Summa Th. II-II EN Qu.71


We must now consider the injustice which takes place in judgment on the part of counsel, and under this head there are four points of inquiry:

(1) Whether an advocate is bound to defend the suits of the poor?

(2) Whether certain persons should be prohibited from exercising the office of advocate?

(3) Whether an advocate sins by defending an unjust cause?

(4) Whether he sins if he accept a fee for defending a suit?

Whether an advocate is bound to defend the suits of the poor?

Objection: 1. It would seem that an advocate is bound to defend the suits of the poor. For it is written (Ex 23,5): "If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lie underneath his burden, thou shalt not pass by, but shall lift him up with him." Now no less a danger threatens the poor man whose suit is being unjustly prejudiced, than if his ass were to lie underneath its burden. Therefore an advocate is bound to defend the suits of the poor.
2. Further, Gregory says in a homily (ix in Evang.): "Let him that hath understanding beware lest he withhold his knowledge; let him that hath abundance of wealth watch lest he slacken his merciful bounty; let him who is a servant to art share his skill with his neighbor; let him who has an opportunity of speaking with the wealthy plead the cause of the poor: for the slightest gift you have received will be reputed a talent." Now every man is bound, not to hide but faithfully to dispense the talent committed to him; as evidenced by the punishment inflicted on the servant who hid his talent (Mt 25,30). Therefore an advocate is bound to plead for the poor.
3. Further, the precept about performing works of mercy, being affirmative, is binding according to time and place, and this is chiefly in cases of need. Now it seems to be a case of need when the suit of a poor man is being prejudiced. Therefore it seems that in such a case an advocate is bound to defend the poor man's suit.

On the contrary He that lacks food is no less in need than he that lacks an advocate. Yet he that is able to give food is not always bound to feed the needy. Therefore neither is an advocate always bound to defend the suits of the poor.
I answer that Since defense of the poor man's suit belongs to the works of mercy, the answer to this inquiry is the same as the one given above with regard to the other works of mercy (Question [32], Articles [5],9). Now no man is sufficient to bestow a work of mercy on all those who need it. Wherefore, as Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. i, 28), "since one cannot do good to all, we ought to consider those chiefly who by reason of place, time, or any other circumstance, by a kind of chance are more closely united to us." He says "by reason of place," because one is not bound to search throughout the world for the needy that one may succor them; and it suffices to do works of mercy to those one meets with. Hence it is written (Ex 23,4): "If thou meet thy enemy's ass going astray, bring it back to him." He says also "by reason of time," because one is not bound to provide for the future needs of others, and it suffices to succor present needs. Hence it is written (1Jn 3,17): "He that . . . shall see his brother in need, and shall put up his bowels from him, how doth the charity of God abide in him?" Lastly he says, "or any other circumstance," because one ought to show kindness to those especially who are by any tie whatever united to us, according to 1Tm 5,8, "If any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel."It may happen however that these circumstances concur, and then we have to consider whether this particular man stands in such a need that it is not easy to see how he can be succored otherwise, and then one is bound to bestow the work of mercy on him. If, however, it is easy to see how he can be otherwise succored, either by himself, or by some other person still more closely united to him, or in a better position to help him, one is not bound so strictly to help the one in need that it would be a sin not to do so: although it would be praiseworthy to do so where one is not bound to. Therefore an advocate is not always bound to defend the suits of the poor, but only when the aforesaid circumstances concur, else he would have to put aside all other business, and occupy himself entirely in defending the suits of poor people. The same applies to a physician with regard to attendance on the sick.

Reply to Objection: 1. So long as the ass lies under the burden, there is no means of help in this case, unless those who are passing along come to the man's aid, and therefore they are bound to help. But they would not be so bound if help were possible from another quarter.
2. A man is bound to make good use of the talent bestowed on him, according to the opportunities afforded by time, place, and other circumstances, as stated above.
3. Not every need is such that it is one's duty to remedy it, but only such as we have stated above.

Whether it is fitting that the law should debar certain persons from the office of advocate?

Objection: 1. It would seem unfitting for the law to debar certain persons from the office of advocate. For no man should be debarred from doing works of mercy. Now it belongs to the works of mercy to defend a man's suit, as stated above (Article [1]). Therefore no man should be debarred from this office.
2. Further, contrary causes have not, seemingly, the same effect. Now to be busy with Divine things and to be busy about sin are contrary to one another. Therefore it is unfitting that some should be debarred from the office of advocate, on account of religion, as monks and clerics, while others are debarred on account of sin, as persons of ill-repute and heretics.
3. Further, a man should love his neighbor as himself. Now it is a duty of love for an advocate to plead a person's cause. Therefore it is unfitting that certain persons should be debarred from pleading the cause of others, while they are allowed to advocate their own cause.

On the contrary According to Decretals III, qu. vii, can. Infames, many persons are debarred from the office of advocate.
I answer that In two ways a person is debarred from performing a certain act: first because it is impossible to him, secondly because it is unbecoming to him: but, whereas the man to whom a certain act is impossible, is absolutely debarred from performing it, he to whom an act is unbecoming is not debarred altogether, since necessity may do away with its unbecomingness. Accordingly some are debarred from the office of advocate because it is impossible to them through lack of sense---either interior, as in the case of madmen and minors---or exterior, as in the case of the deaf and dumb. For an advocate needs to have both interior skill so that he may be able to prove the justice of the cause he defends, and also speech and hearing, that he may speak and hear what is said to him. Consequently those who are defective in these points, are altogether debarred from being advocates either in their own or in another's cause. The becomingness of exercising this office is removed in two ways. First, through a man being engaged in higher things. Wherefore it is unfitting that monks or priests should be advocates in any cause whatever, or that clerics should plead in a secular court, because such persons are engaged in Divine things. Secondly, on account of some personal defect, either of body (for instance a blind man whose attendance in a court of justice would be unbecoming) or of soul, for it ill becomes one who has disdained to be just himself, to plead for the justice of another. Wherefore it is unbecoming that persons of ill repute, unbelievers, and those who have been convicted of grievous crimes should be advocates. Nevertheless this unbecomingness is outweighed by necessity: and for this reason such persons can plead either their own cause or that of persons closely connected with them. Moreover, clerics can be advocates in the cause of their own church, and monks in the cause of their own monastery, if the abbot direct them to do so.

Reply to Objection: 1. Certain persons are sometimes debarred by unbecomingness, and others by inability from performing works of mercy: for not all the works of mercy are becoming to all persons: thus it ill becomes a fool to give counsel, or the ignorant to teach.
2. Just as virtue is destroyed by "too much" and "too little," so does a person become incompetent by "more" and "less." For this reason some, like religious and clerics, are debarred from pleading in causes, because they are above such an office; and others because they are less than competent to exercise it, such as persons of ill-repute and unbelievers.
3. The necessity of pleading the causes of others is not so pressing as the necessity of pleading one's own cause, because others are able to help themselves otherwise: hence the comparison fails.

Whether an advocate sins by defending an unjust cause?

Objection: 1. It would seem that an advocate does not sin by defending an unjust cause. For just as a physician proves his skill by healing a desperate disease, so does an advocate prove his skill, if he can defend an unjust cause. Now a physician is praised if he heals a desperate malady. Therefore an advocate also commits no sin, but ought to be praised, if he defends an unjust cause.
2. Further, it is always lawful to desist from committing a sin. Yet an advocate is punished if he throws up his brief (Decret. II, qu. iii, can. Si quem poenit.). Therefore an advocate does not sin by defending an unjust cause, when once he has undertaken its defense.
3. Further, it would seem to be a greater sin for an advocate to use unjust means in defense of a just cause (e.g. by producing false witnesses, or alleging false laws), than to defend an unjust cause, since the former is a sin against the form, the latter against the matter of justice. Yet it is seemingly lawful for an advocate to make use of such underhand means, even as it is lawful for a soldier to lay ambushes in a battle. Therefore it would seem that an advocate does not sin by defending an unjust cause.

On the contrary It is said (2Ch 19,2): "Thou helpest the ungodly . . . and therefore thou didst deserve . . . the wrath of the Lord." Now an advocate by defending an unjust cause, helps the ungodly. Therefore he sins and deserves the wrath of the Lord.
I answer that It is unlawful to cooperate in an evil deed, by counseling, helping, or in any way consenting, because to counsel or assist an action is, in a way, to do it, and the Apostle says (Rm 1,32) that "they . . . are worthy of death, not only they that do" a sin, "but they also that consent to them that do" it. Hence it was stated above (Question [62], Article [7]), that all such are bound to restitution. Now it is evident that an advocate provides both assistance and counsel to the party for whom he pleads. Wherefore, if knowingly he defends an unjust cause, without doubt he sins grievously, and is bound to restitution of the loss unjustly incurred by the other party by reason of the assistance he has provided. If, however, he defends an unjust cause unknowingly, thinking it just, he is to be excused according to the measure in which ignorance is excusable.

Reply to Objection: 1. The physician injures no man by undertaking to heal a desperate malady, whereas the advocate who accepts service in an unjust cause, unjustly injures the party against whom he pleads unjustly. Hence the comparison fails. For though he may seem to deserve praise for showing skill in his art, nevertheless he sins by reason of injustice in his will, since he abuses his art for an evil end.
2. If an advocate believes from the outset that the cause is just, and discovers afterwards while the case is proceeding that it is unjust, he ought not to throw up his brief in such a way as to help the other side, or so as to reveal the secrets of his client to the other party. But he can and must give up the case, or induce his client to give way, or make some compromise without prejudice to the opposing party.
3. As stated above (Question [40], Article [3]), it is lawful for a soldier, or a general to lay ambushes in a just war, by prudently concealing what he has a mind to do, but not by means of fraudulent falsehoods, since we should keep faith even with a foe, as Tully says (De offic. iii, 29). Hence it is lawful for an advocate, in defending his case, prudently to conceal whatever might hinder its happy issue, but it is unlawful for him to employ any kind of falsehood.

Whether it is lawful for an advocate to take a fee for pleading?

Objection: 1. It would seem unlawful for an advocate to take a fee for pleading. Works of mercy should not be done with a view to human remuneration, according to Lc 14,12, "When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends . . . nor thy neighbors who are rich: lest perhaps they also invite thee again, and a recompense be made to thee." Now it is a work of mercy to plead another's cause, as stated above (Article [1]). Therefore it is not lawful for an advocate to take payment in money for pleading.
2. Further, spiritual things are not to be bartered with temporal things. But pleading a person's cause seems to be a spiritual good since it consists in using one's knowledge of law. Therefore it is not lawful for an advocate to take a fee for pleading.
3. Further, just as the person of the advocate concurs towards the pronouncement of the verdict, so do the persons of the judge and of the witness. Now, according to Augustine (Ep. cliii ad Macedon.), "the judge should not sell a just sentence, nor the witness true evidence." Therefore neither can an advocate sell a just pleading.

On the contrary Augustine says (Ep. cliii ad Macedon.) that "an advocate may lawfully sell his pleading, and a lawyer his advice."
I answer that A man may justly receive payment for granting what he is not bound to grant. Now it is evident that an advocate is not always bound to consent to plead, or to give advice in other people's causes. Wherefore, if he sell his pleading or advice, he does not act against justice. The same applies to the physician who attends on a sick person to heal him, and to all like persons; provided, however, they take a moderate fee, with due consideration for persons, for the matter in hand, for the labor entailed, and for the custom of the country. If, however, they wickedly extort an immoderate fee, they sin against justice. Hence Augustine says (Ep. cliii ad Macedon.) that "it is customary to demand from them restitution of what they have extorted by a wicked excess, but not what has been given to them in accordance with a commendable custom."

Reply to Objection: 1. Man is not bound to do gratuitously whatever he can do from motives of mercy: else no man could lawfully sell anything, since anything may be given from motives of mercy. But when a man does give a thing out of mercy, he should seek, not a human, but a Divine reward. In like manner an advocate, when he mercifully pleads the cause of a poor man, should have in view not a human but a Divine meed; and yet he is not always bound to give his services gratuitously.
2. Though knowledge of law is something spiritual, the use of that knowledge is accomplished by the work of the body: hence it is lawful to take money in payment of that use, else no craftsman would be allowed to make profit by his art.
3. The judge and witnesses are common to either party, since the judge is bound to pronounce a just verdict, and the witness to give true evidence. Now justice and truth do not incline to one side rather than to the other: and consequently judges receive out of the public funds a fixed pay for their labor; and witnesses receive their expenses (not as payment for giving evidence, but as a fee for their labor) either from both parties or from the party by whom they are adduced, because no man "serveth as a soldier at any time at his own charge [*Vulg.: 'Who serveth as a soldier,']" (1Co 9,7). On the other hand an advocate defends one party only, and so he may lawfully accept fee from the party he assists.



We must now consider injuries inflicted by words uttered extrajudicially. We shall consider (1) reviling, (2) backbiting, (3) tale bearing, (4) derision, (5) cursing.

Under the first head there are four points of inquiry:

(1) What is reviling?

(2) Whether every reviling is a mortal sin?

(3) Whether one ought to check revilers?

(4) Of the origin of reviling.

Whether reviling consists in words?

Objection: 1. It would seem that reviling does not consist in words. Reviling implies some injury inflicted on one's neighbor, since it is a kind of injustice. But words seem to inflict no injury on one's neighbor, either in his person, or in his belongings. Therefore reviling does not consist in words.
2. Further, reviling seems to imply dishonor. But a man can be dishonored or slighted by deeds more than by words. Therefore it seems that reviling consists, not in words but in deeds.
3. Further, a dishonor inflicted by words is called a railing or a taunt. But reviling seems to differ from railing or taunt. Therefore reviling does not consist in words.

On the contrary Nothing, save words, is perceived by the hearing. Now reviling is perceived by the hearing according to Jr 20,10, "I heard reviling [Douay: 'contumelies'] on every side." Therefore reviling consists in words.
I answer that Reviling denotes the dishonoring of a person, and this happens in two ways: for since honor results from excellence, one person dishonors another, first, by depriving him of the excellence for which he is honored. This is done by sins of deed, whereof we have spoken above (Question [64], seqq.). Secondly, when a man publishes something against another's honor, thus bringing it to the knowledge of the latter and of other men. This reviling properly so called, and is done I some kind of signs. Now, according to Augustine (De Doctr. Christ. ii, 3), "compared with words all other signs are very few, for words have obtained the chief place among men for the purpose of expressing whatever the mind conceives." Hence reviling, properly speaking consists in words: wherefore, Isidore says (Etym. x) that a reviler [contumeliosus] "is hasty and bursts out [tumet] in injurious words." Since, however, things are also signified by deeds, which on this account have the same significance as words, it follows that reviling in a wider sense extends also to deeds. Wherefore a gloss on Rm 1,30, "contumelious, proud," says: "The contumelious are those who by word or deed revile and shame others."

Reply to Objection: 1. Our words, if we consider them in their essence, i.e. as audible sound injure no man, except perhaps by jarring of the ear, as when a person speaks too loud. But, considered as signs conveying something to the knowledge of others, they may do many kinds of harm. Such is the harm done to a man to the detriment of his honor, or of the respect due to him from others. Hence the reviling is greater if one man reproach another in the presence of many: and yet there may still be reviling if he reproach him by himself. in so far as the speaker acts unjustly against the respect due to the hearer.
2. One man slights another by deeds in so far as such deeds cause or signify that which is against that other man's honor. In the former case it is not a matter of reviling but of some other kind of injustice, of which we have spoken above (Questions [64],65,66): where as in the latter case there is reviling, in so far as deeds have the significant force of words.
3. Railing and taunts consist in words, even as reviling, because by all of them a man's faults are exposed to the detriment of his honor. Such faults are of three kinds. First, there is the fault of guilt, which is exposed by "reviling" words. Secondly, there is the fault of both guilt and punishment, which is exposed by "taunts" [convicium], because "vice" is commonly spoken of in connection with not only the soul but also the body. Hence if one man says spitefully to another that he is blind, he taunts but does not revile him: whereas if one man calls another a thief, he not only taunts but also reviles him. Thirdly, a man reproaches another for his inferiority or indigence, so as to lessen the honor due to him for any kind of excellence. This is done by "upbraiding" words, and properly speaking, occurs when one spitefully reminds a man that one has succored him when he was in need. Hence it is written (Si 20,15): "He will give a few things and upbraid much." Nevertheless these terms are sometimes employed one for the other.

Whether reviling or railing is a mortal sin?

Objection: 1. It would seem that reviling or railing is not a mortal sin. For no mortal sin is an act of virtue. Now railing is the act of a virtue, viz. of wittiness (eutrapelia) [*Cf. I-II 60,5] to which it pertains to rail well, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. iv, 8). Therefore railing or reviling is not a mortal sin.
2. Further, mortal sin is not to be found in perfect men; and yet these sometimes give utterance to railing or reviling. Thus the Apostle says (Ga 3,1): "O senseless Galatians!," and our Lord said (Lc 24,25): "O foolish and slow of heart to believe!" Therefore railing or reviling is not a mortal sin.
3. Further, although that which is a venial sin by reason of its genus may become mortal, that which is mortal by reason of its genus cannot become venial, as stated above (I-II 88,4 I-II 88,6). Hence if by reason of its genus it were a mortal sin to give utterance to railing or reviling, it would follow that it is always a mortal sin. But this is apparently untrue, as may be seen in the case of one who utters a reviling word indeliberately or through slight anger. Therefore reviling or railing is not a mortal sin, by reason of its genus.

On the contrary Nothing but mortal sin deserves the eternal punishment of hell. Now railing or reviling deserves the punishment of hell, according to Mt 5,22, "Whosoever shall say to his brother . . . Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." Therefore railing or reviling is a mortal sin.
I answer that As stated above (Article [1]), words are injurious to other persons, not as sounds, but as signs, and this signification depends on the speaker's inward intention. Hence, in sins of word, it seems that we ought to consider with what intention the words are uttered. Since then railing or reviling essentially denotes a dishonoring, if the intention of the utterer is to dishonor the other man, this is properly and essentially to give utterance to railing or reviling: and this is a mortal sin no less than theft or robbery, since a man loves his honor no less than his possessions. If, on the other hand, a man says to another a railing or reviling word, yet with the intention, not of dishonoring him, but rather perhaps of correcting him or with some like purpose, he utters a railing or reviling not formally and essentially, but accidentally and materially, in so far to wit as he says that which might be a railing or reviling. Hence this may be sometimes a venial sin, and sometimes without any sin at all. Nevertheless there is need of discretion in such matters, and one should use such words with moderation, because the railing might be so grave that being uttered inconsiderately it might dishonor the person against whom it is uttered. In such a case a man might commit a mortal sin, even though he did not intend to dishonor the other man: just as were a man incautiously to injure grievously another by striking him in fun, he would not be without blame.

Reply to Objection: 1. It belongs to wittiness to utter some slight mockery, not with intent to dishonor or pain the person who is the object of the mockery, but rather with intent to please and amuse: and this may be without sin, if the due circumstances be observed. on the other hand if a man does not shrink from inflicting pain on the object of his witty mockery, so long as he makes others laugh, this is sinful, as stated in the passage quoted.
2. Just as it is lawful to strike a person, or damnify him in his belongings for the purpose of correction, so too, for the purpose of correction, may one say a mocking word to a person whom one has to correct. It is thus that our Lord called the disciples "foolish," and the Apostle called the Galatians "senseless." Yet, as Augustine says (De Serm. Dom. in Monte ii, 19), "seldom and only when it is very necessary should we have recourse to invectives, and then so as to urge God's service, not our own."
3. Since the sin of railing or reviling depends on the intention of the utterer, it may happen to be a venial sin, if it be a slight railing that does not inflict much dishonor on a man, and be uttered through lightness of heart or some slight anger, without the fixed purpose of dishonoring him, for instance when one intends by such a word to give but little pain.

Whether one ought to suffer oneself to be reviled?

Objection: 1. It would seem that one ought not to suffer oneself to be reviled. For he that suffers himself to be reviled, encourages the reviler. But one ought not to do this. Therefore one ought not to suffer oneself to be reviled, but rather reply to the reviler.
2. Further, one ought to love oneself more than another. Now one ought not to suffer another to be reviled, wherefore it is written (Pr 26,10): "He that putteth a fool to silence appeaseth anger." Therefore neither should one suffer oneself to be reviled.
3. Further, a man is not allowed to revenge himself, for it is said: "Vengeance belongeth to Me, I will repay" [*He 10,30]. Now by submitting to be reviled a man revenges himself, according to Chrysostom (Hom. xxii, in Ep ad Rom.): "If thou wilt be revenged, be silent; thou hast dealt him a fatal blow." Therefore one ought not by silence to submit to reviling words, but rather answer back.

On the contrary It is written (Ps 37,13): "They that sought evils to me spoke vain things," and afterwards (Ps 37,14) he says: "But I as a deaf man, heard not; and as a dumb man not opening his mouth."
I answer that Just as we need patience in things done against us, so do we need it in those said against us. Now the precepts of patience in those things done against us refer to the preparedness of the mind, according to Augustine's (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19) exposition on our Lord's precept, "If one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other" [*The words as quoted by St. Thomas are a blending of Mt 5,39 and Lc 6,29]: that is to say, a man ought to be prepared to do so if necessary. But he is not always bound to do this actually: since not even did our Lord do so, for when He received a blow, He said: "Why strikest thou Me?" (Jn 18,23). Consequently the same applies to the reviling words that are said against us. For we are bound to hold our minds prepared to submit to be reviled, if it should be expedient. Nevertheless it sometimes behooves us to withstand against being reviled, and this chiefly for two reasons. First, for the good of the reviler; namely, that his daring may be checked, and that he may not repeat the attempt, according to Pr 26,5, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he imagine himself to be wise." Secondly, for the good of many who would be prevented from progressing in virtue on account of our being reviled. Hence Gregory says (Hom. ix, Super Ezech.): "Those who are so placed that their life should be an example to others, ought, if possible, to silence their detractors, lest their preaching be not heard by those who could have heard it, and they continue their evil conduct through contempt of a good life."

Reply to Objection: 1. The daring of the railing reviler should be checked with moderation, i.e. as a duty of charity, and not through lust for one's own honor. Hence it is written (Pr 26,4): "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like him."
2. When one man prevents another from being reviled there is not the danger of lust for one's own honor as there is when a man defends himself from being reviled: indeed rather would it seem to proceed from a sense of charity.
3. It would be an act of revenge to keep silence with the intention of provoking the reviler to anger, but it would be praiseworthy to be silent, in order to give place to anger. Hence it is written (Si 8,4): "Strive not with a man that is full of tongue, and heap not wood upon his fire."

Whether reviling arises from anger?

Objection: 1. It would seem that reviling does not arise from anger. For it is written (Pr 11,2): "Where pride is, there shall also be reviling [Douay: 'reproach']." But anger is a vice distinct from pride. Therefore reviling does not arise from anger.
2. Further, it is written (Pr 20,3): "All fools are meddling with revilings [Douay: 'reproaches']." Now folly is a vice opposed to wisdom, as stated above (Question [46], Article [1]); whereas anger is opposed to meekness. Therefore reviling does not arise from anger.
3. Further, no sin is diminished by its cause. But the sin of reviling is diminished if one gives vent to it through anger: for it is a more grievous sin to revile out of hatred than out of anger. Therefore reviling does not arise from anger.

On the contrary Gregory says (Moral. xxxi, 45) that "anger gives rise to revilings."
I answer that While one sin may arise from various causes, it is nevertheless said to have its source chiefly in that one from which it is wont to arise most frequently, through being closely connected with its end. Now reviling is closely connected with anger's end, which is revenge: since the easiest way for the angry man to take revenge on another is to revile him. Therefore reviling arises chiefly from anger.

Reply to Objection: 1. Reviling is not directed to the end of pride which is excellency. Hence reviling does not arise directly from pride. Nevertheless pride disposes a man to revile, in so far as those who think themselves to excel, are more prone to despise others and inflict injuries on them, because they are more easily angered, through deeming it an affront to themselves whenever anything is done against their will.
2. According to the Philosopher (Ethic. vii, 6) "anger listens imperfectly to reason": wherefore an angry man suffers a defect of reason, and in this he is like the foolish man. Hence reviling arises from folly on account of the latter's kinship with anger.
3. According to the Philosopher (Rhet. ii, 4) "an angry man seeks an open offense, but he who hates does not worry about this." Hence reviling which denotes a manifest injury belongs to anger rather than to hatred.


We must now consider backbiting, under which head there are four points of inquiry:

(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?

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 words.
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.
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 (Qo 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 [72], Article [1])---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 [65], Article [4]; I-II 6,5 I-II 6,8).
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.
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.

Summa Th. II-II EN Qu.71