It is possible to injure another’s good name either by telling lies about that person or by revealing hidden faults which should not be revealed.
One of the main reasons why lies are forbidden by the Eighth Commandment is that they destroy community and healthy social relationships. Since man is a social being he absolutely needs human society in order to grow to full maturity as a man. Consequently, whatever militates against human community is contrary to man’s nature, contrary to the will of God and therefore forbidden by God.
Obviously, there are different kinds of lies. “Lies of convenience”, that is, lies told in order to extricate oneself from an embarrassing situation, normally do not damage the reputation of another. If successful, they are known only in the depths of the conscience of the one who told them. There are different kinds of statements that injure the reputation of another.
It is possible to injure another’s good name either by telling lies about that person or by revealing hidden faults which should not be revealed. To tell lies about another person is called calumny or slander. To reveal the hidden faults or sins of another without sufficient cause, in such wise that the person’s reputation or good name is seriously damaged, is called the sin of detraction. Many people find it hard to remember the exact meaning of each of these words. Years ago one of my grade school teachers, a Franciscan nun, told me that the way to remember which is which is to concentrate on the l and the t. If you remember that l stands for “lie” and t stands for “truth”, you can recall the difference between calumny and detraction.
I do not believe that it is necessary to belabor the point that each person has a right to his or her good name. A good name is something that we earn by reason or our good deeds. It concerns the public estimation of a person’s intellectual and moral excellence. In a very real sense, a person’s good name is his or her property it belongs to the person concerned as a strict right. Hence the violation of a person’s good name is a sin against the virtue of justice.
The good name or reputation of another can be damaged, or even totally destroyed, in a number of ways. To calumniate another is certainly to ruin his good name and so to do him an injustice. Many Catholics seem to be unaware of the fact that detraction is also a sin a sin contrary to the Eighth Commandment. The seriousness of the sin, in the case of both calumny and detraction, depends upon the gravity of the injury done to the other party. The sin can be either venial or mortal, depending on the circumstances.
While treating of the Seventh Commandment, I pointed out that the sins against justice require some kind of restitution. It is often hard to determine, in a given case, how this is to be done and how much restitution is required, but the basic principle stands. It follows then, since both calumny and detraction are violations of justice, that both demand some kind of restitution. A person who has lied about another can often right the wrong he has done by retracting the lie and stating the truth. In the case of detraction the situation is more difficult, since it is not a matter of lying but of revealing the hidden sins or faults of another that should not be revealed in these circumstances. Frequently little can be done in the practical order. One cannot deny the statements since they actually are true; to deny them would be to add a lie to the previous detraction. Some moralists recommend, in this situation, apologies and praise of the person’s good points.
Do you know what a rash judgment is? It is an internal act of the mind by which one person attributes evil actions or motives to another without any kind of evidence for such a judgment. A rash judgment is a kind of lie to oneself. Such judgments damage another person in our own eyes, when there is no really objective reason for doing so. Because of our fallen human nature we all tend to make rash judgments about others often without even reflecting on what we are doing. It is especially easy to judge rashly people we do not like, people who have offended us, people who differ from us in one way or another. It is unreasonable to make rash judgments. Such judgments involve a misuse of our interior faculties, especially our mind and our will. Hence they are contrary to the Eighth Commandment and sinful. We should examine ourselves to see if we occasionally rashly judge others and we should strive to make our judgments correspond to the facts.
What is in our minds is eventually uttered by our tongues. The tongue is a small member of the body, but it possesses great power either for good or for evil.