Detraction is, without objectively valid reason, disclosing another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them. — Catechism #2477
I was listening to Catholic radio a few weeks ago to an interview with a woman who was a fallen away, but now returned Catholic. She recounted the sordid details of her two failed marriages and some of the history of abuse in her family of origin. Part of her story was disclosing the misdeeds of various people in her life who had hurt or failed her, including family members, clergy and especially one of the men she had divorced. I winced as I thought of those people she was, with good intent, exposing to the light. Bad means to a good end.
As Evangelical-style testimonials of sin and repentance have become more prevalent in U.S. Catholic culture, the temptation to engage in detraction has also escalated. Whether in teaching, preaching, witness talks or autobiographical memoirs, people seem to feel more and more free to say dreadful, shameful and embarrassing things in public about other identifiable people. This includes recounting, often in graphic detail, the hurtful, immoral, abusive, stupid, reckless words and deeds of parents, siblings, spouses, coworkers, clergy or friends. While it can make for riveting and compelling storytelling, seeming on the surface to be a sign of personal authenticity (“keeping it real”) or a healthy form of “catharsis,” it fails to consider the great cost at which these goods are obtained; or the potential damage such revelations can effect in others’ lives. “Disclosing another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them,” as an act of testimony to God’s amazing grace, is too often done without an objectively valid reason.
We live in a pathologically voyeuristic and gossipy culture that is largely unconcerned whether or not damaging information about other people’s “faults and failings” should be revealed in public. Christians must judge whether or not disclosing another’s sins, weaknesses or failings (be they living or dead) is required and demanded (or at the very least, permitted) by justice or charity. The late Fr. John Hardon offered some useful criteria for judging if revealing another’s faults, whether those people be living or dead, is warranted:
The essence of detraction is the unwarranted disclosure of a hidden failing, which implies that there are occasions when the disclosure can and even should be made. When the revelation of another person’s fault is necessary or very useful, as in defense of self or of others, no injustice is done in revealing it. This would be the case when the failing or defect is made known to parents, or superiors, or for the purpose of seeking counsel or help, or to prevent harm to others. It is also not detraction to make known what has become legally and publicly notorious, since the culprit has lost his right to esteem in the matter. It is conducive to public security that criminals should be known for what they are. However, since one’s reputation may reflect upon a group like an organization or class of people, criminal acts of a single member of that group should not be widely disclosed so as not to jeopardize the reputation of all the persons with whom this one individual is commonly identified. Indiscriminate disclosure of this kind is the seedbed of class prejudice.
Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.
Detraction also applies to more private contexts of disclosure where another’s faults and failings are revealed to another without proper warrant. Again, the rule of thumb is to ask yourself: Am I required by justice or charity to make known these dark details. If I cannot speak this sentence in all sincerity and truth, it’s probably best not to share damaging information: “I want to tell you this information about Person X for their own welfare and salvation, for your benefit and the benefit of others, and for the glory of God.”