Is Reviling a Mortal Sin?

St. Thomas on Reviling

Some time ago I made a rule for myself that I would not call out another Catholic writer by name and criticize that person. I had a sense that nothing good ever came from it because 1) I’d tried it a few times, 2) felt uneasy about it, and 3) found that, in fact, nothing good ever came from it. Chalk it up to the Golden Rule.

As an editor and educator, I likewise counsel other writers to follow the same rule. Write about issues and topics. Do not criticize people publicly. If you must name a person for the sake of attribution, deal dispassionately with the issue not the person. If you can make your point without naming names, do so.

There is a term for this ‘calling-out-people-by-name-and-publicly-criticizing-them.’ In the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, the treatise on virtue in the Summa Theologiæ, the section on justice, this act is called “reviling.” The question is found in the Second Part of the Second Part, Question 72.

To put it in context, as one must do when reading Aquinas, reviling is considered within a section on vices and “involuntary commutations” (i.e. something imposed). Injury of a neighbor, for example, can be committed (imposed) against the neighbor’s will by deed, such as murder, bodily injury, and theft or robbery. Injury can also be imposed by word. Verbal injuries can be inflicted in judicial proceedings by the judge, the accuser, the defendant, the witnesses, or by the defending attorney, and these all relate to the practice of justice in a society. In formal proceedings, it is often necessary to name names so that justice may be served.

But verbal injury can also be inflicted “extrajudicially.” If someone who has no authority over another person self-appoints himself or herself the judge of another as if the other is his or her subject, then whatever upbraiding is delivered occurs outside any formal authoritative hierarchy. Among the extrajudicial verbal injuries inflicted on people against their will, reviling is at the top of the list, and the other vices follow—backbiting, tale-bearing, derision, and cursing.

What is reviling?

To “revile” is to verbally dishonor someone, to rail against a person, to talk abusively, to make abusive or angry criticisms, to shame another. St. Aquinas called reviling via the written word, “…when a man publishes something against another’s honor, thus bringing it to the knowledge of the latter and of other men.” In other words, it is when someone publicly makes angry criticisms against another rather than seeking to resolve a difference in private. Backbiting is to revile a person to a third party in secret. Derision is reviling with jest or ridicule. Cursing is to command or desire evil on another.

Is reviling a mortal sin?

St. Aquinas answers in the affirmative, quoting the Gospel of Matthew.

Nothing but mortal sin deserves the eternal punishment of hell. Now railing or reviling deserves the punishment of hell, according to Matthew 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.

Words can injure people. When a self-appointed judge reviles another person publicly, it not only can hurt the person being reviled, it can do harm to that person’s friends and family as well. If a person dishonors another with the intent of dishonoring, it is, according to St. Aquinas, a mortal sin “no less than theft or robbery, since a man loves his honor no less than his possessions.” (Trust me, the same goes for women.)

There can be an exception when reviling is not sinful, but it is exceedingly narrow and not a guarantee against sin. If the intent is not to dishonor but to correct, then it may sometimes be a venial sin or no sin at all, so long as the intent in the mind of the reviler remains not to dishonor but only to correct. Thus, when speaking publicly about another person, one must use caution. If there is any question about the intent in the mind of the speaker or writer who decides to publicly play the role of judge against another person, then that role-player must use words with discretion and moderation, lest he or she sin. If there is any intent whatsoever to dishonor the other person, the reviler sins. And sometimes even with the best of intent, the reviler sins anyway by injuring the other person. St. Aquinas warns:

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. On 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.

In this age of the internet, some people would argue that correcting others publicly even through shame and dishonor is necessary. They would argue that there is nothing wrong with mockery for the sake of humor. But it depends on the one being mocked. If he or she thinks the mockery is either humorous or helpful, and goes along in such good humor and subjectivity, then it is not a sin, for the wittiness of the reviler brings joy and guidance. If, on the other hand, the reviler does not stop inflicting pain on the object of his or her “witty mockery, so long as he [or she] makes others laugh, this is sinful,” and a line has been crossed.

The bottom line is: People are not objects. People are people, imperfect sinners like everyone else. We owe others the benefit of the doubt. We owe it to others not to bring dishonor.

Should we suffer reviling?

What if you are the one being reviled? St. Aquinas said, “Just as we need patience in things done against us, so do we need it in those said against us.” We are bound to be prepared to submit to be reviled, if that is the surest way to bring peace. However, St. Aquinas also said we are not always bound to suffer the injury of reviling, reminding us of the words of our Lord when he received a blow. “Why strikest thou Me?” (John 18:23).

Sometimes it is right to take a stand against reviling for two reasons. First, we may “check” the reviler for his or her own good, to hopefully stop the sinful action consistent with Proverbs 26:5, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he imagine himself to be wise.” The second reason is for the good of others who are mislead into sin by the reviler. Here St. Aquinas quoted Gregory:

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.

Even in checking the reviler, however, the one originally reviled must check himself or herself before acting in his or her defense. If the response is done to dishonor the one who dishonors, there is a danger of lust for one’s own honor and a danger of acting with a lack of charity.

Why do people revile?

St. Aquinas said people revile out of anger, quoting Aristotle, “…anger listens imperfectly to reason.”

So I am convinced it is not worth the fleeting release of anger, possibly masquerading as justice, however seemingly righteous in the moment, to publicly correct someone else. Reviling can so easily be a mortal sin. Injury, once done, cannot be undone but only healed. If we strive not to injure in the first place, we’ll do more to bring justice to society than we could ever bring about by publicly railing against our peers.

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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  1. Hmm. And how would this apply to the layman Eusebius publicly confronting Metropolitan Nestorius back in the 5th century? I believe that there must be more to this subject than just what appears above.

    1. Would Christ be guilty of reviling when He castigated the money changers publicly? This would certainly seem to be a case of “when someone publicly makes angry criticisms against another rather than seeking to resolve a difference in private.,” to use your definition. More development is needed on this topic.

      1. Dan–here is the rest of the story: Using the example of Jesus Christ is not helpful in this instance, precisely because Jesus did not have disordered passions, and we do. His anger was, always and everywhere, “righteous” because it was always in accord with reason. Ours is *not* always so, and, from the outside looking in, it’s impossible for the recipient of righteous anger to really know whether it’s “righteous” or not. So, it backfires, not because our personal anger is always “un-righteous,” but rather because the recipient will rarely if ever receive a rebuke as though it were righteous anger.

        1. I certainly question that it’s “impossible for the recipient of righteous anger to really know whether it’s ‘righteous’ or not.” Conscience may well have made that abundantly clear to the malefactor. Jesus told us that He gave the example. Because Jesus passions were never disordered has no bearing on whether or not ours are. In the same circumstance, when your God is being profaned, you would do well have the same passionate zeal that Jesus did.

          1. Dan and Jim, please forgive my long-windedness, but I would like to add that in a certain sense, I agree with both of you:

            – for the vast majority of people in almost every circumstance, the source of their anger should not be trusted . The enemy of souls cunningly foments a sense of injustice that people wrongly accept as license to behave in a horrible manner. Beware those who stoke the fires of injustice for solely temporal ends.

            – Yet, how can we forget the example of righteous anger given by St. Nicholas at the Council of Nicea?

            For those who may not be familiar with the events:

            During Council of Nicea (AD 325), Arius, a heretical bishop who believed that Christ was not divine, was challenged by the Council to defend his claims.

            St. Nicholas tried to listen patiently but faced with such an offense against God could not contain himself. In the middle of the speech he rose, charged toward Arius, grabbed him by the beard and punched him in the face.

            The emperor Constantine along with the other bishops stripped St. Nicholas of his office, confiscated his personal copy of the Gospels and his pallium, and jailed him.

            The Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary visited him in prison. Our Lord Jesus Christ asked St. Nicholas, “Why are you here?” St. Nicholas responded, “Because I love you, my Lord and my God.” Christ then presented St. Nicholas with his copy of the Gospels and then the Blessed Virgin vested St. Nicholas with his episcopal pallium, restoring him to his rank as a bishop.

            When the emperor Constantine heard of this miracle, he ordered that St. Nicholas be reinstated as a bishop in good standing for the Council of Nicea.

            The bishops at Nicea sided with St. Nicholas and St. Athanasius and condemned Arius as a heretic.

  2. I agree with Dan, and the many saints who rebuked others in front of others. Happened at Ecumenical Councils too. Even Jesus Himself rebuked others including Peter in front of others. And Paul rebuked Peter in front of others as well.

  3. I agree with Dan and Maggie because if you take for example the current situation that I am in I’m trying to deal with a gossiper. Gossipers pretend to be interested in your problems but what they are really doing is feeding off any pain or misery that you have and spreading it behind your back, they have zero discretion and usually aren’t really a friend but someone who is jealous of you.

    I have told them to their face in private that I do not want to hear anymore gossip from them and yet they continue. I now choose to ignore them and their emails but have noticed a change from other people around me that may or may not imply that they are now turning their tongue against me and my family. Having read about the solution in the Holy Bible it starts with tell them to their face as the first course of action, the second course of action (if this continues) is to take two witnesses and tell them to their face again, the third course of action (if they do not stop) is to tell the church. So how can you do that if you are not going to call them out by involving others?

    My course of action would be to invite the gossiper to have a chat about it if they are prepared to let me invite the people that they have gossiped about to attend the same meeting.

  4. Excellent article and timely as well. I know I needed to hear it with the acrimonious atmosphere in politics today, and people able to spew their thoughts via the internet.

  5. Two things: 1) Bible says we can pray for the Lord’s hand of justice. 2) The Book of James says that “the prayers of a righteous man are powerful.” Put these two together and you have the best solution.

  6. Very thought provoking, thank you. Some of my favorite radio personalities make a daily habit of criticizing their political opponents. It’s hard to know sometimes when they’ve crossed the line from mere satire to outright mockery and public dishonor. I’ll have to consider seriously whether listening to them is making me into a more sarcastic and judgmental person. And pray for them as well.

  7. When one criticizes an influential, powerful public person (a political leader, for example) for hypocritical or unjust actions and comments, is that reviling? Jesus was harsh in his rebukes of hypocrites. Are we to stay silent when a politician promotes unjust acts? Isn’t silence a form of complicity with a powerful sinner? I’m in need of clarification.

  8. To all:

    Notice one or more missing comments?

    – Comments that ridicule the author or her education status are not allowed.
    – Falsely assuming the identity of anyone, even deceased persons, and particularly a member of clergy is not allowed.

    – ICL Editor

  9. There are instances when corrections need to be made as you point out in your essay. Hopefully, one does that in the privacy of a one on one meeting between individuals. But, today, no one seems to have the courage to say anything about anything for fear that they are being too judgemental , or not charitable, or too extreme. It seems like ANY correction seems to be too extreme. With all the liturgical abuse that I witness in my parish (which I stopped supporting and instead left for the latin mass parish) and the talks I’ve had with the priest to no avail to please follow the GIRM, and witnessing the wreckovation of the church, all I feel I can do now is pray. I agree, as in the article posted above in HV’s comment concerning the Book Of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damian — this country will be coming to a wreckoning because we refuse to call sin SIN.

  10. Does this mean I can’t publicly revile the false prophet Muhammad? When I attempt to bring shame upon his name and discredit upon the false religion he founded by pointing out what an evil person he was, am I committing mortal sin? For example, when I point out that he personally ordered assasinations and mass executions, that he personally ordered and supervised gruesome torture, that he took sex slaves and concubines, and slept with a 9-year old girl, is that reviling?

  11. Interesting article…love St. Thomas Aquinas.

    It’s very difficult to repair damage done through detraction and / or calumny. “Reviling” might be something akin to a public assassination of character.

    Yet, as some comments have noted, a public rebuke in defense of the truth is very different from a personal attack designed to tear down an individual or group.

    Words that build up or repair damage to the truth without doing unnecessary harm should be considered a proper defense of the truth and an obligation of all Christians.

    Words that “tear down” an individual, focusing on personal matters or failings that should be addressed in the confessional, not the public domain, are accusations and a sinful attack against the person…an offense against the truth.

    The gravity of the sin is amplified when the attack is carried out in a public manner with the intention of swaying the general perception against the person or group.

    If an individual harms the truth to the detriment of others, the truth must be defended, perhaps publicly to repair the damage done to others. This is an act of love.

    The truth about someones sins should not be used as a weapon of expediency, to bludgeon an adversary. This is uncharitable, an act of hatred.

    The question to ask: is one speaking the truth about sin, or accusing the sinner?

    Today, people seem to fancy creating new definitions for words, attributing new meaning to timeless concepts, or fashioning catch-all slogans that mean whatever one chooses. The “mercy killers” and “defenders” of “reproductive rights” lead the way down.

    Most often, its to create their own pseudo reality where their preferred sin is laudable, and to fashion new tools to entrap and persecute truth.

    Everyone by now must be aware that to defend the truth means being called an extremist or terrorist by secular “authorities”. How long until the same is true in the Church? Will the “extremists” be accused of reviling?

  12. I think there’s an error in this article very near the beginning. The article states:

    “St. Aquinas called reviling via the written word, “…when a man publishes something against another’s honor, thus bringing it to the knowledge of the latter and of other men.” In other words, it is when someone publicly makes angry criticisms against another rather than seeking to resolve a difference in private. ”

    No, not “in other words” at all. Publishing something”against another’s honor ” is not at all the same as making “angry criticisms”.

    “Honor” is a difficult thing to define, being heavily culture-bound. But criticisms, even angry ones, do not by themselves rise to the level of being “against another’s honor”, i.e., dishonoring another. This is a false equivalency and immediately eviscerated my interest in reading further.

  13. Whoever has malice in his or her heart commits mortal sin. Whoever wants to correct, rebuke, chastise, chide…etc.. another with an authentic love and care is another Christ!

  14. I think this article grossly over-simplifies the issue. If we were to follow the author’s advice, we could basically never correct anyone or point out problems with the arguments of others. There is also the issue of alerting the public to conflicts of interest and hypocrisy of public figures, like journalists and politicians. If a journalist were writing in support of a bill in Congress, say, and I were to alert others on a blog that this journalist stood to financially benefit from the bill, would I be detracting the columnist? Most certainly. Would I be impugning their honor? Absolutely. Would I still be right to post this, so that the public wouldn’t be misled by the journalist’s supposedly “objective” argument? Absolutely. There is a difference with publicly shaming someone out of revenge or malice, but in this day and age attacking the credibility of a public figure when said figure actually has serious credibility problems is an absolute necessity.

    1. Mid-essay: “If the intent is not to dishonor but to correct, then it may sometimes be a venial sin or no sin at all, so long as the intent in the mind of the reviler remains not to dishonor but only to correct.” See a longer explanation in St. Aquinas’ writing, linked.

  15. When in doubt, use the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition” which is from the Magisterium of the Church and without error, rather than the personal opinions of others.
    There are 3 paragraphs related to the topic, although the word “reviling” is not used.

    1. CCC: 907 “In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty
    to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church,
    and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful,
    with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons.”

    2. CCC: ” 2467 Man tends by nature toward the truth.
    He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it:
    It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons . . . are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.
    They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth. ”

    3. 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.

    1. Thanks for sharing and clarifying with the Catechism. My concern in reading this article is that the truth will be withheld from someone who has time and again tried swaying others in order to further their own gain and perpetuate falsities.

      For me, this is more a matter of intent. Do I intend to damage the reputation of another person? If so, I better think twice. I will admit that some people just make such ridiculous allegations that upset me and often feel the need to reply in such indignant matter. Probably not the best approach and potentially damaging but righteous anger (at times) at display.

      Helpful insofar as it invites me to think twice. However, I also fear not fully expressing how I feel about an issue especially when I’ve been so use to the other extreme…where I don’t express my opinion at all.

      So my conclusion: “Be hard on a concept and easy on a person.” There really is no in-between for me.

      Thanks for sharing.

  16. If people cannot fully understand the rules on reviling others- what is and what is not a sin, and judging by the post responses here, that would seem to be the case wouldn’t it? Then, we must understand that it is unlikely sin is being committed, because as the Cathelic Catechism says, in order to commit a mortal sin, three things have to be in place, one being FULL knowledge that one is commuting a mortal sin. Another is freedom of the will – anger out of control, means ( in my view) a will that is not completely free. Illness would be another example. I think personally a person has to be very clever or imbued with abundant supernatural graces to stay free from sin. But with that said, always make an examination of conscience every evening and go to confession regularly. Pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which would include the gift of discernment.

    1. Sarah, yes and no.
      Don’t forget about this:

      CCC: ” 1801 Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgments. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt.”

      CCC: ” 1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility.
      This is the case when a man takes little trouble to find out what is true and good,
      or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.
      In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits. ”

      CCC: ” 1868 Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
      – by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
      – by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
      – by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
      – by protecting evil-doers. “

      1. Literate persons will have a difficult time justifying “I did not know it was wrong”. –

        Because the Magisterium of the Church has provided the Catholic Bible and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition”.
        Laziness – not reading is not a legitimate excuse.

        1. Mike: yes I agree . However, in my own attempts to encourage others to study their Catechism, I have come to the conclusion that some people are just not intellectual enough to understand all the Miriam dimensions of sin. I myself am not thick ; I have academic abilities, but life ( or the adversary) can disguise sin, presenting it in such complex ways that it would take full time exhausting study and a keen intellect to always stay aware. Some of the Saints had very little education, ( St Faustina Kowalski) but God instilled knowledge in them. Our Lady also aledgedly said, “in order to stay free from sin, one must have Constant Awareness.” Well, people worn down ( with the adversary’s help) with constant problems and stress, plus physical tiredness after work and pressure etc are not going to be constantly aware are they? I know I’m not. And when reading the article above about all the different dimensions to the sin of reviling others, I felt depressed because I knew I would never be able to remember all those dimensions, especially if tired and stressed. So, we must do the best we can. But I liked your post Mike and I agree with you, it’s so very important to keep studying our Catechism. As it says in the bible ” work out your salvation in fear and trembling”. 🙂

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