What is reviling?

From antiquity, there is a concept for calling people out by name and correcting them in front of others. It’s called reviling, and while it may seem obvious that words can injure, it’s not clear when reviling is a sin or not. In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas clarified theological and moral questions in his Summa Theologiæ (Summary of Theology). He pieced together teaching from ancient Greece, particularly Aristotle, the early Church Fathers, and what the Church understood about theology in the Middle Ages. As a wife, mother, and Catholic, I find these explanations helpful today in my relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. These basic teachings lay a moral foundation to navigate complicated issues, and such clarity is not often found in modern American society.

Before defining terms, we need to put them in context. In the Summa, reviling is discussed in the Treatise on Virtue in the section on the cardinal virtue of justice (the Second Part of the Second Part, Question 72). After defining justice, St. Thomas discusses vices against justice. He says that injustices occur when someone takes something that he is not due. In a just situation, one party gains something from the other and an equitable restitution is made in return. In an unjust situation, equity is not restored. Injustice is always imposed against someone’s will.

St. Thomas calls a certain set of injustices “involuntary commutations.” These are injustices between individuals, as opposed to distributions in societies (distributive justice). He says that injury can be imposed by deed or word. Murder, bodily injury, robbery, and theft are injury by deed, and we can recognize these clearly as injustices. Injury by word, however, is not always unjust. For example, in formal judicial proceedings verbal injuries can be inflicted and bring dishonor to the accused as a matter of telling the truth, but this is necessary so that justice may be served.

Reviling as an “extrajudicial” (outside the courtroom) verbal injury is trickier. If someone who has no authority over another person self-appoints himself the judge of another, as if the other is his subject, then verbal injury occurs outside a formal authoritative hierarchy. Among the extrajudicial verbal injuries, reviling is at the top of the list, along with backbiting, tale-bearing, derision, and cursing, all of which deserve their own essays.

To “revile” is to verbally and publicly dishonor someone, to rail against a person, to criticize in front of the person and others. Reviling is not done in private or behind the person’s back; that is called backbiting. Backbiting is to injure a person’s good name to a third party in secret. Derision is to mock, jest, or ridicule another person. Cursing is to command or desire evil on another. These all can be violations of justice, but for now we are only concerned with reviling, public verbal injury.

For sure, words can injure people, not just the one being reviled but his or her family and friends, as well. When a reporter publicly disgraces a politician on television or in the papers, he reviles the man. When a woman criticizes her husband in front of their friends or children, she reviles him. When a teenager posts humiliating information, pictures, or videos about a peer on social media, she reviles someone who may have considered her a friend. When a mother criticizes a child in front of the other children, she reviles the child. But in these examples, we start to see grey area. Reporters must report the truth. Parents or teachers often must correct children in front of others. So is reviling always wrong? No, it’s not. There is some guidance here, so keep going.

Is reviling always a sin?

Like any other moral question intent and effect determine the severity of the sin. If a person dishonors another (either secretly or publicly) with the intent of dishonoring or discrediting a good name, it is, according to St. Thomas, a mortal sin “no less than theft or robbery, since a man loves his honor no less than his possessions.” It robs a soul of honor.

St. Thomas says in the extreme (and most clear cut) cases, reviling is a mortal sin, quoting Christ in the Gospel of Matthew.

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:22

The logic is straightforward, recognizing the moral authority in Christ’s words. Since mortal sin deserves the punishment of hell, and since Christ calls these examples worthy of hell, and since these examples fit the definition of reviling, reviling is a mortal sin. But we cannot reduce every human interaction to simplistic or extreme cases either, and St. Thomas knows that. Notice that Christ emphasizes anger’s role in sinful reviling.

Sin can have many causes, but there is usually a chief cause of certain sins. St. Thomas says people mostly revile out of anger, also quoting Aristotle from Greek antiquity, “…anger listens imperfectly to reason.” Anger makes people irrational. Those who harbor anger can very easily seek revenge. Reviling is an instantly gratuitous way to both release anger and make someone else pay for a perceived wrong — and here’s the clincher — while conveniently masquerading as justice. When anger clouds our judgement, it’s easy to rationalize that reviling someone is okay. So the lesson here is that, as hard as it can be, we should check ourselves before exposing someone else’s faults openly in front of other people. This honesty in self-examination requires another principle cardinal virtue called prudence, which is why we say the virtues are interdependent. (This is also why the St. Philip Institute is teaching an in-depth, Thomistic series on the virtues. For prudence, see The Cardinal Virtue of Prudence.)

There are exceptions when publicly dishonoring someone is not sinful, but it is narrow and not a guarantee against sin. If the intent is to correct, then reviling may 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. With verbal injury in a courtroom, for instance, telling the truth under oath is clearly not a sin even if it exposes the fault of the accused. People in positions of legitimate authority, such as employers, parents, and teachers, may find themselves in situations where there is no choice but to publicly correct someone, but it should never be done inconsiderately. Especially with children, it is so easy to damage their tender souls. The one in authority has a serious obligation to examine inner motives and carefully measure words.

When speaking publicly about another person, if there is any question about intent to correct and do good, it is best to refrain, at least until further self-examination can be done. Even with the best of intent, when the person in authority is absolutely certain of the intent to do good, the reviler can sin anyway by injuring the other person unintentionally. It’s like when kids play around punching each other. Even if the intent is fun, someone can still get hurt. The one who punched is to blame, no matter how much good fun he intended. St. Thomas summarizes this advice:

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, divisive politics, and so-called political correctness, some people would argue that everyone has an obligation to correct others publicly. For writers and broadcasters, this is a grey area because the legitimate authority of such professions varies greatly with the credentials of the publication venue. There are peer-reviewed publications with trusted reputations, and the editors and producers hold people to appropriate standards of conduct. In a democratic society, people need to know about the integrity of the officials they elect. Ideally, all publications would act justly, but this is not easy. There are plenty of publishers who institutionalize sinful reviling. There are bloggers who appoint themselves judges without any authority. There are legions of social media posters who ceaselessly revile with all the polish of sandpaper. And it goes the other way. People are accused of hate-speech when all they have attacked are issues, not other individuals. It is an understatement to say that we all have to be careful what we say, read, or trust, which is why we need to bring the moral teaching of the Catholic Church to the public sphere as much as to the family dinner table. Our society has lost this clarity.

How we treat each other is fundamental to human dignity. Whether or not reviling is a sin depends on both the intent and the one being dishonored. If the correction is due a person and helpful (even if painful), then public exposure of faults is not a sin, for the reviler has provided guidance. Often (but not always), the guidance could more successfully be given in private though. No one likes to be corrected in public. People are not objects. We are all imperfect sinners, and owe others the benefit of the doubt. We owe it to others not to take away their honor in public if it can at all be avoided — and although such circumstances certainly exist more than the few mentioned in this essay, it is hard to imagine many scenarios when one individual is justified in publicly dishonoring another individual.

Should we suffer reviling?

What if you are the one being reviled? St. Thomas says, “Just as we need patience in things done against us, so do we need it in those said against us.” If we are due the correction by our own fault or even if suffering public dishonor is the surest way to bring peace, then at times we are obligated to submit to humiliation. St. Thomas also says we don’t have to be doormats. We are not always bound to suffer the injury of reviling.

Christ gave an example of such a time. After he was betrayed and arrested and before he was sentenced to death, when the high priest questioned Jesus about his teaching, Jesus answered: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said” (John 18:19-23). After he said this, one of the police struck Jesus on the face, and Jesus corrected the man publicly, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Notice how Christ controlled the situation. He challenged the other man, thereby providing correction, without attacking the honor of the other man.

We actually have the obligation to sometimes rebuke unjust revilers. St. Thomas names two reasons. First, we may “check” the reviler for his own good, to hopefully stop him from engaging in a sinful action, consistent with Proverbs 26:5, “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” The second reason is for the good of others who are misled into sin by the reviler. Here St. Thomas quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great from the seventh century:

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.

It can spiral though. Even in checking the reviler the one being reviled must check himself before acting in 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, of unjustly reviling the unjust reviler. Christ’s example is important. Challenge objectively without attacking.

Bottom line: Avoid injury.

Reviling can easily be a sin, and injury by deed or word, once done, cannot be undone. Healing can take a lifetime. How many children grow up with shame and never grow past the wound as adults, perpetuating the sin on another generation for reasons they do not understand? How many friendships are broken by imprudent accusations? How many marriages suffer a sharp tongue?

Reviling may seem a way to gain control in the moment, but if it is done in anger or haste, we could lose control of both ourselves and the relationships we damage. Ultimately, if we strive not to injure in the first place, we’ll do more to bring justice to society than we could ever bring by making a habit of publicly railing against other people. Then, with the practice of prudence and the grace of the Holy Spirit to guide our thinking, when we must correct a person publicly for the sake of truth, the stand will have the authority of patience because it will be rare. And our words will be wise because they will be measured with love.