The worst homily I ever heard was based on John 8:32, "You shall know the truth and truth shall make you free." The preacher used that verse to launch into an attack on some people in the community. He accused them of pocketing public moneys for themselves, their friends and girl friends. As I watched the confused faces of member of the congregation, especially the younger ones, I wondered if this was really what Jesus intended.
To find out I went to a current commentary on St. John. The author insisted that the verse be taken in context of the preceding one, "You will be my disciples." The Truth in question is knowing Jesus, following him, not exposing other's sins.
Jesus' quote was clearly being misused by the preacher. As I will show below, he did not distinguish between truth and detraction. Folks today have largely forgotten that distinction. AT one time news reporters had a great delicacy concerning the sins of public figures. In fact they hid intimate details of the lives of Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy, not to mention leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King. Those days are gone and the turn-around is dramatic. In the past twenty years we have seen a deluge of stories about famous people's misconduct. Paula Jones is only the latest in a series of prurient stories involving major public figures.
I am not writing to question Paula Jones' truthfulness or even whether our legal system has gone overboard concerning "sexual harassment." I would like to ask a more basic question: What is the effect of such reporting on us as a society? I ask that not as a sociologist, but as one called to apply biblical teaching to the contemporary world.
If John 8:32 is not an appropriate scripture verse, what is? I believe what we are experiencing today was described in Genesis, chapter 9. After the flood Noah planted a vineyard, harvested the grapes and made some wine. He got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. His son Ham "spied his father's nakedness and went out to tell his two brothers." (9:22). However, Shem and Japheth took a different approach. They walked backward with a cloak to cover their father. When Noah woke up, he blessed them, but Ham he cursed (v. 25).
Today we might shy away from this Biblical story. It was used in the past to justify black slavery. But Ham was actually the father of the Canaanites (cf. 9:18) and that ancient enemy of Israel is now long gone. However, the curse of Ham continues to hang over those who spy on their father's "nakedness" and tell others about it.
Afternoon talk shows have been built around exposing other people's misconduct. Our mainstream papers now freely report what used to be found only in tabloids. This trend has certainly been noticed but even those who criticize it sometimes seem to be doing it as a cover for more sensationalism. The media obviously know their audience. I do not claim to be above it all. With morbid interest I read the entire Newsweek article on Paula Jones Should She be Heard? It took a high tone, but reported lurid accusations about the President.
The reading left me uneasy. Not that the details were particularly shocking. I have heard confessions for twenty-five years and I know that well respected people do things they are profoundly ashamed of. That public figures have clay feet is hardly news. But should their weaknesses, real or imagined, be broadcast to all?
I remember confronting a woman who was spreading a story about a friend of mine. To defend herself she exclaimed, "But what I said was true!" I asked her to read the Catechism, especially the analysis of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness." That commandment does not just prohibit calumny, but also detraction—destroying someone's good name by what we say, even if it is true. Just because I saw someone leaving a tavern with a blond on his arm does not mean I have the right to tell other people about it. I can talk directly to him or perhaps someone spiritually responsible for him, but not to anyone else. Fraternal correction is not gossip and gossip is never fraternal correction.
What the Catechism says about detraction applies also to public figures. In fact to destroy the good name of a person who is in some way our superior is an even heavier sin. It brings with it one of the primordial curses of the Bible, the one Noah uttered against his son Ham.
Like Ham our national media have eagerly broadcast reports of our leaders' shame. Not only political figures, but educational, medical, sports, etc. have been subjected to that scrutiny and exposure of weaknesses. The priesthood has been no exception, in fact we have had some of the most sensational coverage. A friend of mine in San Francisco told me that at a certain time there were fifty cases of child abuse before the courts. Only one involved a Catholic priest. But he alone was on the evening news at every step of the judicial process. Philip Jenkins documents that pattern in his book Pedophiles and Priests.
This article is not a plea for special treatment for priests or presidents. Like doctors or sports heroes, we must play by the same rules as everyone else and face the consequences of misbehavior the same as any citizen. However, I do question broadcasting it beyond those who need to know. To return to my original example, I am concerned about the young people who hear the accusations. I am worried about how all this affects them. In the worse case it will unravel our whole social fabric. The children of Ham disappeared and we could face the same fate. But there is a better case: Perhaps our young people will follow the example of Shem and Japheth. They walked backward with great delicacy and used a cloak to cover their father's nakedness. They need to do that not so much for their father's sake, but their own.
Sometime in the future I would like to take up the question of how all this relates to investigative reporting. One of the ironies of our society is that while we expose lurid scandals, there is in fact precious little true investigative reporting. Part of the reason is that we have become so focused on what entertains that we have lost the interest to find out what is really going on. (I.F. Stone pointed out this phenomenon during the Vietnam War.) That requires hard work on our part—and on the part of reporters. But, as I say, that is another topic.
What do you think?
Your comments or questions are welcome.
Article on Confession of Sins.
The pedophilia scandal.
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