Feb 18

Mirror of Sin

My grandfather used to say that the habits or faults of other people that annoy us the most may be ones we are also guilty of. I guess that was his atheistic Quaker version of Luke 6:41. I am very often reminded of that lesson and it has been an important part of my maturation process and growth in faith. It's a lesson I have to relearn over and over again. It's painful, the saying true – no pain, no gain.

There are times (too many to count) God puts me in a situation in which I find myself correcting someone for a fault I too am guilty of. Sometimes I get sort of a "spider sense" feeling as I reprove a friend, knowing all the while that I'll learn Pop-pop's lesson before I'm through. Other times, I'm too blinded by my own self-righteousness to see what's coming. It's a very humbling a experience either way.

I'm writing about this now because events of yesterday and today have re-taught me that lesson. This morning, I was looking for an explanation of the sin of detraction. I found one and proceeded to read it, ready to copy and paste the bits that would help me correct a friend of mine. As I read the definition, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I realized that I'd been guilty of detraction on numerous occasions and didn't even think it might be sinful.

Detraction is related to calumny, which most Jews and Christians would recognize as breaking the commandment to not bear false witness against a neighbor. Usually we know when we're committing calumny. Detraction is a sin that doesn't get much mention in Christian circles, but it should. Here's part of the definition of detraction. Examine your heart.

(From Latin detrahere, to take away).

Detraction is the unjust damaging of another's good name by the revelation of some fault or crime of which that other is really guilty or at any rate is seriously believed to be guilty by the defamer. An important difference between detraction and calumny is at once apparent. The calumniator says what he knows to be false, whilst the detractor narrates what he at least honestly thinks is true. Detraction in a general sense is a mortal sin, as being a violation of the virtue not only of charity but also of justice.


Those who abet another's defamation in a matter of moment by directly or indirectly inciting or encouraging the principal in the case are guilty of grievous injustice. When, however, one's attitude is simply a passive one, i.e. that of a mere listener, prescinding from any interior satisfaction at the blackening of another's good name, ordinarily the sin is not mortal unless one happens to be a superior. The reason is that private persons are seldom obliged to administer fraternal correction under pain of mortal sin (see CORRECTION, FRATERNAL). The detractor having violated an unimpeachable right of another is bound to restitution. He must do his best to put back the one whom he has thus outraged in possession of the fair fame which the latter hitherto enjoyed. He must likewise make good whatever other loss he in some measure foresaw his victim would sustain as a result of this unfair defamation, such as damage measurable in terms of money. The obligation in either instance is perfectly clear. The method of discharging this plain duty is not so obvious in the first case. In fact, since the thing alleged is assumed to be true, it cannot be formally taken back, and some of the suggestions of theologians as to the style of reparation are more ingenious than satisfactory. Generally the only thing that can be done is to bide one's time until an occasion presents itself for a favorable characterization of the person defamed. The obligation of the detractor to make compensation for pecuniary loss and the like is not only personal but becomes a burden on his heirs as well.

Read the rest of the definition here.

Update 09/21/06: I now know that my grandfather was paraphrasing a line from Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier's "The Chapel of the Hermits".

 "Search thine own heart. What paineth thee in others in thyself may be."

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