Today is the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, who is the patron of writers and journalists. Here are a few relevant passages from his classic work, Introduction to the Devout Life (which can be acquired in several forms here).
These are warnings rather than instructions, more negative than positive, but he doesn’t really speak directly to what writers and journalists should do, except in the sense that the whole book is about vocation and holiness. In other words, journalists and writers ought to read the rest of the book for St. Francis’s insights into how to be holy, and therefore better men, and therefore better journalists and writers. But the warnings by themselves might do some good.
Pope Pius XI declared him the patron saint of writers in 1923, and the pope’s summary of the saint’s lesson for writers appears at the end.
From the chapter Of Conversation; and first, how to speak of God:
PHYSICIANS judge to a great extent as to the health or disease of a man by the state of his tongue, and our words are a true test of the state of our soul. “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” ( S. Matt. xii. 37) the Saviour says. We are apt to apply the hand quickly to the place where we feel pain, and so too the tongue is quick to point out what we love . . . .
Take care, then, never to speak of God, or those things which concern Him, in a merely formal, conventional manner; but with earnestness and devotion, avoiding the affected way in which some professedly religious people are perpetually interlarding their conversation with pious words and sayings, after a most unseasonable and unthinking manner. Too often they imagine that they really are themselves as pious as their words, which probably is not the case.
From the chapter Of Unseemly Words, and the Respect due to Others:
SAINT JAMES says, “If any man offend not in word, the same is, a perfect man” (S. James iii. 2). Beware most watchfully against ever uttering any unseemly expression; even though you may have no evil intention, those who hear it may receive it with a different meaning. An impure word falling upon a weak mind spreads its infection like a drop of oil on a garment, and sometimes it will take such a hold of the heart, as to fill it with an infinitude of lascivious thoughts and temptations.
The body is poisoned through the mouth, even so is the heart through the ear; and the tongue which does the deed is a murderer, even when the venom it has infused is counteracted by some antidote preoccupying the listener’s heart. It was not the speaker’s fault that he did not slay that soul . . . .
It is said that those who eat the plant called Angelica always have a sweet, pleasant breath; and those who cherish the angelic virtues of purity and modesty, will always speak simply, courteously, and modestly. As to unclean and light-minded talk, S. Paul says such things should not even be named ( Eph. v. 3) among us, for, as he elsewhere tells us, “Evil communications corrupt good manners” . . .
One of the most evil dispositions possible is that which satirises and turns everything to ridicule. God abhors this vice, and has sometimes punished it in a marked manner. Nothing is so opposed to charity, much more to a devout spirit, as contempt and depreciation of one’s neighbour, and where satire and ridicule exist contempt must be. Therefore contempt is a grievous sin, and our spiritual doctors have well said that ridicule is the greatest sin we can commit in word against our neighbour, inasmuch as when we offend him in any other way, there may still be some respect for him in our heart, but we are sure to despise those whom we ridicule.
There is a light-hearted talk, full of modest life and gaiety, which the Greeks called Eutrapelia, and which we should call good conversation, by which we may find an innocent and kindly amusement out of the trifling occurrences which human imperfections afford. Only beware of letting this seemly mirth go too far, till it becomes ridicule. Ridicule excites mirth at the expense of one’s neighbour; seemly mirth and playful fun never lose sight of a trustful, kindly courtesy, which can wound no one.
When the religious around him would fain have discussed serious matters with S. Louis at meal-times, he used to say, “This is not the time for grave discussion, but for general conversation and cheerful recreation,”—out of consideration for his courtiers. But, my daughter, let our recreation always be so spent, that we may win all eternity through devotion.
From the chapter On Slander:
FROM rash judgments proceed mistrust, contempt for others, pride, and self-sufficiency, and numberless other pernicious results, among which stands forth prominently the sin of slander, which is a veritable pest of society. Oh, wherefore can I not take a live coal from God’s Altar, and touch the lips of men, so that their iniquity may be taken away and their sin purged, even as the Seraphim purged the lips of Isaiah (Isa. vi. 6, 7). He who could purge the world of slander would cleanse it from a great part of its sinfulness!
He who unjustly takes away his neighbour’s good name is guilty of sin, and is bound to make reparation, according to the nature of his evil speaking; since no man can enter into Heaven cumbered with stolen goods, and of all worldly possessions the most precious is a good name. Slander is a kind of murder; for we all have three lives—a spiritual life, which depends upon the Grace of God; a bodily life, depending on the soul; and a civil life, consisting in a good reputation. Sin deprives us of the first, death of the second, and slander of the third.
But the slanderer commits three several murders with his idle tongue: he destroys his own soul and that of him who hearkens, as well as causing civil death to the object of his slander; for, as S. Bernard says, the Devil has possession both of the slanderer and of those who listen to him, of the tongue of the one, the ear of the other. And David says of slanderers, “They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips”. . . .
My daughter, I entreat you never speak evil of any, either directly or indirectly; beware of ever unjustly imputing sins or faults to your neighbour, of needlessly disclosing his real faults, of exaggerating such as are overt, of attributing wrong motives to good actions, of denying the good that you know to exist in another, of maliciously concealing it, or depreciating it in conversation. In all and each of these ways you grievously offend God, although the worst is false accusation, or denying the truth to your neighbour’s damage, since therein you combine his harm with falsehood.
Those who slander others with an affectation of good will, or with dishonest pretences of friendliness, are the most spiteful and evil of all. They will profess that they love their victim, and that in many ways he is an excellent man, but all the same, truth must be told, and he was very wrong in such a matter; or that such and such a woman is very virtuous generally, but and so on. Do you not see through the artifice? He who draws a bow draws the arrow as close as he can to himself, but it is only to let it fly more forcibly; and so such slanderers appear to be withholding their evil-speaking, but it is only to let it fly with surer aim and go deeper into the listeners’ minds.
Witty slander is the most mischievous of all; for just as some poisons are but feeble when taken alone, which become powerful when mixed with wine, so many a slander, which would go in at one ear and out at the other of itself, finds a resting-place in the listener’s brain when it is accompanied with amusing, witty comments. “The poison of asps is under their lips.” The asp’s bite is scarcely perceptible, and its poison at first only causes an irritation which is scarcely disagreeable, so that the heart and nervous system dilate and receive that poison, against which later on there is no remedy.
[I commend the rest of this chapter, which is too long to quote.]
From the chapter Further Counsels as to Conversation:
LET your words be kindly, frank, sincere, straightforward, simple and true; avoid all artifice, duplicity and pretence, remembering that, although it is not always well to publish abroad everything that may be true, yet it is never allowable to oppose the truth. Make it your rule never knowingly to say what is not strictly true, either accusing or excusing, always remembering that God is the God of Truth. If you have unintentionally said what is not true, and it is possible to correct yourself at once by means of explanation or reparation, do so. A straightforward excuse has far greater weight than any falsehood.
It may be lawful occasionally to conceal or disguise the truth, but this should never be done save in such special cases as make this reserve obviously a necessity for the service and glory of God. Otherwise all such artifice is dangerous; and we are told in Holy Scripture that God’s Holy Spirit will not abide with the false or double-minded. Depend upon it there is no craft half so profitable and successful as simplicity. Worldly prudence and artifice belong to the children of this world; but the children of God go straight on with a single heart and in all confidence;—falsehood, deceit and duplicity are sure signs of a mean, weak mind . . . .
It was a saying of S. Louis, that one should contradict nobody, unless there was sin or harm in consenting; and that in order to avoid contention and dispute. At any rate, when it is necessary to contradict anybody, or to assert one’s own opinion, it should be done gently and considerately, without irritation or vehemence. Indeed, we gain nothing by sharpness or petulance.
In his encyclical Rerum omnium perturbationem, published in 1923 a month after the 200th anniversary of St. Francis’ death, Pope Pius XI declared St. Francis the patron saint of writers, saying:
It is Our wish that the greatest fruits should be gained from this solemn Centenary by those Catholics who as journalists and writers expound, spread, and defend the doctrines of the Church. It is necessary that they, in their writings, imitate and exhibit at all times that strength joined always to moderation and charity, which was the special characteristic of St. Francis. He, by his example, teaches them in no uncertain manner precisely how they should write.
In the first place, and this the most important of all, each writer should endeavor in every way and as far as this may be possible to obtain a complete comprehension of the teachings of the Church. They should never compromise where the truth is involved, nor, because of fear of possibly offending an opponent, minimize or dissimulate it.
They should pay particular attention to literary style and should try to express their thoughts clearly and in beautiful language so that their readers will the more readily come to love the truth. When it is necessary to enter into controversy, they should be prepared to refute error and to overcome the wiles of the wicked, but always in a way that will demonstrate clearly that they are animated by the highest principles and moved only by Christian charity.