The sinister and irreparable nature of gossip is memorably illustrated in the penance St. Philip Neri once gave to a woman who had confessed it to him. He told her to walk through the streets of Rome plucking a chicken. Humbled, the woman accepted the penance. When she returned to him and reported she had completed the penance the saint told her to now go and collect all the feathers she had plucked.
“But Father Philip,” the woman is reported to have replied, “That would be impossible. I have no idea where they have blown to.”
“Now you see, my daughter, the effects of gossip,” he said.
Today we see gossip spread by journalists as recently demonstrated in much of the coverage of the Covington Catholic High School students attending the March for Life. Surely you know the whole story by now:
On Saturday, a story went viral that the previous day the Covington kids, wearing MAGA hats, left the March for Life to go sight-seeing only to find themselves boxed between racially charged groups of activists, the Indigenous People’s March and a black version of the Westboro Baptists known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. Both groups of adults hurled vile and provocative words of contempt at the boys. The image that emerged was that of an American Indian activist Nathan Phillips (who, the next day attempted to disrupt Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception), beating a drum in the face of one of the boys while chanting a war cry into his face. The boy quietly listened and smiled.
The gossip dimension of this affair begins as usual with an edited video of the encounter which was picked up by the “news” media (including the New York Times). It reported this encounter as a group of white teenagers racially harassing a venerable tribal elder and Vietnam Veteran. And so the feathers blew across the nation, confirming Lord Acton’s observation that, “Common report and outward seeming are bad copies of the reality.” We can be thankful to Robby Soave over at Reason who went through the tedious task of gathering some of the feathers by examining the available video footage in its entirety, providing additional context,
…the rest of the video—nearly two hours of additional footage showing what happened before and after the encounter—adds important context that strongly contradicts the media’s narrative.
Most were not as careful with the truth. That lack of care extended to a lack of care for the persons at the center of the story, as Sara Aldworth helpfully pointed out,
What started for those students as a trip to the March for Life, ended in public shaming, death threats, and even calls for them to be forever condemned, with no mercy, by no less than an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and producer.
We fail to respect the reputation of persons when we make rash judgments and engage in detraction or calumny.
Many have made rash judgments about the persons involved in this story (including officials in the Diocese where the boys live and their own school). Some (not all) have apologized.
How many shared these stories about people they do not know with people who also do not know them, just like feathers down the alleyways of Rome? Much of what has been shared is calumny, stories contrary to the truth which harm reputations and cause others to make false judgments about the parties involved.
Gossip is a form of bearing false witness (a violation of one of the Ten Commandments), it is a grave sin, and one that demands more than an apology. It demands repentance. Let this tragic media frenzy be an occasion for all of us to lead more responsible and merciful lives.
For any of the boys from Covington Catholic High School who should chance upon this article: You will be called upon to explain and defend your beliefs in the moral foundations of Western Civilization. For any of you so inclined to come, you will be awarded a full scholarship to attend the Acton University in June here in Grand Rapids to help equip you in this regard.