Is gossip a sin?

  • August 9, 2007
{mosimage}From cell phone conversations about what the boss may have told a colleague about his boss, to an Internet blog reporting what insiders are saying about a movie still in production, and TV shows filled with breathless revelations about celebrity marriages and sports pages filled with whispers about athletes at loggerheads with teammates and coaches, Canadians are daily floating in a sea of gossip.

It’s a rough and dangerous sea for people who believe indulging in gossip is worthy of a trip to the confessional. There are plenty of Canadians who think that gossip isn’t such an innocent diversion, and Fr. Bob O’Brien often encounters it in the confessional.

“If anything, people take it to heart sometimes too much,” said O’Brien. “They’re concerned somehow that they’re doing harm.”

And they should be, said Jesuit moral theologian Fr. Ron Mercier. The church assumes people have a right to a good reputation.

“Except for appropriate reasons, one shouldn’t harm the good name of others,” Mercier wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “It is a sin against justice and creates a situation in which eventually the good name of everyone is in danger.”

Suanne Kelman, former gossip columnist for The Globe and Mail and associate chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, has seen that atmosphere of casual calumny up close. She quit her Globe and Mail job writing “The Tattler” in the early 1990s after six months.

“I’m not going to lie. Some of it was fun. But in the end, it’s not a very satisfying way of making a living,” Kelman said.

Kelman doesn’t have great qualms over what the media reveal about people who court media attention, but when news outlets transmit details of the private lives of civil servants, journalists and others who never sought media attention, the gossip business starts to rack up collateral damage, she said.

“It is very destructive, and it did start to bother me,” said Kelman.

{sidebar id=2}Beyond damage to individuals, Kelman worries about the impoverishment of public debate when juicy bits about celebrities and the personal lives of politicians displaces information about how, and how well, we are governed.

“It’s about money in the sense that they (media companies) are giving people what they want to hear about rather than the things they need to know about,” she said.

She points out that in focus groups broadcasters have discovered their target market of women between the ages of 25 and 45 are upset by coverage of wars and conflict, and consequently turn away from the TV and ignore commercials.

“We have a problem,” said Kelman.

The problem isn’t driven so much by journalists, who remain an idealistic lot, as it is by media ownership looking for a broad and easy highway to the consuming public’s eyes and ears, she said.

“Gossip is very much the central glue of human social community since we developed language,” said Leslie Chan, a University of Toronto anthropologist and media literacy expert. “And that hasn’t changed. There’s a sense of belonging you can get with some juicy gossip. That means you’re part of that community.”

Chan worries, however, about a growing false sense of belonging as people plug into gossip networks that are media generated. It seems that the more isolated people become in their real lives, the more they seek a connection with the celebrity character of a 24-hour cross-media meta-soap opera.

“People desire so much this celebrity gossip, because they can feel that they’re part of that community to which they do not belong,” said Chan.

With wireless Internet feeding cell phones, Blackberries, blogs, Facebook and podcasts, 21st-century technology may have created the perfect petri dish for an experiment in global gossip — the inevitable buzz of the global village. Technology has made it very easy to gossip about anybody, any time, anywhere.

“While it is easier to gossip today, no doubt, that doesn’t reduce personal culpability,” said Mercier. “What you’re dealing with in this case is a cultural shift in which gossip becomes the norm, often displacing real news that people need to hear. Just as one can’t say that since murder has become easier with guns it must not be wrong, so one has to be more careful given the ease involved in gossiping today not to help foster a culture of gossip. Our media... all help create such a culture, but Christians are called to do good, to avoid harm.”

For Philadelphia-based blogger Rocco Palmo, who maintains the Whispers in the Loggia web site (whispersinthe, avoiding harm is something he takes very seriously. That means that despite a very personal tone intended to give readers the impression they are overhearing conversations among clergy at the rectory dinner table or in the diocesan curia, Palmo insists everything he reports has a legitimate news value for ordinary Catholics.

“I keep everything I do above board. I keep it policy oriented. Gossip is meant to either bring someone down or cast doubt about the reputation of another. That is genuinely sinful, and that’s why I don’t engage in it,” said Palmo.

The problem with a culture of gossip is that it encourages people to live a virtual reality, and discourages them from taking responsibility for their own lives, said O’Brien.

“Gossip becomes a kind of scapegoating. There are problems we see in the world that ultimately actually are found in ourselves,” he said. “It sidesteps the whole issue of, ‛where is our responsibility for our own lives?’ ”

Gossip in the media is nothing new, nor is the Paris Hilton phenomenon of a person famous for being famous really all that new, said Kelman.

“There were a lot of gossip magazines and gossip columns in the 1930s and ’40s — people like Walter Winchel,” she said.

It may be difficult to see the difference between 1938 Glamour Girl #1 Brenda Frazier and Paris Hilton, except in the sheer quantity of coverage.

“There’s a moral dimension also in — well, look at the content of much of the gossip. This is not heartwarming stuff. This is drug and alcohol abuse,” said Kelman.

Kelman won’t allow her students at Ryerson University to indulge in gossip in their assignments.

“Journalists ought to be paying more attention to things that are going to seriously affect people’s world — climate, economy, work, demographics, political decisions, corruption,” she said.

The same might be said of the people who read newspapers and watch television.

“Our media literacy has always been outstripped by the media,” said Chan. “We’re constantly trying to catch up and falling further and further behind.”

The Bible on gossip 


Biblical scholars are always careful to note the literary form of any biblical passage they are studying. You can’t say much about a book of the Bible unless you know whether it was written as a history, a parable, a poem or a legal ruling.

Gossip, however, is not one of the literary forms scholars find in their Bibles.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Bible is unconcerned with how people talk about each other.

As people might expect, the Book of Proverbs has a great deal to say about the harm done by talking about other people.

In Proverbs 2:12 gossip is a part of the “way of evil” we should keep away from:

“It (every good path)  will save you from the way of evil, from those who speak perversely.”

False witness is presented as the sort of inevitable stock-in-trade of gossipers in Proverbs 21:28:

“A false witness will perish, but a good listener will testify successfully.”

Advice from Jesus Son of Sirach is to keep one’s mouth shut.

“A bad name incurs shame and reproach; so it is with the double-tongued sinner” (Sirach 6:1).

The early church was not immune to gossip, and one can sense how the Apostle James was wearied by this constant failing.

“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:11-12).

Stories and whispers about Jesus follow Him throughout the Gospels. At one point Jesus decides to confront the rumours directly:

“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‛He has a demon,’ ” Jesus tells the crowd. “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‛Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:33-35).

Herod’s fear of Jesus seems to be fed by palace gossip in Luke 9:7-9.

When Jesus condemns the Pharisees for hypocrisy, He implies that the political party of religious leaders and legal scholars has been planting malicious stories about Him:

“When the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another, He began to speak first to His disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).

Jesus’ successive trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod fail in the legal sense because they were based on gossip about Him — that is a patchwork of accusations created with the intention of isolating Jesus and making Him a scapegoat — rather than evidence. In the end, Pilate gives the gossipers campaigning against Jesus what they want rather than rendering a judgment on Jesus for anything He had done (Luke 23:24).

The catechism on gossip


Under the heading of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”) the 1995 Catechism of the Catholic Church never mentions the word gossip, but it does have a lot to say about speaking the truth and keeping your mouth shut:

“2477: Respect for the reputation  of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause (someone) unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbour;

- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.”

The catechism also makes it clear that just because a statement is factually correct, that doesn’t mean we have a right to blab:

“2488: The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.”

The authors of the catechism are particularly concerned that personal lives of individuals should have their dignity protected:

“2492: Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom.”


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