“Ask a Priest: Am I Guilty of Detraction?”

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Q: I have a question about the sin of detraction. I can’t tell if I committed it or not. So several months ago, someone told me that this boyfriend/girlfriend pair that we aren’t extremely close to, broke up because one cheated on the other. I was shocked, but I said maybe he didn’t cheat, maybe it was a rumor. Was that the sin of detraction since I learned something bad about another person? Also, I asked another friend, who knew the couple better, to try to understand what happened, but she didn’t actually tell me. Is that a mortal sin that I inquired about it? Also, there was another instance where my friend’s boyfriend cheated on her and she told me and our group of friends, and I said like I never was a big fan of the guy anyway and didn’t think she should date him. Do I have to repair that guy’s reputation? It would be really weird to do that because it was a few months ago and I don’t even know how I would do it. So if I just let it go, is that okay and am I okay to be receiving Communion? I am very scrupulous and am scared I shouldn’t be receiving Communion. -M.F.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear that you are so aware of the sin of detraction, and the damage that can be done to people’s reputation by our words.

As for the first case, while you weren’t guilty of detraction because you didn’t start the story of the alleged cheating, you might have fueled the fire by asking another friend about it; that is, you might have helped to spread the rumor.

What you did was not a mortal sin, however. You weren’t aware of what constitutes detraction and, besides, the couple in question are not married; their obligation to each other is thus limited. “Cheating” in this sense isn’t the same as, say, adultery for a married person. On the other hand, if by “cheating” you mean the young man had intimate relations with someone, then the gossip could be a serious sin because it attributed to him a grave offense which could ruin his reputation.

Likewise, the second case, where someone “cheated” and you said you never cared for the guy, is probably not detraction and certainly not grave matter. It might not have been charitable, but it doesn’t sound as if it was grave matter.

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.”

Detraction can be a venial sin or a mortal sin, depending on what is revealed and for what reason and to whom. Making up for this sin is very difficult; once we speak a bad word about someone, it spreads like wildfire. And it’s hard to extinguish a wildfire.

Perhaps the best thing is to confess these falls, these venial sins, since they can damage your relation with God. Even before then, you could still receive Communion (which, by the way, is in itself a way to receive God’s forgiveness after having sinned venially).

It would good, too, to resolve not to speak ill of others again. If you could focus on speaking of the good of others, you will go a long way to lifting the spirit of those around you.

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