Is There Smoke without Fire?
How much credence ought one to give to disparaging reports about one’s neighbour? If one wishes to be prudent, very little. And if one wishes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, less still. For while no one who retains the Faith in the opening years of the twenty-first century can doubt that there is much evil in the world, it does not follow that this or that individual may safely be presumed guilty of the particular evil attributed to him.
“The Christian law which forbids rash judgments is not mere charity; it is also a rule of prudence and of sound logic,” says the Spanish Catholic philosopher Balmès in his The Art of Reaching Truth. Experience does not authorise us to trust popular obloquy – we have only to advert to the occasions when we ourselves have been the subjects of defamation to notice how unreliable is rumour, but how readily credited. It is indeed, as Virgil wrote more than two thousand years ago, the swiftest of evils, tireless in its travels and ever gaining in strength as it goes, spouting fact and fiction indiscriminately; a monster of numberless tongues and as many eager ears.(1) If we may trust the Gospel, the saints and the masters of the spiritual life, we ought rather to distrust our own senses than think ill of our neighbour when the contrary is possible, however improbable it may seem. And the tongues of talebearers are not more trustworthy than our own senses.
Thus far we dare say that the reader agrees. The principle just enunciated attracts widespread agreement even from those who are not prompt to put it into practice. But this agreement does not last when a large number of Catholics including good, pious and even outstandingly holy people unanimously agree in attributing horrible crimes to some individual, with the certainty of eye-witnesses who report not out of malice towards the malefactor, but from charity towards their listeners in order to impart a timely warning. What does the reader think of such a case?
Doubtless such unanimity should put us on guard that the testimony may be true. Doubtless, if we are concerned, it may move us to make enquiries or take precautions. But it does not entitle us to believe. It does not entitle us positively to think ill of our neighbour. It does not entitle us to suppose that, amid so many accusations from so many quarters, there must at least be some truth. For if collective indignation, disgust and reprobation are sometimes the lot of the wicked, they are all but invariably the lot of the just.
No matter who censures, no matter how many, no matter how holy, no matter how trenchantly, no matter how apparently credible, we must continue to consider it perfectly possible that the accused is entirely innocent. The dictum that there can be “no smoke without fire” is one of the falsest and most pernicious in the repertory of English proverbs.
Consider only the accusations directed at Our Divine Lord. God Himself, He was accused of blasphemy, nay judged guilty of blasphemy by the supreme religious authority existing at the time. “He hath blasphemed;” said Caiphas, “what further need have we of witnesses?” (Matthew 26:65) Wisdom itself, omniscient, He was dismissed as an ignoramus: “How does this man know letters, never having learned?”(John 7:15) He was mocked as a false prophet (Luke 22:64), despised as a madman (John 10:20), called a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34). He was accused of heresy, of black magic, of diabolical possession, even of being Himself a devil! (John 8:48, Matthew 9:34 and 10:25)
All this was, to say the very least, “smoke without fire”. Indeed it was so opposite to the truth – the manifest truth – that greater injustice cannot be imagined. And that may move the reader to suppose that Our Lord’s was a special case. But Our Lord Himself teaches us the opposite: “If they have called the goodman of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household?” (Matthew 10:25) If Christ has been unjustly defamed, His faithful followers are likely to be even more terribly defamed than He.
It may still be said that voices were raised in Our Lord’s favour: “He hath done all things well.” (Mark 7:37) But that was not so at His Passion. At first sight more credibly, it may be argued that Our Lord’s accusers were wicked men, defying the evidence, and that condemnation by large numbers of virtuous people is not to be expected unless the accused person has really done something wrong, even if this has been exaggerated. Credible? Too often, I fear, those who argue in this way are too ready to attribute virtue to the tattlers they wish to give ear to, in order to justify themselves in attributing the opposite of virtue to their victims. But even when the censures are pronounced with unanimity by good Catholics, still there may be “smoke without fire”. Let Fr Faber recount for us some evidence as to whether unanimous condemnation on the part of good Catholics is a proof of guilt:
…suffering, and of all sufferings especially the persecution and opposition of good men, seems to be an inseparable accident of sanctity, as soon as and insofar as it is heroic… Let us take some instances, in order that we may not lie open to exaggeration… In the cause of St Teresa(2), we read that she was so completely abandoned by everyone that nobody would even hear her confessions. The auditors tell us of St John of God and of St Jerome Emiliani that they were counted and treated as mad; Surius tells us almost the same of St Louis, king of France… St Philip Neri was persecuted by Roman prelates under Popes Paul IV and St Pius V; his pilgrimages to the Seven Churches were put down to vainglory or a seditious humour, and he was disgraced. St Alphonsus Liguori, after having been persecuted by Fr Ripa and made the laughing stock of Naples, was no sooner deserted by his first companions, Mandarini and others, at Scala, than he was denounced by name from the pulpits of the capital as a warning to other ‘self-sufficient dreamers’. St Teresa was denounced to the inquisition, and so was Ignatius Loyola… The glorious St Joseph Calasanctius, whose life is such a study for these times, was summoned before the Inquisition; he was deprived of his office of General; his order was abolished and reduced to a simple congregation and was not restored until after his death, by Clement IX. All this was in Rome itself and under the eyes of the Sovereign Pontiffs;… and we are actually told that so frequent and grievous were the persecutions which St Joseph Calasanctius underwent from good men and prelates in authority(3) that the postulators were more than once on the point of giving the cause up in despair, such tedious difficulty had they to make their ground good against the Promoter of the Faith… Nay even the absence of this kind of persecution seems to have amounted almost to an objection in the case of St Francesca Romana; it was hinted that she was entering into her glory without this suffering. (Essay on Beatification, Canonization and the Processes of the Congregation of Rites, republished by tradibooks.com)
One last objection can be imagined. Someone might admit that the saints and Our Lord were wrongly accused and mistakenly thought ill of, even by the good, but insist that no one even claims that the accused individual is a saint. At best he is only an ordinary sinner and therefore would not receive the trial of calumny and unjust detraction as a privilege of holiness. Hence the only credible explanation of the popular disapproval of him is that it has been deserved.
But no. If saints may be the victims of unjust censure, so may sinners. And they have more need of our charity than saints have.
(1) Fama malum qua non aliud velocius ullum.
Mobilitate viget virisque adquirit eundo;
tot linguae, totidem ora sonant, tot subrigit auris.
(Æneid IV, 173 et seq.)
(2) of Avila.
(3) Emphasis added.
© John S. Daly
This article originally appeared in The Four Marks.