I am sure that many readers remember, perhaps with some affection, the old, red-jacketed, Penny Catechism. I once knew most of it by heart – having been required to learn a few questions every day – and to be prepared to answer them in class. (If you want to look at a copy, it can be found on the Internet.) Such theological understanding that I may have has been built on that secure foundation.
Question 221, under the heading of the eighth commandment, reads:
“Calumny and detraction are forbidden by the eighth commandment, and tale bearing, and any words which injure our neighbour’s character.”
Calumny, I understood, refers to false information, detraction to true information.
Oh dear! I wonder how many times I have broken that commandment. I like to think that it was only inattention rather than malice. But the damage is just the same.
Many years ago, early in our marriage – and poor by comparison with the church mice – we set up a youth club in the parish. An immediate task was to raise funds – which we did by begging items from parishioners and selling them for the best price we could get. And then we heard that a lady in the parish was circulating the rumour that we were skimming some of the proceeds into our own pockets. You can imagine how damaging that would be within a gossipy parish community. We called in the pp, and informed the lady that we would take action if the allegation was not withdrawn. So it was all sorted out, and the lady still smiles at us as if butter wouldn’t melt – but we wonder to this day, after half a century, whether there is the occasional ancient parishioner who mutters, “Those Bedoyeres – there’s no smoke without a fire.” It continues to hurt.
Of the two, I think detraction is the worst. At least with calumny it may be possible to demonstrate the falsehood, but the victim is stuck with detraction. I am not of course thinking of responsible whistleblowing, but that little unpleasant truth, which we can spread about with the best will in the world. After all, we have to tell the truth – and people ought to know.
So do we take pleasure in noticing first the bad side of people? Perhaps a test might be a story in the newspaper. Are we inclined to take the paper’s verdict with a righteous tut-tut, or do we first consider whether we have the whole story? There are some, nameless, newspapers (which I do not read very often) which lead me to think that the editor’s knowledge of the eighth commandment is sparse.
But the commonest situation I suspect is “harmless” gossip when we discuss people we know. Do we instinctively talk about their good points first, and then deal charitably with their bad points – if these even need to come into the conversation? Some sociologists argue that gossip is an instrument developed by evolution through which we regulate society and preserve its standards. They even suggest that the high development of the human brain has come about through women gossiping, while their menfolk are out in the bush – merely grunting to each other as they hunt prey.
All I know is that I would prefer others to talk first about any good points I may have, and only reluctantly – if at all – to refer to my shortcomings. And of this I am sure: on the Day of Judgment I would prefer the Almighty to look at my good points first, and to forget, as far as possible, all the others. And if I want God to do that, my best strategy may be to follow it myself.