The first reading for today’s Mass is from the Book of Tobit, chapter 3. There in verse 6 is a simple phrase – in the Greek it is oneidismous pseudeis. Depending on the New American Bible translation being used you will either hear “false reproaches” or the less familiar “calumnies.”
“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 calumny (slander).
Did you know that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on the sin of calumny?
CCC 2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. 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;
- of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
False witness, perjury, rash judgment, detraction, or calumny – all are offenses against the truth of the matter.
And what about the talk show hosts who claim “I am only asking the question…” Or the person who repeats what “everybody knows.” Are they operating on this spectrum of sin? Such are the moral questions one should ask before participating in the swirl of charges, claims, and certainty of what is unfounded, possibly not true, and thus morally questionable. In the words of Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Calumny plagues Tobit, Ophelia, and every person who walked the face of the earth because others were just asking the pointed question under the guise of reasonableness or just repeating what everyone knows.
But let me ask a pointed question. Which of the Ten Commandments would you think covers the sin of calumny? Lots of people reply, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Maybe, after all, calumny is a remark contrary to the truth. I wonder if it also has one foot in “Thou shall not kill.” Calumny is the act of uttering false charges or misrepresentations maliciously calculated to harm another’s reputation – or we can say to kill a reputation. I’m only asking…