“Ask a Priest: When Does Venting Become Detraction?”

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Q: I have a hard time discerning when I am venting versus when I’m committing the sin of detraction. Further yet, I don’t know when venial detraction turns into mortal detraction. Is there a way to tell the difference? – A.Y.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The Catechism in No. 2477 says:

“He becomes guilty […] of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them.”

The key phrase is “without objectively valid reason.” Often there is no pressing need to disclose other people’s faults.

There are, however, times when we do need to speak up.

How to tell the difference? There are no hard-and-fast rules that apply in every case.

Venting, when it consists of violent complaining about other people, has actually be proven, even physiologically, to exacerbate the negative emotions — the boiling pot gets hotter.

Healthy “venting” is something different. It’s speaking with a trusted friend, who understands me, about the difficulties I am having. It is giving voice to my emotions and my difficulties and trying to process them and understand them by speaking about them with someone in a “safe” space.

The focus in this kind of venting should never be on complaining about other people, but on what I am experiencing and how I can respond constructively to that.

In any case, you might want to ask yourself a few questions before saying anything:

— If I were in the other person’s shoes, how would I like someone to deal with a problem that I caused? (Perhaps it’s more charitable to approach the other person privately and calmly and say what’s on your mind.)

— Might I be wrong? (It doesn’t hurt to double-check your facts first.)

— Might the person be struggling with big personal problem? (It doesn’t hurt to give people the benefit of the doubt.)

— Does the person I’m talking to have a right to hear this? (Maybe, maybe not.)

As to the gravity of the sin of revealing another person’s faults, this isn’t easy to measure. Perhaps another question would help:

— If the level of detraction was “only” a venial sin, would I continue to do it? (If the answer is yes, there is a big problem here. It shows a willingness to offend God deliberately.)

To help point yourself in another direction, you might ask how you can cultivate the habit of speaking well of others.

Here, you might find this resource helpful: Sharpening Your Tongue: A Regnum Christi Essay on Charity in Our Words.

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