“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). The “golden rule” given to us by Christ is applicable in many moral dilemmas, including gossip.
Gossip is speaking about the private affairs of another or the spreading of rumors about another. St. Thomas Aquinas treats gossip as an offense against the virtue of justice, as we spread knowledge that is not ours to tell, or we spread untruths as fact.
Gossip harms reputations by spreading a supposed fact that may have been altered as it was spread or is simply not true at all. One may also spread gossip by saying something that is true about a person, even something that is known but is said just to harm their character. Gossip can also be spread by making fun of someone due to a physical trait or for who they are as a person.
As you can tell from the preceding definition of gossip, it’s a sin. In Leviticus, God says to the people, “You shall not go about spreading slander among your people” (19:16). This sin harms our relationship with God, who calls us to a communion of love with our brothers and sisters. We injure another too when we gossip and harm our relationship with them.
Listening to gossip is also sinful. While someone should not spread gossip in the first place, one who hears it should speak up for the person being spoken about. They may also seek to change the topic or end the conversation completely.
While sinful, gossip can vary in its seriousness. Some of the factors one should consider when judging the severity of the sin is the content of what was said, who and how many people heard it, and the circumstances around what was spoken or heard.
It’s not necessarily gossiping every time we speak about someone who is not present. For instance, we may need to seek counsel about how to handle a difficult conversation or a touchy situation. This may involve speaking about other people who are involved but are not present at the time we are speaking about them. If we are keeping the conversation circumspect to a particular situation and saying only what needs to be said for the sake of seeking counsel, this is not sinful.
We might also speak about a person or a situation to a trusted confidant to air frustration. The goal of such a conversation should not just be one of complaint but to help us to reach a more positive state of mind.
When thinking about if I should say something about someone consider this: Would I appreciate them saying something similar about me if I was not present?
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in St. Louis.