Facebook, Aquinas and the Sins Of Free Speech

The ease and eagerness with which we insult and castigate one another online is bone-chilling.

Online Reviling
Online Reviling (photo: UVgreen / Shutterstock.com)

In the past few months, social media giants Facebook and Twitter have adopted increasingly restrictive censoring policies. Among many Catholics, there is a palpable outrage to these corporate actions. That’s understandable; after all, the right of free speech is a fundamental one in America. But there is an underlying problem of far greater concern: over the past few years, we Catholics have used these social media platforms to commit a multitude of sins.

It’s easy to be infuriated over the misdeeds of another, but of this we can be sure: when you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, you will not be asked about Facebook or Twitter’s corporate policies. You will, however, be asked whether you personally engaged in sins such as name-calling, mockery, lying, gossip, libel, calumny or detraction.

Some of us Catholics seem to have never considered that fact. Many seem to believe that Facebook posts are not subject to moral scrutiny — even if these posts violate justice and charity, even if the posts are readable by the entire world.

Will our defense be that our sins were merely published on Facebook rather than delivered audibly — and that this somehow absolves us of wrongdoing?

More than seven centuries ago, Saint Thomas Aquinas addressed this question in the Summa Theologiae in his entry on “Reviling,” which “denotes the dishonoring of a person” and occurs “when a man publishes something against another's honor.” Aquinas argues that “reviling is greater if one man reproach another in the presence of many.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes Aquinas, teaching that a public false statement about others, for instance, “takes on a particular gravity.” The logic is simple and sound: Private calumny speaks to those within earshot; public calumny speaks to the whole world.

These are often sins of objectively serious matter. As Thomas bluntly states, “reviling is a mortal sin.” In terms of gravity of evil, publicly posting libelous comments can rank alongside looking at pornography. It’s worth considering that fact before pressing “Post.”

Aquinas understood something that we have largely forgotten: these sins can have a serious and lasting imprint. A spoken word can be easily forgotten, but a printed word endures — sometimes permanently.

It’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

Years ago, I sacramentally confessed the sin of detraction and I asked the priest how I could make restitution. He explained that therein lay the problem. When you steal money, he explained, you can pay the money back. But when you steal someone’s reputation (Aquinas might say “honor”), that’s a much more difficult thing to repay. I was absolved, but my work was only beginning.

From the moment I left the confessional, I went to work to perform this healing task. In the process, I learned that healing a reputation often requires enormous patience, creativity and forgiveness. But there is a certain beauty and hope in restitution, and the process helps to heal us from our sins.

I post this today as a reminder for myself and for all of us who have struggled against these sins of free speech. But it is also a cautionary tale for those of us who have never considered the seriousness of these sins. The ease and eagerness with which we insult and castigate one another is bone-chilling. So when we hear about Facebook censoring free speech, maybe it will inspire us to do something we should have been doing all along: censor ourselves.