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“Ask a Priest: Is It OK to Gossip About a Troublesome Person?”
Q: I get worried about gossiping daily. So much so that it causes me great strife. My priest has told me that talking with a close friend about my problems with a certain person is OK and can even be helpful. This has been helpful, since I was trying to keep everything bottled up and was ready to explode. My question is: When does it become sinful? Thank you. – L.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: First, it would be good to try to define what is meant by the word gossip.
One definition describes gossip as “Talk informally about someone else’s private or personal business, esp. spreading negative or scandalous information even though it has not been confirmed to be true.”
Perhaps in your case you aren’t sharing things about a person that are unconfirmed. Rather, you seem to be sharing things that seem to be confirmed, at least from your point of view.
But in common usage the term gossip can also cover things that might be true.
For context it might be helpful to quote from three numbers in the Catechism:
No. 2477 says, “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: — of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.”
No. 2478 says: “To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”
No. 2479 says: “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.”
A key phrase in No. 2477 is: “without objectively valid reason.” I don’t know your full situation. Your local priest probably knows it much better than I, so I won’t try to second-guess him.
Certainly, it isn’t healthy to keep things bottled up to the point where you are ready to explode.
If you need to get things in the open, then it would be good to do it in a constructive way. The ideal would be to go to the person with whom you have the problems, and try to work things out privately.
When you speak with someone else about your difficulties, focus more on your challenges and feelings, not on the faults of the other person. That avoids turning healthy venting into destructive whining or gossip. I recommend our Regnum Christi Essay which goes in depth on this topic, “Sharpening Your Tongue,” available as a booklet or in e-book.
Another good rule of thumb might be this: Don’t complain (elaborating on another person’s faults) to anyone who isn’t able to do something about it. This doesn’t exclude speaking with, say, a spouse about problems. A spouse (ideally) could help you think through things and approach a problem constructively.
Strictly speaking, though, gossip as such is best avoided. It has a way of corroding relationships and souring the tone of conversation.
That you admit to “gossiping daily” sends up a red flag. Constructive conversations about problems lead (again ideally) to resolution. If you find yourself dredging up the same complaints day after day, that isn’t a good sign.
Perhaps this is the moment for a time-out, to refrain from speaking about the troublesome person for a while. Perhaps it would be particularly good to take the whole matter to prayer. The Holy Spirit will guide you.
A good sign that the Spirit is guiding you is that you see a growth in patience with that irksome person who, after all, is a beloved child of God.
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