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Faults against Decorum Regarding Charity
Owed to Your Neighbor

In this excerpt from his excellent book on Civility and Decorum (see others here and here), St. John Baptiste de la Salle sets out guidelines for good behavior with our neighbor. In the rude and vulgar climate of our times, it is no wonder that so many resentments and irritations seethe in relationships, even among family members.

The Saint is very clear about the consideration we should show in our speech and actions with others, never insulting or mocking our neighbor, and taking great care in the occasional joking that is permitted. When these rules guided Catholics, living with others was much more pleasant and agreeable.

St. John-Baptiste de la Salle

Civility is so demanding in what refers to your neighbor that it does not permit you to scandalize anyone in any way and never allows you to speak ill of anyone. This is also something that St. James warns the early Christians to be contrary to God’s law, when he tells them that whoever slanders his brother slanders the law (Jas 4:11).

It is, then, very rude to be forever finding fault with what others do. If you do not wish to say anything good about them, you should say nothing. The Wise Man declares that when you hear slander, you must hedge your ears with thorns, and he adds that you must keep so far away from slander that you never hear an evil tongue (Eccl [Sir] 28:8 [28 Douay]).

Nor does he allow you to report to people the tales that someone else has related about them, and he warns you not to acquire the reputation of talebearer, because, as he says, the talebearer will be hated by everyone (Eccl [Sir] 19:7, 10; 5:16; 21:31 [25–28]). Thus, according to the same Wise Man’s counsel, if you have heard something unfavorable about your neighbor, you must, if you wish to act with decorum, let the story be buried in your own heart (ibid., 19:[9–]10). ...

Also, it is most improper to call attention to the physical defect of anyone; this shows that you are mean and poorly brought up. It is also rude to make comparisons between the person to whom you are speaking and someone else, so as to bring out some defect or misfortune that happened to that other person, saying, for example, “He was as drunk as you were the other day”; “So-and-so got a slap or a bloody nose as bad as the one you got a few days ago”; “So-and-so fell into a mud puddle like the one you fell into the other day,” or, “So-and-so has hair as red as yours.”

To talk this way is to offer a grave insult to the one to whom you are speaking. Nor ought you to refer to obvious defects or blemishes on a person’s face or to ask how they got there. It is also quite rude, as well as a great fault against charity toward your neighbor, to remind someone of events in which he did not do well or to say things that can disturb or embarrass the person you are speaking to, such as “You got into an ugly mess a few days ago” or “The other day you were grossly insulted.” ...

An insult is most shocking to decorum as well as to charity. Our Lord very expressly condemns it in the Gospel. Such words must never be found on the lips of a Catholic, for they are extremely improper for anyone who has the least claim to being a well-educated person. You must never insult anyone, and you are never permitted either to say or to do anything that might lead to such conduct.

Another fault, no less contrary to propriety and to the respect you owe your neighbor, is mockery, making fun of someone over a defect or a weakness or mimicking him by gestures. There is not much difference between such mockery and an outright insult, except that by insulting people, you attack them flagrantly, with no attempt at concealment.

Such mockery is entirely unworthy of a wellborn person. Because it goes against propriety and hurts your neighbor, you are never to make fun of anyone, living or dead.

If it is not permissible for you to make fun of a person because of some weakness or defect, it is even less so to make fun of his natural and involuntary handicaps. It shows a slovenly and mean spirit for you to make fun of someone, for example, because he has only one eye, is crippled or is humpbacked. Surely the person who suffers from these defects did not cause them.

It is also entirely improper for you to poke fun at someone because of a misfortune or a disgrace that has overtaken him. You wound him deeply by making fun of him in his tragedy. However, if you are the butt of sarcasm because of one of your defects, always take it in good part, and do not show exteriorly that it bothers you. It is a mark of refinement, as well as a sign of piety, not to let yourself be disturbed by what others say about you, however disagreeable, offensive or insulting it might be.

There is another type of joking that is allowed and which, far from being contrary to the rules of refinement and decorum, adds spice to conversation and brings honor to the person who employs it. This joking is part of witty, spirited repartee, which deals with something agreeable without wounding anyone or offending courtesy.

Such fun is very innocent and can make a conversation much more interesting. However, take care that it does not occur too frequently and that you know how to handle your wit. If you tend to be somewhat clumsy when attempting to be witty, you should abstain from this sort of thing entirely, because people might laugh at you, and this sort of joking, now so pointless, uninspired and uninteresting, would not achieve the end you intended, namely, to amuse others and to get them to join in the fun.


The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility,
LaSallian Publications, reprinted 2007, pp 121-123

Posted October 19, 2019


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