Did you hear?

So, did you hear what Pope Francis said about gossip last spring?

Yes, about gossip. Can you believe it?

What the pope said about gossip was this: It is a “slap” to Jesus “in the person of his children, his brothers,” and “it ruins your soul!”

Yes, he really said that! But he can’t mean it, can he? I mean, everybody gossips, right?

Maybe everybody does gossip — Pope Francis acknowledged that he has done it himself — but the pope made clear that he does mean what he said about the destructive power of wagging tongues.

Both comments above came in a May 18 homily at the morning Mass Pope Francis celebrated at St. Martha’s House, the guesthouse where he resides at the Vatican.

It wasn’t the first time that the pope has raised the issue of what sometimes seems to be a harmless joke; he also talked about gossip in an April 9 homily.

In that homily, he said: “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.”

Dangers of detraction

But what is gossip, besides an affront to Jesus and a temptation that seems to be part of the human condition?

According to Merriam-Webster, “gossip,” a noun, originally referred to a godparent. It then became a term for a companion or friend. It’s only the third definition that reaches a negative connotation: a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational information about others. As a verb, “to gossip” means to reveal such information.

But priests, theologians and others who have thought about the meaning and effect of gossip take that definition further. Gossip, they say, has as much to do with why and how someone chooses to share information — whether the information is completely true, slightly exaggerated or totally false — as the content of the information.

Msgr. Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington, D.C., and an OSV Newsweekly columnist, has addressed the subject several times in his blog published on the Archdiocese of Washington website, most recently on July 8.

While gossip is generally understood to be a form of harmful or hurtful speech, Msgr. Pope said, it can be divided into two broad categories: detraction, or drawing attention to the faults somebody has; and calumny, or spreading lies about someone.

Spreading lies is clearly wrong, but Msgr. Pope pointed out that detraction causes lots of harm as well, and comes in for its share of criticism in the Bible, particularly in the wisdom books of the Old Testament and in the Letter of James.

“There’s a lot of ink spilled in the Bible about how to speak and how not to speak,” he said.

Sin of speech

Bernard Brady, chairman of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., said many people don’t have a clear idea of what they mean when they talk about gossip, and sometimes what they mean is not harmful.

“It’s a word with a lot of meanings,” Brady said. “Basically, gossip means talking about someone when they’re not there. It’s not necessarily bad; you can say good things about people who are not there.”

But, Brady said, he thinks three things can make gossip go over the line. First, he said, if the gossiper is doing it for his or her own self-interest or self-importance, that’s a problem — that is, if he is trying to make himself look stronger or better by sharing information about someone else. Second, it’s a problem if the gossiper is using the information to try to build bonds between herself and the person or people she is talking to, while tearing down any bonds with the person being gossiped about. Third, if the gossip is at the expense of the person being talked about, it is always wrong.

Any of those conditions — or none — can be met with the most innocuous of information, Brady said.

“Imagine two high school students are talking, and one says, ‘Mary got a perfect score on her SAT,’” Brady said.

That could be genuinely complimentary, and not harmful at all, the kind of thing the student would have no problem sharing with Mary present, Brady said.

But it could be offered with a tone of disbelief — “Like, she’s not smart enough. That couldn’t really happen,” Brady said — or with a tone of contempt for someone who is not like the person talking, perhaps not even quite human — “That would be with a tone of, ‘Oh, she’s so perfect. Of course she got a perfect score!’”

Both of those scenarios are meant to build a wall, with the person gossiping and the person listening on one side and Mary on the other, Brady said.

“So often, gossip is saying a truthful statement, with some intonation of mocking,” he said. “There’s power in the group: We’re not like her, or she’s not like us.”

“People don’t see gossip as a selfish action, but it is,” Brady said. “People just see gossip as idle chatter, something that everybody does. But you become more selfish, more self-centered.”

“We do not take it seriously enough,” Msgr. Pope said. “We make light of it. It’s part of our general tendency to make light of sin in general, and especially sins of speech.”

Sullying reputations

To understand why gossip can be so destructive, he said, it is necessary first to understand the significance of speech to human beings.

prayer help
Prayer can be a powerful tool in a moment of weakness. Thinkstock

“We were made to know the truth,” Msgr. Pope said. “That’s the first thing. So our speech is very important, that we speak the truth, and also that we speak in love.”

When we do not do so, it’s impossible to take the words back, Msgr. Pope said, referring to the preachers’ story about gossip, told in homilies and sermons time and time again: A man confessed to the sin of gossiping, and asked his priest (or minister, in Protestant versions) how to make it right. The priest told the man to take a feather pillow to the top of a hill, rip it open and scatter the feathers in the wind, and then come back the next day. When the man returned, the priest told him to go out, collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillow. The man protested that to do so would be impossible. The priest told him that it would be just as impossible to undo the effects of his gossiping.

“One of the most valuable things a person has, arguably, the most valuable thing a person has, is their reputation,” Msgr. Pope said. “Our reputation is incredibly important for anything we want to do, for us to make our path through the world. To harm someone’s reputation is a serious sin.”

On rare occasions, it may be important to share negative information about someone with someone else who needs to know — perhaps someone asked for a reference, or the problem directly affects the third party somehow — but in most cases, with a person’s known faults, “it isn’t necessary to continue to call them out.”

That’s because word of those faults can reach the ears of those who have no need to know about them. Perhaps children hear at school what other parents have said about their own mother or father, thus undermining their parental authority. Sometimes gossip may start out as harmless banter, but it can grow and become malicious, he said.

How we stack up

Part of the problem is a cultural drive to comparison and competition, said Franciscan Father Jude DeAngelo, director of campus ministry at The Catholic University of America. Father DeAngelo, whose ministry is among young people trying to find their places in the world, said people often want to find out how they stack up against those around them, and to fix themselves in a higher position than their erstwhile peers, if they can.

“That is not what the Lord asked us to do,” Father DeAngelo said. “We are to reflect on what the Lord wants of us and how we can live up to that. … When you are the subject of gossip, it is hurtful.”

Some people tell themselves that spreading personal information about other people is not wrong if it is true; it’s not “character assassination” or bearing false witness, DeAngelo said. But the spread of true information can cause emotional hurt and significant damage.

“Suppose a person has an eating disorder,” Father DeAngelo. “Now suppose someone talks about it, and it gets back to them. How are they going to feel?”

It also can create rifts among those who do gossip, he said.

“Gossip tends to breed mistrust among those who gossip,” he said. “The people they gossip with say, “I wonder what they are saying behind my back.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Putting a lid on it