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Dominica V post Pascha

Latin Mass 2020  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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LESSON: Sins of the tongue

Douay-Rheims Bible Chapter 1

And if any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.

St. James does not pull any punches in his epistle, perhaps fitting for the elder brother of the “Sons of Thunder”, and one theme that is present throughout this epistle is sins of the tongue. Of course, we’re not talking about the physical organ, but rather what the tongue represents, speech, which, of course, also includes not only what we say, but what we write as well, particularly in this age of social media.
Complaining has been called the official Canadian pastime, but with the advent of online forums like Facebook and Twitter, and comment sections on just about everything posted on the Internet these days it seems to have become a pastime for more than Canadians, but has become a worldwide phenomenon, and with tensions high and many people stuck at home unable to participate in normal activities it seems to have reached epidemic proportions, if you’ll forgive the expression.
Now some may say that this is just people letting out some of the stress they’re feeling, and that may be the case but there are far more healthy and, more importantly, holy ways of dealing with stressful times, and we’ll look at those in a few minutes. Some may also say that it is right and proper to criticize our political leaders, and in a democracy legitimate criticism backed up by objective facts is right and proper.
The problem is not about stress relief or legitimate criticism of our leaders, the problem is that a large portion of what’s posted online strays well into the area of sin, and not just sin, mortal sin, that’s the real problem.

ILLUSTRATION: The Backbiting Tongue

In 1870, Fr. Bélet of the Diocese of Basle in France wrote an excellent and very handy little book entitled, The Backbiting Tongue, taking the lead from St. James’ epistle. It is divided into four parts, the nature of backbiting, the evils that it causes, appropriate names for backbiters, and the sin of listening to backbiters. Today I’d like to offer just a couple of highlights from Fr. Bélet.
First of all, what is backbiting, we’re given eight categories:
Telling lies about your neighbour
Bringing a hidden fault to light, wounding your neighbour’s reputation
Exaggerating our neighbour’s faults and failings whether true or false
Impugning evil motives to our neighbour’s actions
Spreading rumours
Defaming a person through gestures, such as raising an eyebrow or shaking your head to imply that the speaker is ignorant or foolish
Remaining silent about your neighbour’s good qualities when he is being defamed by another person
Denying your own guilt to make your accuser look like a liar.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that backbiting is a sin against both charity and justice, and often also involves the sins of rash judgement and envy, and envy is usually preceded by pride, so in one act of backbiting it is possible to commit SIX mortal sins.
St. Francis of Assisi considered backbiting such a severe sin that when one of his monks said evil things about another he told another of the monks, “Father, go and examine this affair. If the accused is innocent, punish his accuser so severely that it will give others an example, and he will remember it.”
The severity of backbiting comes in part from the fact that once spoken, words cannot be taken back, and once something is typed on the internet it is there forever (no matter how well we might try to delete it).
There’s the famous story of the woman who perpetually confessed gossip to her confessor. A version of this story was told in the 2008 movie Gossip. As a penance he told her to take her feather pillow up the roof of her apartment, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds, then come back to see him. She did so, as instructed, and upon returning her confessor told her that the second part of her penance would be to gather up every last feather and sow them back in the pillow. She replied that it would be impossible, as the feathers had blown far away by now, ‘and that’ the old priest said, ‘is gossip’, and I would add, that is every single type of backbiting.

APPLICATION: Fighting the urge to backbite

A moment ago I spoke about some of the possible motives that individuals might have for their online criticisms, let’s revisit those.
If you are feeling stressed, and this is an outlet for that stress, you need to find another one. First make sure that your physical health is in good order, good food, exercise, proper sleep. Then don’t neglect your spiritual health, daily time for prayer. If you are still feeling stressed, then it’s time to work on building greater trust with God.
Start by reading the scriptures, paying particular attention to God’s faithfulness to His people. You can also read the lives of the saints, particularly the martyrs and see how God’s grace strengthened them in their trials. Of course, don’t forget to pray often for an increase of faith and trust in God as well.
Now to those who wish to pose criticism of leaders, both political and spiritual, a few words. As I mentioned earlier, expressing criticism of elected officials is a freedom that those in democratic societies enjoy, however if you support ending the lock downs and you are referring to your opponents as ‘freedom hating sheep’ and if you support the lock downs and you are referring to your opponents as ‘selfish murders of the elderly’ or anything even approaching these comments, then you are in the realm of backbiting.
Similarly, canon law allows Catholics to make their concerns known to their pastors (which includes bishops), however if you are calling priests or bishops, ‘cowards who have abandoned their flocks’, or anything akin to that, then that would be a grave sin.
Before making any sort of criticism then pray for the individual you are about to criticize, pray for charity, and if you are still going to engage in backbiting, then you need to pray more. If you just can’t refrain from engaging in such criticism online, then you need to sign out of your social media accounts, and if you still cannot help yourself, then you need to delete your account immediately. I think sacrificing a Facebook account is a small price to pay to keep yourself from going to Hell.
St. James offers a dire warning to those who cannot control their tongues. Let us all pray for the graces of charity and civility at this time when tensions are high, and any time we are tempted by the backbiting tongue.
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