Thursday, July 22, 2021


 The Pillar recently published a story about a high-ranking monsignor who was removed from his position when the news and analysis site obtained publicly accessible information that he had been actively using the hookup app Grindr, indeed seems to have done so even while on assignment for the conference of bishops. Something of a controversy erupted over the ethics of this; my view of all that is pretty much that of Darwin. I think most of the attempts to make a scandal of The Pillar's publishing the story border on morally obtuse, frankly. But one argument that came up is one I've heard in other contexts, and I think it needs to be addressed directly, namely, the argument that publishing this was detraction. So let's talk a bit about detraction.

Detraction, sometimes also called backbiting due to its use in the Dominican Fathers translation of the Summa, is the denigration or blackening of another's reputation (fama) by concealed words. 'Concealed' doesn't mean 'secret', exactly, although you could often translate it that way; rather, it means what we would mean if we said it was 'not done to your face'. (Denigration of someone's reputation to their face is a different sin, called 'calumny'.) The detractor uses words to injure your reputation when you are not actually present and cannot know that he is doing so, and this can happen even if the act itself is done quite publicly. It is an act of injustice. Injustice against our neighbor involves expanding rings, insofar as injuring a person can be done more or less directly; some injustices are directly against the person, others against the person's honor or body, others against goods external to but connected to the person. Of the external goods, the most connected to the person is reputation, with property less important but more obvious. Reputation is a means for achieving many things important for life; losing your good reputation is an even more serious loss than losing your property. You can lose your reputation due to someone else's words in many ways: someone might spread falsehoods about you; or someone might spread word that you have done something wrong that you really did do, but while exaggerating the wrongness of your deed; or they may reveal something bad you did that was otherwise unknown; or they may smear your good deeds by claiming that they were done from bad motives; or they might play down the good you have done by treating it as less than it is. 

However, if we think of property, it's pretty clear that while having your property taken from you is in some way bad for you, it nonetheless would not be true to say that every action that takes someone's property is itself a bad action. Punishments sometimes involve confiscation of goods people own; that this is bad for the owners is not, however, enough to say it is unjust. The same thing is true with acts that cause injury to another's reputation. Setting aside the obvious cases in which the injury is entirely accidental, there are many situations in which you could injure someone's reputation, even knowingly, that would not be detraction. The most important rule is this: an action done for what is good or necessary and in a way that takes into account the circumstances is never detraction. If, for instance, you were protecting someone else and the only way to do that would be to reveal that someone else had done something wrong, the loss of reputation to the latter person does not make it wrong if you have revealed the wrongdoing in a way that's not indiscriminate but takes into account any issues that might be relevant to the situation. If (and this is quite important for this particular case) you are protecting the integrity of a public office, or protecting society or the Church from being used as cover for repeated wrongdoing, this is a good and necessary thing. You still have to take care how you do it, but as long as you do, you have done nothing wrong.

In this case, the wrongdoing was repeated (indeed, it seems to have been done on quite the scale), it was by someone in an important public office and the wrongdoing was specifically inappropriate to the office (even setting aside the fact that he was a priest, one of the things the monsignor was in charge of was transparency and accountability for the purpose of avoiding more church scandals due to priestly wrongdoing), and it was only hidden or private in an incidental way to begin with (for better or for worse, it is the kind of information that is easily and legally obtainable, and only hidden in the sense that one leaf is hidden by being one leaf out of a very large number on the tree). You can decry, if you like, that so much of our lives that we think private is in fact open to anyone in the public who takes an interest in it, due to how social media and the internet works, but it doesn't change the fact that much of it is open to anyone who actually looks. All of us are sinners, to be sure; extreme or habitual sins nonetheless should entirely disqualify anyone who commits them for particular services and offices in the Church. The Church has had decades of struggle due to inadequate discipline for priests engaging in repeated misbehavior; a priest who keeps misbehaving in a context in which it just takes a data dive or algorithm to discover it should not be in an important office. To take steps to address this problem is a public service to everyone. And as to doing it the right way, The Pillar forewarned the USCCB that the story was coming out and gave the monsignor the option to respond, even though he chose not to do so. Beyond that, at most you can criticize some of the phrasing of the article, and that's a pretty limited ground for such bald accusations of detraction. 

And a good rule of thumb in these cases is to ask what the restoration would be. If detraction has genuinely been committed, the remedy for that is restoring the reputation; exactly how that is done will vary, but justice is the most regular and orderly virtue and sins of injustice have quite precise remedies. If you engage in detraction by trying to accuse someone's good deed of really having bad motives, you can remedy by apologizing and making clear that you had no basis for the accusation; if you spread falsehoods, you can publicly show yourself to have done so and correct the information; and so forth. When the detraction is based on truth, it is a little trickier, because in fact in such cases the loss of reputation is partly not due to the detraction but to the wrongdoing itself. But you should still be able to do some restoration for your part in the injury. In this case, though, what relevant restoration could you attempt that would not be covering up a serious problem that affects everyone in the Church? It's hard to see that there is anything at all that could be done. This is not an infallible sign, but it's a good sign that there is no detraction, or at least that the charge of detraction should not be applied glibly here. If there's genuine detraction, there's always a precise kind of restoration possible.

Some people, of course, are angered by the article because they don't think there's anything wrong with a priest repeatedly hooking up in casual sexual encounters while serving in an important office for the Church. Their opinion is of no consequence or value whatsoever. As to others, I don't really know what they are thinking. I started noticing a number of years ago a common (and I think quite lazy) tendency among Catholics of very different stripes to accuse others of engaging in detraction as (I guess) a sort of defensive reaction to exposure of some problem. It's odd, really; anyone with a serious regard for the matter surely could see immediately that going around accusing particular people of the sin of detraction without adequate cause and not specifically in their presence is in fact one form of the sin of detraction. It is one of the features of many forms of injustice by words that accusing people of committing them can sometimes be forms of the very same kind of injustice. This is definitely true of detraction. It is a charge that should not be made lightly. And one should also be quite wary about attempts to use accusations of detraction to shut people up about something; vice has a tendency to try to blackmail virtue by accusing it of really being vice, and our dove-like innocence should be crowned with serpentine savvy whenever accusations are made against anyone.

Detraction does occur, and it is not exactly a rare sin, but most people are quite aware of the dangers of allowing for easy injury to reputations, and are at least able to see far enough along reciprocity to recognize that it's an area in which we all benefit from restraint. There are always exceptions, but most actual cases of detraction are venial and nonmalicious, due to taking how someone's reputation can be affected by words too lightly, or even well-meaning, having matters of genuine good and right in view but just failing to take into account the circumstances. Deliberate, malicious detraction can be quite nasty, of course; it is also not especially common, and particularly not outside of situations in which people let themselves get heated up by political argument. Even when genuinely committed, it is usually not the end of the world, and voting yourself the authority to go around accusing people of engaging in it  is not usually reasonable or proportionate to the circumstances. And we also have to keep some room not to be rigorist about it. Not everybody sees the same circumstances, and some circumstances are even hard to see, so it happens that two entirely reasonable people can make different judgment calls about what the right thing to do is. Just because you would have done things differently, even if you would have been quite reasonable and prudent to do so, does not automatically mean that the other person was unreasonable and imprudent in doing what they did. There are many moral situations in which you could go either way, and do so well, not because the moral principles themselves are in any way ambiguous, but because there are lots of things that have to be taken into account.

So, in short: Even where there is genuine injury to reputation, we should not jump quickly to accusing particular people of detraction; even when there is detraction, we have to be careful about accusing particular people of it; even when accusing someone of detraction reasonably, we have to modulate our accusation according to the actual circumstances; we should often raise a skeptical eyebrow when people are accused of detraction; and in disputed areas it can sometimes happen that an action that would be detraction if you did it is not detraction if someone else does it because of different circumstances. But in this case, again, there seems to be no adequate grounds for the accusation; given the circumstances, it is hard to pin down any grounds for it at all, and I haven't seen anyone identify anything that was both relevant to the charge of detraction and incapable of an alternative interpretation.