Rash judgment and mortal sin

When is rash judgment a mortal sin? Here’s a hypothetical situation: Suppose Person A, for whatever reason, wrongly concludes that Person B is a pedophile. Refusing to believe otherwise, Person A then starts warning all the parents of small children in town about it. In the process, Person B’s reputation is damaged. Granted, Person A’s intent wasn’t to be malicious but rather to protect children; however, Person A’s conclusions about Person B were completely wrong. Surely there would be objective sin on Person A’s part, but just how grave?

I have just reviewed the Catechism, paragraphs 1749-1761, on the basics of morality. For now, let me just quote CCC 1750:

1750 The morality of human acts depends on:
—the object chosen;
—the end in view or the intention;
—the circumstances of the action.
The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.

In your hypothetical scenario, the object is to speak in judgment against another person.

The intention (or the end which is desired) is to protect children.

The circumstances could be many. Where do we begin? I would start with the frame of mind or “world view” of the accuser, who is predisposed to look for evil in his fellow man. This attitude is the beginning of many evils. However, it may not be entirely the accuser’s fault. Perhaps he (or she, but for the sake of brevity I will say he) was a victim of abuse. Perhaps for other reasons he is under the influence of fear or anxiety. Perhaps on TV he saw something generally about child abuse. Perhaps others in the community are talking a lot about child abuse. Perhaps someone else started it by raising suspicions privately with him about the accused.

The gravity in this scenario hinges mostly, I believe, in the object, that is, the act of speaking to others about one’s judgment against the accused. The evidence is unreliable, the accusation is serious, it is irreversible (once started, the rumor cannot be undone), and it is likely to bring serious harm to the accused — harm not only toward his reputation, but possibly material losses and perhaps even injury or death. That constitutes grave matter.

Besides grave matter, mortal sin “requires full knowledge and complete consent” (CCC 1859). It is possible that the accuser does not have full knowledge of what he is doing. Out of ignorance, he may not understand that his “evidence” is faulty and he may underestimate the harm that he will cause. Therefore we cannot say with certainty that it is a mortal sin.

I forgot to say, with regard to the gravity of the act (the object), that it is one’s responsibility to consider other means to obtain the desired good. Spreading rumors about an alleged pedophile is neither the only nor the most effective way to protect children. Children could be warned in a general way about “stranger danger.” Parents could be reminded to supervise their children. False accusations, by focusing everyone’s attention on a decoy, could allow an unknown pedophile in the neighborhood to remain undetected for a longer time.

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