QUESTION 73: OF BACKBITING
We must now consider backbiting, under which head there are four points
(1) What is backbiting?
(2) Whether it is a mortal sin?
(3) Of its comparison with other sins;
(4) Whether it is a sin to listen to backbiting?
Article 1: Whether backbiting is suitably defined as the blackening of another's character by secret words?
Objection 1: It would seem that backbiting is not as defined by some [*Albert
the Great, Sum. Theol. II, cxvii.], "the blackening of another's good
name by words uttered in secret." For "secretly" and "openly" are
circumstances that do not constitute the species of a sin, because it is
accidental to a sin that it be known by many or by few. Now that which
does not constitute the species of a sin, does not belong to its essence,
and should not be included in its definition. Therefore it does not
belong to the essence of backbiting that it should be done by secret
Objection 2: Further, the notion of a good name implies something known to the
public. If, therefore, a person's good name is blackened by backbiting,
this cannot be done by secret words, but by words uttered openly.
Objection 3: Further, to detract is to subtract, or to diminish something
already existing. But sometimes a man's good name is blackened, even
without subtracting from the truth: for instance, when one reveals the
crimes which a man has in truth committed. Therefore not every blackening
of a good name is backbiting.
On the contrary, It is written (Eccles. 10:11): "If a serpent bite in
silence, he is nothing better that backbiteth."
I answer that, Just as one man injures another by deed in two
ways---openly, as by robbery or by doing him any kind of violence---and
secretly, as by theft, or by a crafty blow, so again one man injures
another by words in two ways---in one way, openly, and this is done by
reviling him, as stated above (Question , Article )---and in another way
secretly, and this is done by backbiting. Now from the fact that one man
openly utters words against another man, he would appear to think little
of him, so that for this reason he dishonors him, so that reviling is
detrimental to the honor of the person reviled. On the other hand, he
that speaks against another secretly, seems to respect rather than slight
him, so that he injures directly, not his honor but his good name, in so
far as by uttering such words secretly, he, for his own part, causes his
hearers to have a bad opinion of the person against whom he speaks. For
the backbiter apparently intends and aims at being believed. It is
therefore evident that backbiting differs from reviling in two points:
first, in the way in which the words are uttered, the reviler speaking
openly against someone, and the backbiter secretly; secondly, as to the
end in view, i.e. as regards the injury inflicted, the reviler injuring a
man's honor, the backbiter injuring his good name.
Reply to Objection 1: In involuntary commutations, to which are reduced all
injuries inflicted on our neighbor, whether by word or by deed, the kind
of sin is differentiated by the circumstances "secretly" and "openly,"
because involuntariness itself is diversified by violence and by
ignorance, as stated above (Question , Article ; FS, Question , Articles ,8).
Reply to Objection 2: The words of a backbiter are said to be secret, not
altogether, but in relation to the person of whom they are said, because
they are uttered in his absence and without his knowledge. On the other
hand, the reviler speaks against a man to his face. Wherefore if a man
speaks ill of another in the presence of several, it is a case of
backbiting if he be absent, but of reviling if he alone be present:
although if a man speak ill of an absent person to one man alone, he
destroys his good name not altogether but partly.
Reply to Objection 3: A man is said to backbite [detrehere] another, not because
he detracts from the truth, but because he lessens his good name. This is
done sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Directly, in four ways:
first, by saying that which is false about him; secondly, by stating his
sin to be greater than it is; thirdly, by revealing something unknown
about him; fourthly, by ascribing his good deeds to a bad intention.
Indirectly, this is done either by gainsaying his good, or by maliciously
concealing it, or by diminishing it.
Article 2: Whether backbiting is a mortal sin?
Objection 1: It would seem that backbiting is not a mortal sin. For no act of
virtue is a mortal sin. Now, to reveal an unknown sin, which pertains to
backbiting, as stated above (Article , ad 3), is an act of the virtue of
charity, whereby a man denounces his brother's sin in order that he may
amend: or else it is an act of justice, whereby a man accuses his
brother. Therefore backbiting is not a mortal sin.
Objection 2: Further, a gloss on Prov. 24:21, "Have nothing to do with
detractors," says: "The whole human race is in peril from this vice." But
no mortal sin is to be found in the whole of mankind, since many refrain
from mortal sin: whereas they are venial sins that are found in all.
Therefore backbiting is a venial sin.
Objection 3: Further, Augustine in a homily On the Fire of Purgatory [*Serm.
civ in the appendix to St. Augustine's work] reckons it a slight sin "to
speak ill without hesitation or forethought." But this pertains to
backbiting. Therefore backbiting is a venial sin.
On the contrary, It is written (Rm. 1:30): "Backbiters, hateful to God,"
which epithet, according to a gloss, is inserted, "lest it be deemed a
slight sin because it consists in words."
I answer that, As stated above (Question , Article ), sins of word should be
judged chiefly from the intention of the speaker. Now backbiting by its
very nature aims at blackening a man's good name. Wherefore, properly
speaking, to backbite is to speak ill of an absent person in order to
blacken his good name. Now it is a very grave matter to blacken a man's
good name, because of all temporal things a man's good name seems the
most precious, since for lack of it he is hindered from doing many things
well. For this reason it is written (Ecclus. 41:15): "Take care of a good
name, for this shall continue with thee, more than a thousand treasures
precious and great." Therefore backbiting, properly speaking, is a mortal
sin. Nevertheless it happens sometimes that a man utters words, whereby
someone's good name is tarnished, and yet he does not intend this, but
something else. This is not backbiting strictly and formally speaking,
but only materially and accidentally as it were. And if such defamatory
words be uttered for the sake of some necessary good, and with attention
to the due circumstances, it is not a sin and cannot be called
backbiting. But if they be uttered out of lightness of heart or for some
unnecessary motive, it is not a mortal sin, unless perchance the spoken
word be of such a grave nature, as to cause a notable injury to a man's
good name, especially in matters pertaining to his moral character,
because from the very nature of the words this would be a mortal sin. And
one is bound to restore a man his good name, no less than any other
thing one has taken from him, in the manner stated above (Question , Article )
when we were treating of restitution.
Reply to Objection 1: As stated above, it is not backbiting to reveal a man's
hidden sin in order that he may mend, whether one denounce it, or accuse
him for the good of public justice.
Reply to Objection 2: This gloss does not assert that backbiting is to be found
throughout the whole of mankind, but "almost," both because "the number
of fools is infinite," [*Eccles. 1:15] and few are they that walk in the
way of salvation, [*Cf. Mt. 7:14] and because there are few or none at
all who do not at times speak from lightness of heart, so as to injure
someone's good name at least slightly, for it is written (James 3:2): "If
any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man."
Reply to Objection 3: Augustine is referring to the case when a man utters a
slight evil about someone, not intending to injure him, but through
lightness of heart or a slip of the tongue.
Article 3: Whether backbiting is the gravest of all sins committed against one's neighbor?
Objection 1: It would seem that backbiting is the gravest of all sins
committed against one's neighbor. Because a gloss on Ps. 108:4, "Instead
of making me a return of love they detracted me," a gloss says: "Those
who detract Christ in His members and slay the souls of future believers
are more guilty than those who killed the flesh that was soon to rise
again." From this it seems to follow that backbiting is by so much a
graver sin than murder, as it is a graver matter to kill the soul than to
kill the body. Now murder is the gravest of the other sins that are
committed against one's neighbor. Therefore backbiting is absolutely the
gravest of all.
Objection 2: Further, backbiting is apparently a graver sin than reviling,
because a man can withstand reviling, but not a secret backbiting. Now
backbiting is seemingly a graver sin than adultery, because adultery
unites two persons in one flesh, whereas reviling severs utterly those
who were united. Therefore backbiting is more grievous than adultery: and
yet of all other sins a man commits against his neighbor, adultery is
Objection 3: Further, reviling arises from anger, while backbiting arises from
envy, according to Gregory (Moral. xxxi, 45). But envy is a graver sin
than anger. Therefore backbiting is a graver sin than reviling; and so
the same conclusion follows as before.
Objection 4: Further, the gravity of a sin is measured by the gravity of the
defect that it causes. Now backbiting causes a most grievous defect, viz.
blindness of mind. For Gregory says (Regist. xi, Ep. 2): "What else do
backbiters but blow on the dust and stir up the dirt into their eyes, so
that the more they breathe of detraction, the less they see of the
truth?" Therefore backbiting is the most grievous sin committed against
On the contrary, It is more grievous to sin by deed than by word. But
backbiting is a sin of word, while adultery, murder, and theft are sins
of deed. Therefore backbiting is not graver than the other sins committed
against one's neighbor.
I answer that, The essential gravity of sins committed against one's
neighbor must be weighed by the injury they inflict on him, since it is
thence that they derive their sinful nature. Now the greater the good
taken away, the greater the injury. And while man's good is threefold,
namely the good of his soul, the good of his body, and the good of
external things; the good of the soul, which is the greatest of all,
cannot be taken from him by another save as an occasional cause, for
instance by an evil persuasion, which does not induce necessity. On the
other hand the two latter goods, viz. of the body and of external things,
can be taken away by violence. Since, however, the goods of the body
excel the goods of external things, those sins which injure a man's body
are more grievous than those which injure his external things.
Consequently, among other sins committed against one's neighbor, murder
is the most grievous, since it deprives man of the life which he already
possesses: after this comes adultery, which is contrary to the right
order of human generation, whereby man enters upon life. In the last
place come external goods, among which a man's good name takes precedence
of wealth because it is more akin to spiritual goods, wherefore it is
written (Prov. 22:1): "A good name is better than great riches."
Therefore backbiting according to its genus is a more grievous sin than
theft, but is less grievous than murder or adultery. Nevertheless the
order may differ by reason of aggravating or extenuating circumstances.
The accidental gravity of a sin is to be considered in relation to the
sinner, who sins more grievously, if he sins deliberately than if he sins
through weakness or carelessness. In this respect sins of word have a
certain levity, in so far as they are apt to occur through a slip of the
tongue, and without much forethought.
Reply to Objection 1: Those who detract Christ by hindering the faith of His
members, disparage His Godhead, which is the foundation of our faith.
Wherefore this is not simple backbiting but blasphemy.
Reply to Objection 2: Reviling is a more grievous sin than backbiting, in as much
as it implies greater contempt of one's neighbor: even as robbery is a
graver sin than theft, as stated above (Question , Article ). Yet reviling is not
a more grievous sin than adultery. For the gravity of adultery is
measured, not from its being a union of bodies, but from being a disorder
in human generation. Moreover the reviler is not the sufficient cause of
unfriendliness in another man, but is only the occasional cause of
division among those who were united, in so far, to wit, as by declaring
the evils of another, he for his own part severs that man from the
friendship of other men, though they are not forced by his words to do
so. Accordingly a backbiter is a murderer "occasionally," since by his
words he gives another man an occasion for hating or despising his
neighbor. For this reason it is stated in the Epistle of Clement [*Ad
Jacob. Ep. i], that "backbiters are murderers," i.e. occasionally;
because "he that hateth his brother is a murderer" (1 Jn. 3:15).
Reply to Objection 3: Anger seeks openly to be avenged, as the Philosopher states
(Rhet. ii, 2): wherefore backbiting which takes place in secret, is not
the daughter of anger, as reviling is, but rather of envy, which strives
by any means to lessen one's neighbor's glory. Nor does it follow from
this that backbiting is more grievous than reviling: since a lesser vice
can give rise to a greater sin, just as anger gives birth to murder and
blasphemy. For the origin of a sin depends on its inclination to an end,
i.e. on the thing to which the sin turns, whereas the gravity of a sin
depends on what it turns away from.
Reply to Objection 4: Since "a man rejoiceth in the sentence of his mouth" (Prov. 15:23), it follows that a backbiter more and more loves and believes what
he says, and consequently more and more hates his neighbor, and thus his
knowledge of the truth becomes less and less. This effect however may
also result from other sins pertaining to hate of one's neighbor.
Article 4: Whether it is a grave sin for the listener to suffer the backbiter?
Objection 1: It would seem that the listener who suffers a backbiter does not
sin grievously. For a man is not under greater obligations to others than
to himself. But it is praiseworthy for a man to suffer his own
backbiters: for Gregory says (Hom. ix, super Ezech): "Just as we ought
not to incite the tongue of backbiters, lest they perish, so ought we to
suffer them with equanimity when they have been incited by their own
wickedness, in order that our merit may be the greater." Therefore a man
does not sin if he does not withstand those who backbite others.
Objection 2: Further, it is written (Ecclus. 4:30): "In no wise speak against
the truth." Now sometimes a person tells the truth while backbiting, as
stated above (Article , ad 3). Therefore it seems that one is not always
bound to withstand a backbiter.
Objection 3: Further, no man should hinder what is profitable to others. Now
backbiting is often profitable to those who are backbitten: for Pope Pius
[*St. Pius I] says [*Append. Grat. ad can. Oves, caus. vi, qu. 1]: "Not
unfrequently backbiting is directed against good persons, with the result
that those who have been unduly exalted through the flattery of their
kindred, or the favor of others, are humbled by backbiting." Therefore
one ought not to withstand backbiters.
On the contrary, Jerome says (Ep. ad Nepot. lii): "Take care not to have
an itching tongue, nor tingling ears, that is, neither detract others
nor listen to backbiters."
I answer that, According to the Apostle (Rm. 1:32), they "are worthy of
death . . . not only they that" commit sins, "but they also that consent
to them that do them." Now this happens in two ways. First, directly,
when, to wit, one man induces another to sin, or when the sin is pleasing
to him: secondly, indirectly, that is, if he does not withstand him when
he might do so, and this happens sometimes, not because the sin is
pleasing to him, but on account of some human fear.
Accordingly we must say that if a man list ens to backbiting without
resisting it, he seems to consent to the backbiter, so that he becomes a
participator in his sin. And if he induces him to backbite, or at least
if the detraction be pleasing to him on account of his hatred of the
person detracted, he sins no less than the detractor, and sometimes more.
Wherefore Bernard says (De Consid. ii, 13): "It is difficult to say which
is the more to be condemned the backbiter or he that listens to
backbiting." If however the sin is not pleasing to him, and he fails to
withstand the backbiter, through fear negligence, or even shame, he sins
indeed, but much less than the backbiter, and, as a rule venially.
Sometimes too this may be a mortal sin, either because it is his official
duty to cor. rect the backbiter, or by reason of some consequent danger;
or on account of the radical reason for which human fear may sometimes be
a mortal sin, as stated above (Question , Article ).
Reply to Objection 1: No man hears himself backbitten, because when a man is
spoken evil of in his hearing, it is not backbiting, properly speaking,
but reviling, as stated above (Article , ad 2). Yet it is possible for the
detractions uttered against a person to come to his knowledge through
others telling him, and then it is left to his discretion whether he will
suffer their detriment to his good name, unless this endanger the good of
others, as stated above (Question , Article ). Wherefore his patience may deserve
commendation for as much as he suffers patiently being detracted himself.
But it is not left to his discretion to permit an injury to be done to
another's good name, hence he is accounted guilty if he fails to resist
when he can, for the same reason whereby a man is bound to raise another
man's ass lying "underneath his burden," as commanded in Dt. 21:4 [*Ex.
Reply to Objection 2: One ought not always to withstand a backbiter by
endeavoring to convince him of falsehood, especially if one knows that he
is speaking the truth: rather ought one to reprove him with words, for
that he sins in backbiting his brother, or at least by our pained
demeanor show him that we are displeased with his backbiting, because
according to Prov. 25:23, "the north wind driveth away rain, as doth a
sad countenance a backbiting tongue."
Reply to Objection 3: The profit one derives from being backbitten is due, not to
the intention of the backbiter, but to the ordinance of God Who produces
good out of every evil. Hence we should none the less withstand
backbiters, just as those who rob or oppress others, even though the
oppressed and the robbed may gain merit by patience.