This originally posted in early December 2020 amidst all the “stop the steal” chatter – which has reached a crescendo not imagined. I thought the post worth repeating. We are morally bound to our words.
“Calumny” is not a word that finds common usage in most people’s everyday vocabulary. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines “calumny” as “the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another’s reputation.” The word came into English in the 15th century and comes from the Middle French word calomnie of the same meaning. Calomnie, in turn, derives from the Latin word calumnia, (meaning “false accusation,” “false claim,” or “trickery”), which itself traces to the Latin verb calvi, meaning “to deceive.” Calumny made an appearance in these famous words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go.” Hamlet is basically tormenting poor Ophelia. He tells her that, as a woman, she will never escape slander.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks to calumny. I have included the section on “calumny” for your edification.
Life in Christ (Part 3), The Ten Commandment (Section 2)
Chapter Two (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”)
Article 8 (The Eighth Commandment)
III. Offenses Against Truth
2475 Christ’s disciples have “put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”274 By “putting away falsehood,” they are to “put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander.”275
2476 False witness and perjury. When it is made publicly, a statement contrary to the truth takes on a particular gravity. In court it becomes false witness.276 When it is under oath, it is perjury. Acts such as these contribute to condemnation of the innocent, exoneration of the guilty, or the increased punishment of the accused.277 They gravely compromise the exercise of justice and the fairness of judicial decisions.
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.278 He becomes guilty:
- of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
- of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;279
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
274 Eph 4:24.
275 Eph 4:25; 1 Pet 2:1.
276 Cf. Prov 19:9.
277 Cf. Prov 18:5.
278 Cf. CIC, can. 220.
False witness, perjury, rash judgment, detraction, or calumny – all are offenses against the truth of the matter. The current public statements about the validity of the recent presidential elections can be popularly dismissed as “just politics,” but one does not so easily escape the moral dimensions of such public utterances nor the consequences.
“Stop the Steal” is a popular expression among a certain cohort of the American population. Given that there have more than 30 judicial forums in which to present evidence of fact and all cases have been dismissed, most for a lack of evidence, and yet the “Stop the Steal” movement continues. At what point do the advocates of the movement locate themselves along the spectrum of rash judgment, detraction or calumny. While the section of the Catechism is called “Offenses Against Truth,” we are speaking of what is commonly called “sin.”
The radio or television show host who makes the charge or “asks” the question. The President who tweets. The individual in private conversation repeats “what everyone knows.” Are they operating on this spectrum of sin? Such are the moral questions one should ask before participating in what the movement claims and yet, after almost a month, not only can’t prove, but offers no evidence acceptable by a court of law. Offering claims that have mostly been debunked.
But what about the consequences of all of this. There is a famous story about St. Padre Pio who offers a person a two-part penance for their confession. Part one is to go into the village, purchase a chicken, and then roam all throughout the streets plucking the chicken. Part two is to return to the village and pick up all the feathers. Of course, it is a task impossible for who can know where the feathers go. Such is the nature of gossip. Does calumny have its own story of caution?
History presents a chilling example of calumny in post-1918 Germany. Jochen Bittner offers a comparison in which he makes clear he is speaking about the consequences of the calumny as an example, which when it persists, erodes the foundations of society.
In 1918, Germany was staring at defeat. The entry of the United States into the war the year before, and a sequence of successful counterattacks by British and French forces, left German forces demoralized. Navy sailors went on strike. They had no appetite to be butchered in the hopeless yet supposedly holy mission of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the loyal aristocrats who made up the Supreme Army Command.
A starving population joined the strikes and demands for a republic grew. On Nov. 9, 1918, Wilhelm abdicated, and two days later the army leaders signed the armistice. It was too much to bear for many: Military officers, monarchists and right-wingers spread the myth that if it had not been for political sabotage by Social Democrats and Jews back home, the army would never have had to give in.
The deceit found willing supporters. “Im Felde unbesiegt” — “undefeated on the battlefield” — was the slogan with which returning soldiers were greeted. Newspapers and postcards depicted German soldiers being stabbed in the back by either evil figures carrying the red flag of socialism or grossly caricatured Jews.
By the time of the Treaty of Versailles the following year, the myth was already well established. The harsh conditions imposed by the Allies, including painful reparation payments, burnished the sense of betrayal. It was especially incomprehensible that Germany, in just a couple of years, had gone from one of the world’s most respected nations to its biggest loser.
The startling aspect about the Dolchstosslegende is this: It did not grow weaker after 1918 but stronger. In the face of humiliation and unable or unwilling to cope with the truth, many Germans embarked on a disastrous self-delusion: The nation had been betrayed, but its honor and greatness could never be lost. And those without a sense of national duty and righteousness — the left and even the elected government of the new republic — could never be legitimate custodians of the country.
In this way, the myth was not just the sharp wedge that drove the Weimar Republic apart. It was also at the heart of Nazi propaganda, and instrumental in justifying violence against opponents. The key to Hitler’s success was that, by 1933, a considerable part of the German electorate had put the ideas embodied in the myth — honor, greatness, national pride — above democracy. [The author makes clear that he is not comparing Hitler to any other politicians, only the consequences of calumny upon a nation]
The Germans were so worn down by the lost war, unemployment and international humiliation that they fell prey to the promises of a “Führer” who cracked down hard on anyone perceived as “traitors,” leftists and Jews above all. The stab-in-the-back myth was central to it all. When Hitler became chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter wrote that “irrepressible pride goes through the millions” who fought so long to “undo the shame of 9 November 1918.”
Germany’s first democracy fell. Without a basic consensus built on a shared reality, society split into groups of ardent, uncompromising partisans. And in an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia, the notion that dissenters were threats to the nation steadily took hold.
“1918 Germany Has a Warning for America” by Jochen Bittner (in New York Times, Nov 30, 2020)
Longer in the telling that the story of Padre Pio, but no less the cautionary tale. One does not so easily escape the moral dimensions of such public utterances nor the consequences. Not as an individual, not as a nation.
Make of this what you will, but as a person of faith, your political convictions aside, you are morally bound to your words. Words are your thoughts spoken and presage the actions you will take, the habits your form, the character you build, and the person you are becoming. Choose your words well lest one commits “Offenses Against Truth.”