An act whereby a person takes something from the reputation or worth of another with a view of lessening him in the estimation of others, depreciating another from envy or malice, or representing his merit as less than it really is. The theological significance of the term detraction has varied during the centuries. Early theologians used the term in practically the same way as it is preserved in modern English, but with the added notion of the act's taking place in the person's absence or "secretly." Currently theologians make a different distinction, namely, between statements that reveal damaging truths about another unnecessarily and those that are deliberate lies. The former is called detraction, the latter is called calumny. Hence, detraction is the blackening of an absent person's good name by unnecessarily revealing a true but hidden crime, sin, or defect. "Blackening" is used to express the effect of detraction, namely, dulling or obscuring the luster of a good name.
Scripture points out that a good name "… is more desirable than great riches" (Prv 22.1). Blackening another's good name is more than an uncharitable act; it is a sin of injustice. That the detracting statements are true is not a justification for their being made. The hidden truth about another that would damage his reputation may not be revealed without necessity.
Morality. The sinfulness of detraction depends on the detractor's intentions and the realization of the damaging effect that his words will have. The actual harm to reputation depends on the nature of the fact revealed, the reputation of the person wronged, the credibility of the detracting person, etc. A detractor who cannot gain an attentive audience is harmless. Eager listeners, on the other hand, encourage the detractor; and hence share in the malice of the sinful act. Moreover, one who deliberately initiates or prolongs the detracting conversation by questioning also participates to some extent in the sinful action.
The detractor is obliged to repair the damage done to the person's reputation. If other harm, e.g., monetary, has been caused and was foreseen by the detractor, this must also be repaired. The detractor can make partial reparation of the harm done by speaking in a friendly way about the person wronged, by showing him deference, etc. The impossibility of adequately restoring the lost reputation should serve as an added deterrent to a detracting tongue.
Exceptions. The virtue of veracity forbids lying at all times, but it does not demand that a person reveal the truth at all times. There are occasions when a person is obliged in conscience to hide the truth. On the other hand, a person may sometimes licitly reveal the truth, even though this may result in harm to another's reputation. Examples of this occur when there is a conflict between the rights of the person about whom something discreditable is known and moral rights of equal or greater urgency. Thus, when the continued ignorance of a blackening truth will cause harm to the common good, to an innocent third party, to the one about whom the truth is known, or to the one who knows the truth, the facts need not be kept secret. For example, one who knows that an innocent person will be sent to prison may licitly reveal the identity of the true criminal. For the manifestation of a blackening truth to be licit, it must be a necessary means to avoid harm, and the manifestation must be made with as little injury to the person's reputation as possible.
The view of earlier theologians in regard to the good name of one who had been sentenced to prison were based on the court's intention to deprive the criminal of his reputation, to safeguard society against criminals, etc. The civil law today does not intend the perpetual deprivation of the good name of the criminal. Present-day rehabilitation procedures confirm this view. Hence, contemporary moralists incline to the view that the forgotten past of one who has changed his name, moved to a different section of the country, and is now living as a respected citizen cannot be legitimately divulged.
Bibliography: d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch (12th ed. Freiburg-Barcelona 1955) 2:165–201. b.h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis (8th ed. Paris 1949) 2:423–432. thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 73–74. a. thouvenin, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, (Paris 1903–50) 10.1:487–494. k. moore, The Moral Principles Governing the Sin of Detraction …(Washington 1950).
[k. b. moore]