St Athanasius and Detraction

Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not”  (1 Tim 5:13 RSV).

There is a serious problem with the internet and the kind of dialogue which often happens on it. Not only does it lack charity, people gossip about those they disagree with, leading to all kinds of false witness. Detraction and calumny are a common practice, despite the fact that both actions are intrinsic evils which run counter to the Eighth Commandment.[1] People who act as if they are concerned about some intrinsic evils show no sense of charity; charity is needful in all things. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3 RSV). It is no wonder such behavior is tied with many other evils: “They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:29-31 RSV).

Church history is filled with people whose reputations have been unjustly injured. One of my favorite examples is of Ossius of Cordova. Not many people  know who he is today, despite the great work he did for the Church. He was considered by St Athanasius to be a father-figure; he helped write the Nicene Creed; he was a staunch defender of the Church; once a confessor of the faith, Constantine called on him to teach him the faith and to speak to the Church on behalf of the emperor. His connection to Constantine meant he was the one who told Constantine which churches to support when Constantine sought to help the Christians rebuild their communities. Those whom Ossius did not support, such as the Novatians, responded by detraction. Eventually, they found a way to ruin Ossius’ reputation in the West.[2]

How was this possible?

When he was an old man, confined, tortured, and with family also being similarly treated, Ossius signed an Arian decree; even though, once he was set free and returned home he denounced what he signed, his one act was able to be used by the Novatians to convince the West that Ossius deserved scorn. St Athanasius, that staunch anti-Arian, nonetheless defended Ossius and his reputation:

Of the great Hosius , who answers to his name, that confessor of a happy old age, it is superfluous for me to speak, for I suppose it is known unto all men that they caused him also to be banished; for he is not an obscure person, but of all men the most illustrious, and more than this. When was there a Council held, in which he did not take the lead , and by right counsel convince every one? Where is there a Church that does not possess some glorious monuments of his patronage? Who has ever come to him in sorrow, and has not gone away rejoicing? What needy person ever asked his aid, and did not obtain what he desired? And yet even on this man they made their assault, because knowing the calumnies which they invent in behalf of their iniquity, he would not subscribe to their designs against us. And if afterwards, upon the repeated stripes above measure that were inflicted upon him, and the conspiracies that were formed against his kinsfolk, he yielded to them for a time, as being old and infirm in body, yet at least their wickedness is shown even in this circumstance; so zealously did they endeavour by all means to prove that they were not truly Christians. [3]

Imagine what many of the online inquisition would have done in they lived in the day of St Athanasius and saw him writing this. Athanasius would have been said to be a defender of Arians (for Ossius signed an Arian decree), and so would have been accused of being an Arian himself. They would probably have pointed out his ability to compromise with the homoiousions (the Cappadocians) as secondary proof of Athanasius’ “real” Arian sympathies.

Isn’t is ironic that they often lift up the name of Athanasius as a defender of their fight against the world, when they follow not the charitable spirit of Athanasius, but the extremist spirit of the Novatians who besmeared the reputation of Athanasius’ spiritual father, lying about him for the sake of revenge?!

[1] See Catechism of the Catholic Church 2477.

[2] The East recognizes him as a Saint.

[3] St Athanasius, Defense of his Flight in NPNF2(4):256.

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  • Matt Talbot

    Thank you for this post, Henry. I also am bothered by the bitterness and viciousness of much of the dialogue on the web (and I hasten to add, mea culpa…).

    Does Voris do anything besides Republican outreach to Catholics?

    • Henry Karlson


      You are welcome. Yes, it is a problem with the net. The gossip-side of blogs I think has hurt us all.

      As for Michael Voris – sure, not everything he says is wrong, and not everything is off. However, I think the focus is off, it is sensationalistic, it is often erroneous (I mean, St Athanasius himself was accused of scandal by the Arians – some of which should remind people of how modern bishops are accused), and it clearly uses political values for his orthodoxy. But, like so many news commentators, it makes him money, and he gets surrounded by yes-men, so I suspect the two together will make it difficult for improvements.

  • Henry


    I too have been concerned about the issue you raise and like Matt I have come to see the ways I have contributed to the situation. Perhaps there will always be polemics but I am determined to try to infuse my comments going forward with the “newness that Christ brings – although I suspect I will fail miserably! So, prayers for each other are definitely needed! Pax.

    • Henry Karlson

      To the other Henry

      Yes, I am sure we all, in our failings, help make things worse at times. The issue is to know it, to be concerned about it, and to try to take disagreement on the proper level without saying things like “if you disagree with me, you are Mr Evil.” And this is the problem I see on the net. It is not just going to show why one disagrees, but how one then seeks to ruin reputations of people afterward.

  • Maria

    Detraction and calumny are a common practice

    [edited the second part out]