It is no small offence to deprive a man of his good name, but that is precisely what we do when we commit the sin of detraction. Saint Thomas captures the essence of that sin with a crisp two word Latin phrase, mordere famam, which could be rendered fairly accurately as “chewing up a reputation.” The detractor’s unseemly intention is to attack the good name of his victim, and thereby to lower the man’s estimate in the eyes of others.
To fill out the definition of detraction we need to add the element of secrecy. The detractor sets out to defame another in secret. What this means, specifically, is that (a) the victim of the detraction is absent, and (b) he is ignorant of what is being done to him in his absence. Detraction is secret, then, only with respect to its victim. Beyond that, it can be very much a public affair. Given the realities of modern communication, someone may be detracted before an audience numbering in the thousands or even the millions. Saint Thomas explains that one of the reasons the detractor goes about his detracting business in the absence of his victim is that he lacks the courage to denigrate the man to his face.
It is just the fact that a man’s reputation is attacked in his absence that distinguishes detraction from contumely. In spelling out that distinction in precise terms, St. Thomas calls attention to two ways by which we can wound people by our words. We can do so behind their backs: that is detraction. Or we can do so to their presence: that is contumely.
Quite often, when people are called to task for detracting someone, they will defensively retort by saying, “But it’s true!”—as if that somehow justified what they were doing. It doesn’t. The fact that the bad things we say about others in their absence are true does not mean that our saying them does not constitute detraction. Granted, we can detract people by lying about them, in which case we would only be compounding the evil we are perpetrating, but usually the information which is grist for the mill of detraction is true information. And it is just that which makes it so damaging.
Regarding detraction in terms of its effects, the principal one to be considered is the harm which is done to the good name of the person who is the victim of the detraction. Just what is this “good name” (“nomen bonum,” in the Latin of St. Thomas) that the detractor seeks to undermine, and which suffers damage at his hands? We say that every man is entitled to his good name. This means, at the most basic level, that every person deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt. In other words, every person should be able to expect, in justice (i.e., with regard to what is due to him as a person) to be regarded by others as possessed of elemental human integrity and common decency, and to be respected accordingly. Any person living and working in a public forum of one sort or another (and that would include every one of us), is entitled to assume that others think well of him. A man’s good name guarantees his status as a respected member of a community.
All of us, or some of us at any rate, have things that are very much part of our factual history, that are considerably less than edifying, and that we would very much prefer not to be made public. If the things in question are serious enough, the fact of their being made public could reduce our moral standing in the eyes of the people with whom we deal on a daily basis, and that, in turn, particularly if we hold a position of authority to which important responsibilities are attached, could diminish the effectiveness of our work.
It was especially because of its potential for adversely affecting the detracted person’s ability to continue to function productively in society that prompted St. Thomas to regard detraction, taken in itself, as a serious sin. If I deprive a man of his good name by revealing something about him which should not be revealed, I can, because of my disclosures, prevent him from effectively fulfilling the duties which accompany his state in life. Generally speaking, detraction has the effect of disrupting the peace of a community, because it sets people against one another. It brings about alienation and even hatred. Saint Thomas uses rather strong language is discussing these effects, comparing a detractor to a murderer. The detractor kills friendships; he poisons goodwill.
I directly commit the sin of detraction when I speak ill of a person with the specific intention in mind of either tarnishing, or destroying, the reputation of that person. But I can also commit the sin of detraction indirectly. I do that when I find myself in a situation where an absent party is being roundly detracted and I sit there with a sinister glint in my eye, maintaining, as St. Thomas pointedly puts it, “a malicious silence.” If the reputation of a person is being wantonly attacked in my presence, I have an obligation to come to the defense of that person’s reputation. Sometimes it is simply cowardice that explains my silence, which is bad enough. But if I am silent because I share the attitude of the detractor toward the one being defamed, then I am complicit in the sin.
To be sure, bad-mouthing people behind their backs is not always a serious sin. There might not be the kind of malice in such talk which would qualify it as genuine detraction. Saint Thomas acknowledges that we human beings have very loose tongues, and we love to gossip. How easily we talk about people in their absence—in itself not a bad thing—and how often that talk tends to be negative rather than positive! Saint James is to be carefully heeded as he warns us of the multitude of difficulties our wagging tongues can get us into.
Does it always constitute a case of detraction if we reveal something bad about a person in that person’s absence? No. In fact, there might be circumstances which positively demand that we do so. Saint Thomas speaks of the requirements of public justice in this respect. For example, if someone knows that an acquaintance of his is engaging in clandestine criminal activity, he has a responsibility to bring that to light. But the point to be made here is that such revelations should be made to the proper authorities, those who are in a position to do something about the information that is given them. It would be wrong to disseminate such information indiscriminately.
Why do we succumb to the sin of detraction? Apart from simply referring the whole matter to the mystery of evil, we could suggest a more concrete explanation by taking note of St. Thomas’s description of detraction as “the daughter of envy.” More times than not, I seek to drag down the reputation of another person through detraction because I am envious of that person’s reputation, and believe that somehow it takes away from my own. In my envy, I manage to convince myself that if I should succeed in lowering his reputation, my own would by that very fact be increased. Of course, such thinking is wonderfully irrational. And it could not be otherwise. As St. Thomas never tires of reminding us, sinful behavior is at bottom irrational behavior. Detraction, like every other sin, is a direct affront to reason.
Dr. Dennis Q. McInerny’s articles have been published in the FSSP North American District Newsletter many times through the years and will soon be published in the upcoming book Perennial Wisdom Volume II by Fraternity Publications.