SINS OF THE TONGUE:
The Backbiting Tongue
Father Belet, of the Diocese of Basle
Translated from the French, 1870 ed.
2. The terrible evils that backbiting breeds. Reparation of the damage it causes.
The thoughts of God are so very different from the thoughts of men. In the Old Testament, God says, “You shall not curse the deaf.” (1) Would it not have been better for Him to say, “You shall not curse those who hear well”? Why bother to take such precautions for the deaf? But the wisdom of the Lord has nothing in common with our boldness. “You shall not curse the deaf,” He says. Here is how Saint Gregory explains these words: “Backbiting someone who is deaf means backbiting one who is absent and cannot hear you. Just as a deaf man cannot hear or understand what is said, so it is with an absent person someone backbites. He cannot reply or rectify the errors of which he is the object.” (2)
(1) Lev 19:14
(2) Saint Gregory the Great. In prolog. III Past, Chapter 1, Ad Monit.
Therefore, one must not backbite the deaf. Not recognizing this rule, backbiters rashly shoot down the reputation of those who are absent. This is something they would never dare to do in the presence of the people they backbite.
We have already spoken at length about backbiting. We have treated its various species and its gravity. Now let us take a look at the importance of avoiding this defect even in small things, due to its unfortunate consequences, and above all at the necessity of repairing the reputation of other people: a very difficult thing as we shall see.
A master too short on words with his servant, or a man with his neighbor, obviously proves that he feels little friendship or kindness towards him A religious once said, “If we do not cultivate them, two kinds of thoughts will stop bothering us by themselves: thoughts of fornication and thoughts of backbiting. When they call, do not answer them; whatever they say, pay them no heed. If you act otherwise, you may try to resist but you will not escape their clutches.”
And one must not only avoid backbiting when it attacks charity and justice directly, but even when it turns on light defects and weaknesses of little importance.
Even the worthiest of men are not always exempt from this sort of backbiting. Perhaps it is a lack of prudence or reflection, but even they take pleasure in relating the defects and faults of others to willing listeners. It would seem that we have taken this verse from La Fontaine as a motto:
I attempt to turn vice to ridicule,
Since I cannot attack it with the arms of Hercules.
And why be surprised? The human race has an instinctive propensity for criticizing other people’s behavior. We all carry the scarlet with which we paint everyone. Everything that seems blameworthy in our sight turns into vice at once, and it is all the greater in the proportion that we want to appear wiser and more religious. Saint Jerome says, “The passion of this evil has so infested the world that people who have totally renounced other vices still fall into this one. One might say it is the last trap the devil sets for them.” This rashness of judgment is often accompanied by envy, the sworn enemy of the happiness of others. The envious person tries to calm his bad temper by disparaging another man’s merits in every way imaginable; he suffers less when he sees others damaged by some defect.
Envy is often preceded by a secret pride, which spurs us to wish to be preferred above others, or at least to be their equal. For fear that our neighbor may rise too high and eclipse us, we craftily clip his wings.
We see that conversations which reveal good men’s imperfections often result in countless evils. Upon hearing his neighbor’s weaknesses related, more than one listener will be tempted to tell his friends, “Look at what he did, and everyone mistakes him for a little saint! If he committed that fault, he will certainly commit a lot more. I thought he was so virtuous, but I see him now; he has his faults too.”
Many people’s consciences are disturbed by such talk. If the slandered person’s reputation is not totally lost it is seriously damaged. Bonds of friendship and kindness are broken; the absent person who is spoken about will certainly be held in contempt.
And how can the accused defend himself when usually he is not even aware of the blows being struck against him, or at least of who their author is? That is how a man can be murdered and not even know it.
The sin is all the more serious when someone backbites people in honored positions, even in light matters, and even if they are guilty. “Even in your thoughts do not make light of the king, nor in the privacy of your bedroom revile him, because the birds of the air may carry your voice, a winged creature may tell what you say. (3)
(3) Eccl 10:20
You see, Holy Scripture tells us not only to avoid backbiting, it even commands us to banish it from our thoughts. You who backbite, do not think it suffices to tell your listeners, “Don’t reveal what I say, I beg of you, I confide this secret to your discretion.” You are no less guilty, and this behavior proves how simple you are. Pray tell, why do you ask him to keep silence? You are the one who should have kept silence first. If you do not want your words to leak out then keep them to yourself! You have not remained silent and you would shut other people’s mouths!
If you are in such a rush to pull the stopper out of the spigot, then what can you expect of others?
Saint Francis of Assisi had an extreme aversion to backbiting and slanderous accusations. His biographer Saint Bonaventure relates that one of his brothers said evil about another and leveled several accusations against him. The Saint told his assistant, “Father, go and examine this affair. If the accused is innocent punish his accuser so severely that it will give others an example, and he will remember it.” Saint Francis even wanted to remove the religious habit from a brother who had not been afraid to remove the cloak of another’s reputation, so that it would be done to him as he had done to others, and in this way he would be obliged to restore the reputation he had stolen.
Backbiting drags a whole host of evils in its wake: it depraves anyone who listens to it, causes the backbiter to be considered a slanderer and incurs the hatred of his neighbor.
God has attached an enormous ball to this chain: the obligation of restoring the neighbor’s reputation. Saint Augustine’s words here are as true for backbiting as for money: “Non dimittitur peccatum nisi restituatur ablatum: No restoration, no pardon.” (4) It is a common principle among theologians (5) that restoring their neighbor’s reputation is obligatory not only for those who have revealed an imaginary crime of his, but also those who have revealed a true but secret crime. They are held to giving him at least an equivalent compensation: and they owe this compensation to the detriment not only of their own reputation, but also their life. Along with their neighbor’s reputation, they must repair all the harm he has incurred; and they must do so even if what they revealed is true. Since the thing is true, they are held to tell everyone who heard them not that they were lying, but that they were backbiting.
(4) Saint Augustine, Epistle 65, Ad Macedoniae
(5) Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part II, Section II, Question 62, Article 2.
Even if it were only for the inconvenience of being obliged to repair your neighbor’s reputation, backbiting should be avoided like the plague. How painful to have to retract what you said and undergo the shame of such a restoration! It is easy to return an item of clothing, a sum of money or personal property unjustly acquired; there are a thousand ways of doing it. But restoring a reputation, what a burden!
Now, the gravity of this sin lies precisely in the difficulty of repairing it. When an opinion has been revealed, it soon spreads all over, going through cities and empires, and a hitherto unknown person soon acquires a sad celebrity. But if you try and praise someone you have previously denigrated, you are wasting your time. What you said has taken root too strongly, and too many people know about it.
People believe evil first;
But when it comes to the good,
Then seeing is believing. (La Fontaine)
But you will say, “Backbiting flourishes everywhere, and no one ever makes restoration.” Ah that is precisely the evil I deplore! Do you think our worst habits can excuse our vices? Just because “everyone does it”, does that give you the right to do something? The vast number of fools is no praise for folly. Besides, it is false to say that reputations are never repaired. I would prefer to think it occurs only rarely. But I will admit that when there is any reparation, it is so slow, so late, so imperfect!
How rare it is for someone to return as much as he has stolen. Blind as we are, we prefer postponing everything to the supreme tribunal and awaiting the vengeance of the Lord, He who insists on justice with such severity that He prefers to remit what is due to Himself rather than what is due to others. Many people are obliged to restore after death all that they did not restore during their lifetime.
Saint Vincent Ferrer, a Spaniard, was one of the most remarkable brothers in Saint Dominic’s spiritual family. He spoke so eloquently that thousands of people flocked to hear him preach and Pope Calixtus III insured that his memory would ever remain. One day Saint Vincent was preaching on the duty of repairing our neighbor’s reputation. The respect due to such a great man obliges me to quote his words textually:
“The person who maliciously robs his neighbor’s reputation is held to restoring it on the same level as someone who steals. If what you said is secret even though it be true, you are obliged to restore his reputation. Otherwise you will not go to heaven.
“But how can I restore it? you may ask. You must tell everyone present when you spoke ill not to believe you, that you spoke out of wickedness. If the person you defamed knows about it you are duty bound to ask his forgiveness, etc. Many have been damned for such defamations because words pass and we forget having said them; they make no scruples over them and never think of confessing them.”
Thus spoke Saint Vincent, adding, “If someone neglects to do so while alive, after his death he will be obliged, despite himself, to make satisfaction to those who survive him.” He confirms this teaching with the following story:
“Two men had seriously outraged their neighbor’s reputation. One passed away and the other was still alive, along with the person who had been attacked. The dead man remained in the flames of purgatory for some time. After his deliverance, but before being admitted into heaven, he was commanded to completely repair the reputation of the person he had denigrated while alive. I know it is true that this soul returned to this world, for I am the man he defamed, and it is to me that he came to ask forgiveness.”
O God, if a reputation is such a fragile and delicate thing, why do we not fear to contract obligations we must fulfill even after death? “Thy word, O Lord, endureth forever; it is firm as the heavens… According to Thy ordinances they still stand firm: all things serve Thee”, (6) goods of both body and soul. Therefore, a good reputation is not to be scorned, for it is especially needed in fulfilling public duties. Thus it is also necessary to restore someone’s reputation if we rob it in bad faith even more necessary than restoring money.
(6) Ps 118:9
Raphael Maffei relates that when Chinese warriors prepared for combat they entered with splendid apparel and elegant arms, carrying four swords on their harness and manipulating two at once with great skill.
But the backbiter’s tongue surpasses them by far. It carries not four swords, nor a hundred, nor six hundred, but thousands, for fear it will run out once it enters into combat. The backbiting tongue often lights such a conflagration that four thousand soldiers — what am I saying, four thousand? — forty thousand, even a hundred thousand will not suffice to put it out. A two-edged sword, a keen knife, a piercing arrow, a cane-stiletto, a sharp razor, and a quick biting tongue all bear a striking resemblance. Listen to the Psalmist: “They have bent their bow to shoot arrows.” As the bow strikes from far off and wounds a person unawares, the backbiting tongue attacks those who are absent and wreaks its havoc from a distance of many miles. Bending its bow in Germany, it strikes and wounds a Frenchman or a Spaniard in his own land. Its arrows fly across the sea, or rather they pierce all the way to heaven, for they attack God Himself and His Saints. “They set their mouthings in place of heaven,” (7) says David. It also penetrates the very bowels of the earth and rends the dead in their tombs, for David adds, “Their pronouncements pierce the earth.” It buries the living, and it digs the dead out of their tombs.
(7) Ps 72:9
The Psalmist goes on to say, “They scoff and speak evil; outrage from on high they threaten.” (8) When its fury is roused, a raging bull lifts its head and casts terrible eyes at its prey, aiming at him and rampaging against him with all its might. Thus does the backbiter move in with head held high; stifling the voice of his conscience, the things he has meditated in his heart spew from his mouth in contempt of every law of Christian charity.
(8) Ps 72:8
The backbiting tongue has chosen the very motto of Death as its own: “I spare no one!” Priest or judge, known or unknown, religious or worldling, friend or foe, none of that matters to him. The backbiter spares nothing and no one, not even his father and mother. Why is this so? Because he enjoys talking, so speaking evil gratifies him. He considers it a pleasure when he finds something to criticize in others. He is filled with joy when he can invent and relate things that do not even exist.
“O Lord,” cries David, “rescue my soul from the sword, my only one from the grip of the dog!” (9) Cassiodorus says that Saint Augustine declares, “The sword is the backbiter’s tongue, and the dog is the backbiter himself.” Why does David ask to be rescued from the grip of the dog? We could understand if he had said a bear or a lion, but why be so afraid of a dog?
(9) Ps 21:21
He is right after a fashion, however. The bear and the lion are naturally fierce, but a dog may often sidle peacefully up to you and suddenly bite your leg. If it is a bulldog, it will square off against you and attack your head. David knew this type of dog from experience. He knew Saul, Semeias, Absalom, Seba, Achitophel and Doeg; they were purebred dogs, which are the most troublesome by far.
Pliny relates the fact that the camel will drink only after disturbing the water with its hooves.” (10) That proud beast does not want to look at its deformed face and see it mirrored in the water. Men without credit, virtue or reputation often act like the camel. They attempt to blacken others’ reputation with backbiting so that they will not be the only ones called deformed. They have adopted this maxim of the Ephesians: “Let there be no superiority among us!” A servant’s laziness is never more visible than when a more active servant is working by his side. A virtuous man’s piety is never more evident than when he is next to a vain and godless man.
(10) Pliny, Historica naturalia, Book 8, Chapter 18.
Therefore, in order to avoid embarrassment over their corruption, men of vice try to sully others with their backbiting tongues. They think they look better when others are ugly and wrinkled. “Say whatever you like,” they declare, “the man you praise so highly is no holier than anyone else; the person you exonerate is no angel!” And when they have nothing to say, they state, “We could say lots of things about him, but we won’t stir up that swamp, please God! We will say nothing instead.”
Wretch, speaking that way is not keeping silence; it is a subtle form of backbiting! You murmur like this because that person’s behavior has nothing in common with yours. Why did the Pharisees pursue Jesus with their hatred? Because His life bore no resemblance to theirs. (11)Because of this they called Him a drinker, a violater of the Sabbath, loving people of evil life. David prophesied well of them when he said, “Those who repay evil for good harass Me for pursuing good… In return for My love they slandered Me, but I prayed.” (12) And Saint John Chrysostom cries, “You are a man, and you would spit an asp’s venom? You are a man, and you would become a raging beast? You have been given a mouth not to wound, but to heal.” Saint Augustine declares, “Since you get angry with others when they speak evil against you, get angry with yourself when you speak evil against someone else.” (13)
(11) Wis 12:15
(12) Ps 37:21; 108:4
(13) Saint Augustine, Homily 89, Ad Pop.
In olden times, the Lord commanded the prophet Isaias to announce, “Every knee shall be bowed to Me, and every tongue shall swear by My name.” (14) Backbiters, place your tongues beneath the sway of reason once again, that they may no longer wound people’s reputations, that they may refrain from the least detraction, that they may be silent over even the slightest defects. Follow Saint John Chrysostom’s advice: “Such is the nature of vipers that, as soon as they bite a man, they enter water at once. If they find no water, they die.” (15) Do likewise if you have poured the venom of detraction into someone’s ears and have spoken a thoughtless word that may wound your neighbor’s reputation. Cast yourself at once into the waters of penance; repent, and promise that you will be more watchful in the future. And if you are able to repair the damage your tongue has caused, then repair it. This is hard, no doubt but it is necessary. It is better to restore something you have taken than to perish with it.
(14) Is 45:24
(15) Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, In Matt