If a Serpent Bite in Silence...

St. Thomas Aquinas says:
"Just as one man injures another by deed in two ways--openly, as by robbery or by doing him any kind of violence--and secretly, as by theft, or by a crafty blow, so again one man injures another by words in two ways--in one way, openly, and this is done by reviling him, as stated above (Question 72, Article 1)--and in another way secretly, and this is done by backbiting. ..."

In recent weeks Audio Sancto has provided two Catholic sermons on the topic of backbiting. "Backbiting destroys three classes of people. Those who are guilty of it, those who listen to it, and those who are slandered."

There are times when speaking of the faults of another may not be considered backbiting. The Catholic Encyclopedia states:
There are times, nevertheless, when one may lawfully make known the offense of another even though as a consequence the trust hitherto reposed in him be rudely shaken or shattered. If a person's misdoing is public in the sense that sentence has been passed by the competent legal tribunal or that it is already notorious, for instance, in a city, then in the first case it may licitly be referred to in any place; in the second, within the limits of the town, or even elsewhere, unless in either instance the offender in the lapse of time should have entirely reformed or his delinquency been quite forgotten. When, however, knowledge of the happening is possessed only by the members of a particular community or society, such as a college or monastery and the like, it would not be lawful to publish the fact to others than those belonging to such a body. Finally, even when the sin is in no sense public, it may still be divulged without contravening the virtues of justice or charity whenever such a course is for the common weal or is esteemed to make for the good of the narrator, of his listeners, or even of the culprit. The right which the latter has to an assumed good name is extinguished in the presence of the benefit which may be conferred in this way.

The employment of this teaching, however, is limited by a twofold restriction.
  • The damage which one may soberly apprehend as emerging from the failure to reveal another's sin or vicious propensity must be a notable one as contrasted with the evil of defamation.
  • No more in the way of exposure should be done than is required, and even a fraternal admonition ought rather to be substituted if it can be discerned to adequately meet the needs of the situation.

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