Hello. I’ve been having some issues with detraction for quite a while, and feel that if someone could properly explain to me what exactly it is and what various situations would qualify as an instance of detraction, I wouldn’t have to worry about it too much. Thank you!

From Fr. Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary:

DETRACTION. Revealing something about another that is true but harmful to that person’s reputation. It is forbidden to reveal another person’s secret faults or defects, unless there is proportionate good involved. The fact that something is true does not, of itself, justify its disclosure. Detraction is a sin against justice. It robs one of what most people consider more important than riches, since a person has a strict right to his or her reputation whether it is deserved or not. (Etym. Latin detractio, a withdrawal.)

Note that it is revealing something. Public knowledge and things that could easily be known by anyone, are not the same as things confidential or private; although one may still commit sin by harping on another’s known defects unnecessarily. (If you’re spreading lies about the person, that’s calumny.)

Rather than try to list every scenario that does or does not quality as detraction, how about you give an example or two, then we can discuss whether they are detraction or not.

Mama said:
"If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all."
That pretty much sums up the teachings against detraction, which is saying something which is true that harms the reputation of another, and calumny, which is telling a lie that harms the reputation of another.

The Catechism has this to say:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

As the definition in the previous post indicates, there may be exceptions when “there is proportionate good involved,” or as the Catechism teaches, when there is “objectively valid reason” to disclose such a truth. If, in your situation, you think there may be good reason to disclose something against someone, perhaps you could elaborate for us, or it might be better to seek the advice of a priest or spiritual director.

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