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Summa Theologica by Aquinas

Whether backbiting is a graver sin than tale-bearing?

Objection 1: It would seem that backbiting is a graver sin than tale-bearing. For sins of word consist in speaking evil. Now a backbiter speaks of his neighbor things that are evil simply, for such things lead to the loss or depreciation of his good name: whereas a tale-bearer is only intent on saying what is apparently evil, because to wit they are unpleasant to the hearer. Therefore backbiting is a graver sin than tale-bearing.

Objection 2: Further, he that deprives. a man of his good name, deprives him not merely of one friend, but of many, because everyone is minded to scorn the friendship of a person with a bad name. Hence it is reproached against a certain individual [*King Josaphat] (2 Paralip 19:2): |Thou art joined in friendship with them that hate the Lord.| But tale-bearing deprives one of only one friend. Therefore backbiting is a graver sin than tale-bearing.

Objection 3: Further, it is written (James 4:11): |He that backbiteth [Douay:,'detracteth'] his brother . . . detracteth the law,| and consequently God the giver of the law. Wherefore the sin of backbiting seems to be a sin against God, which is most grievous, as stated above (Q, A; FS, Q, A). On the other hand the sin of tale-bearing is against one's neighbor. Therefore the sin of backbiting is graver than the sin of tale-bearing.

On the contrary, It is written (Ecclus.5:17): |An evil mark of disgrace is upon the double-tongued; but to the tale-bearer [Douay: 'whisperer'] hatred, and enmity, and reproach.|

I answer that, As stated above (Q, A; FS, Q, A), sins against one's neighbor are the more grievous, according as they inflict a greater injury on him: and an injury is so much the greater, according to the greatness of the good which it takes away. Now of all one's external goods a friend takes the first place, since |no man can live without friends,| as the Philosopher declares (Ethic. viii, 1). Hence it is written (Ecclus.6:15): |Nothing can be compared to a faithful friend.| Again, a man's good name whereof backbiting deprives him, is most necessary to him that he may be fitted for friendship. Therefore tale-bearing is a greater sin than backbiting or even reviling, because a friend is better than honor, and to be loved is better than to be honored, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii).

Reply to Objection 1: The species and gravity of a sin depend on the end rather than on the material object, wherefore, by reason of its end, tale-bearing is worse than backbiting, although sometimes the backbiter says worse things.

Reply to Objection 2: A good name is a disposition for friendship, and a bad name is a disposition for enmity. But a disposition falls short of the thing for which it disposes. Hence to do anything that leads to a disposition for enmity is a less grievous sin than to do what conduces directly to enmity.

Reply to Objection 3: He that backbites his brother, seems to detract the law, in so far as he despises the precept of love for one's neighbor: while he that strives to sever friendship seems to act more directly against this precept. Hence the latter sin is more specially against God, because |God is charity| (1 Jn.4:16), and for this reason it is written (Prov.6:16): |Six things there are, which the Lord hateth, and the seventh His soul detesteth,| and the seventh is |he (Prov.6:19) that soweth discord among brethren.|

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