Words Matter: Two Little Known Sins That Can Kill

Words are powerful, but some of us seem too caught up in the noise of social media, blogs, podcasts and streaming video to pay attention to the effect our words actually have on the world. This is especially true for what I will call “influencers” for the purpose of this article. By influencers I mean writers, bloggers, authors, YouTubers, those with 100,000 Facebook followers and those with only 10. What I am about to discuss exists in all media, but I want to focus on Catholic influencers here. 

How Catholics Should Use Words

A writing coach once said it is good if half the people hate your message and the other half love your message. It means you have something to say. Something that evokes emotion. Emotion instigates conversation, which leads to more likes and subscribers. Should this be the standard for Catholic influencers though, i.e., should they be okay with alienating half of the Church as long as the other half agrees with what they have to say? 

Political influencers and those who create content solely for money might want to carve up groups of people to establish a tribe of followers at whatever the cost. But Catholic influencers have an obligation by their baptism and in their role as sons and daughters of the Father to treat the Body of Christ with due care and with the love Christ expects. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). 

Furthermore, Catholic influencers should be doing everything for God’s glory first, not to make money. “[D]o everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Making a living as an influencer is fine, but when making money is the primary motivator, then that influencer has lost his way. In addition, whatever Catholic influencers might comment on, the Gospel should always live within their message in some way. And the Gospel does not divide the Body of Christ. It unifies it. (Note the difference between the Body of Christ and the rest of the world)

That does not mean Catholic influencers should be cowards or turn a blind eye to corruption or immorality within the Church. However, it does mean Catholic influencers must always act in a way that avoids injuring Christ’s Bride (e.g., causing divisions and misleading the flock). That means all Catholic influencers, even the ones who are not ordained, must bring a pastoral spirit to their work. If they are not willing to do that, then they have no business being an influencer.

Maybe you follow a fiery influencer and you’re thinking, “He speaks the truth and fights for what’s right. This is how the Church works. Don’t you know St Nick punched Arius 1700 years ago?” Let me remind you that division, obstinacy and pride led to Protestantism. Martin Luther thought he had the truth too, but separating himself from the Church made it impossible for him to discern God’s will from his own. 

What Scripture Says About Words and Sins Against the Holy Spirit

The Word of God instructs us on the power of human words. 

“It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one” (Mt 15:11). What we say “proceeds” from our “moral core” (Byrne, 939). Our words express what is in our hearts. If we’re angry, bitter, joyful or peaceful, our words show it. 

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak” (Mt 12:36). We can sin against the Holy Spirit and “kill” with our words (Viviano, 654). Attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan is blasphemy which is unforgivable (Harrelson, 1768; Mt 12:31). Sin against the Holy Spirit is “persistence in consummate and obdurate opposition to the influence of the Holy Spirit” (Viviano, 654). 

The Catechism says, “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury” (emphasis added). A person is guilty “of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor” (CCC 2477). 

Two Sins of the Tongue According to Aquinas: Vilification and Derision

In his Summa Theologica, St Thomas Aquinas discusses two sins, Vilification and Derision, which are both committed primarily through words (Summa Theologica, 2-2, q. 72, 75). These sins don’t receive much attention, though they appear to be the most prevalent in Catholic social media today. 

Vilification occurs when a person uses words or deeds to damage another’s honor (2-2, q. 72, art. 1). Note that vilification can occur even when the target is dishonored for a legitimate defect. A simple act of disrespect can also constitute vilification. Aquinas says vilification is a mortal sin that “merits the punishment of hell.” Though words that could be sinful might be sinless if uttered for the purpose of correcting someone, Aquinas urges “moderation” and “caution” in our speech, i.e., fraternal correction only. Quoting St Augustine, Aquinas notes, “Reproaches should be resorted to rarely and out of great necessity, and in these instances let us insist that it is the Lord who is being served and not ourselves.” Respecting another’s honor applies to all men, and especially concerning people who hold positions of honor and trust inside and outside the Church. 

Derision occurs when a person uses words or deeds to mock another in order to embarrass them (2-2, q. 75, art. 1). Like Vilification, Derision can occur even when the target is derided for a legitimate defect. Though whistleblowing is not only warranted, but even required under certain circumstances, such as to shed light on an immoral or criminal act, using words with the intent to embarrass another is “vicious” and a mortal sin. Furthermore, Aquinas recognized that derision is more grave depending on the amount of respect due to the person being mocked. Therefore, mocking “God and the things of God are most grievous.” That would appear to include mocking any form of the Mass approved by the Church’s Magisterium, even when it is celebrated in a less than perfectly reverential manner. 

Is it Worth the Risk?

Based on the foregoing, then, attacking another Catholic’s honor or ridiculing him by making 17 YouTube videos about his alleged heresies or unholiness because he doesn’t attend the form of Mass that you do is probably sinful. If your words are sinful and the target is actually correct in their own words and deeds and they are doing the work of the Holy Spirit, then what? Well, my friend, that means you have not only probably committed a mortal sin, but you may have also sinned against the Holy Spirit by stubbornly opposing him. Is it worth the risk of sinning against the Holy Spirit so you can educate that too conservative or too liberal Catholic? You decide. 

Ask Yourself These Questions

I won’t tell you which Catholic influencers to listen to, but I do ask you to consider a few questions. 

First, are the words of the people you read, listen to and watch building up the Church or tearing it down? Do their words reflect the Gospel?

Second, do their words leave you with peace and help you grow in virtue, especially faith, hope and love? Are you more likely to pray after receiving their message, or do they leave you angry, bitter, hopeless and less likely to pray? 

Third, do you believe Christ when he said the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church (Mt 16:18)? 

Fourth, does the influencer you listen to have all of the material facts? Does he know the motivations and circumstances affecting those he is criticizing? 

Your Own Words Might Kill You

Our words matter. They can build up the Church or they can tear it down. Earlier I quoted a Scripture commentary that said words can “kill.” If we use words to vilify or deride others in the hopes that doing so will correct their alleged heresies, teach them a lesson or save the Church, then we might not only be in mortal sin. We might also be sinning against the Holy Spirit. In that case, the words we use against others might actually come back to us, condemning us to eternal damnation. By the time we realize that, it might be too late. 

Sources:

Aguilar Chiu, Jose Enrique, Richard J. Clifford, Carol J. Dempsey, Eileen M. Schuller, Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup, eds. The Paulist Biblical Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 2018.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Byrne, Brendan. “Matthew.” In Aquilar Chiu, The Paulist Biblical Commentary, 900-971.

Editors. “What Is the Unforgivable Sin against the Holy Spirit?” Catholic Exchange. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://catholicexchange.com/what-is-the-unforgivable-sin-against-the-holy-spirit

Fredosso, Alfred J. Summa Theologica. Accessed August 21, 2019. https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/summa-translation/TOC.htm

Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Senior, Donald, John J. Collins, and Mary Ann Getty, eds. The Catholic Study Bible. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Viviano, Benedict T. “The Gospel According to Matthew.” In Brown, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 630-674.

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