Contumely, or reviling, is an offense against the honor or dignity of another by allegation of moral defect, primarily by speech uttered in his presence but also by writings, gestures, or other acts. In certain circumstances even the omission of an act can involve contumely, as when someone speaks to all but one in a group and the circumstances are such that this omission detracts from that person's honor or dignity. Contumely, as opposed to the honor of another, should be distinguished from de traction or backbiting, which is against another's good name or reputation, and from talebearing (susurratio ), which aims at the destruction of a friendship. These sins consist in speech to someone other than the one offended; but one can be guilty of contumely when speaking only to the one being dishonored, although it is more serious if done in the presence of others.
Contumely is opposed to commutative justice and charity and of its nature is gravely sinful. If only some slight dishonor is intended, the act is venially sinful. In certain circumstances insulting words may be used without intention of dishonoring another. For example, one may use this language in correction, as punishment, or in joking; but due caution must be observed. The intention of dishonoring need not be explicit for a sin of contumely. It suffices that one recognizes that the words or gestures have this effect, even though they may flow from hatred, anger, or envy.
See Also: insult.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, 72. l. bender, in f. roberti et al., Dictionary of Moral Theology, ed. p. palazzini et al., tr. h. j. yannone et al. from 2d Ital. ed. (Westminster, Md. 1962) 324–325. p. palazzini, ed., Dictionarium morale et canonicum, v.1 (Vatican City 1962) 956–961.