or false, we recount his misdeeds with intention to harm him, or out of hatred, envy, anger, contempt, and from a wish to take away his fair name.

We slander our neighbour when we make known his faults, though neither obliged so to do nor having in view his good nor the good of others. The sin of slander is mortal or venial according to the measure of the wrong we may thereby have done to our neighbour.

Our Blessed Father used to say that to do away with slander would be to do away with most of the sins of mankind. He was right, for of sins of thought, word, and deed, the most frequent and often the most hurtful in their effects are those committed with the tongue. And this for several reasons.

Firstly, sins of thought are only hurtful to him who commits them. They are neither occasion for scandal, nor do they annoy anyone, nor give anyone bad example. God alone knows them, and it is He alone who is offended by them. Then, too, a return to God by loving repentance effaces them in a moment, and heals the wound which they have inflicted on the heart.

Sins of the tongue, on the other hand, are not so readily got rid of. A harmful word can only be recalled by retracting it, and even then the minds of our hearers mostly remain infected with the poison we poured in through the ears; and this, in spite of our humbling ourselves to recall what we have said.

Secondly, sins of deed, when they are publicly known, are followed by punishment. This renders them rarer, because fear of the penalty acts as a curb on even the basest of mankind.

But slander (except the calumny be of the most atrocious and aggravated kind) is not, generally speaking, such as comes before the eye of the law. On the contrary, if in the guise of bantering it is ingenious and subtle it passes current for gallantry and wit. This is why so many people fall into this evil; for, says an ancient writer: “Impunity is a dainty allurement to sin.”

Thirdly, slandering finds encouragement in the very small amount of restitution and reparation made for this fault. Indeed, in my opinion, those who direct souls in the tribunal of penance are a little too indulgent, not to say lax, in this matter.

If anyone has inflicted a bodily injury on another see how severely the justice of the law punishes the outrage. In olden days the law of retaliation demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If a man stole the goods of another he was condemned to the galleys, or even to the gibbet.

But in the case of slander, unless, as I have said, it be of the most highly aggravated kind, there is scarcely a thought of making reparation, even by a courteous apology. Yet those who sit in high places value their reputation much more than riches, or life itself, seeing that among all natural blessings, honour undoubtedly holds the first rank.

Since, then, we cannot gain admittance into heaven without having restored that which belongs to another, let the slanderer consider how he can possibly hope for an entrance there unless he reestablishes his neighbour’s reputation, which he tried to destroy by detraction.

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