Here's my definition: Gossip is saying negative things about someone else with the attempt to hurt them (by damaging their reputation before others). It can be true or untrue, but even if it is true, it is still wrong.
These things are not gossip:
Venting to a good friend about something someone else did to hurt us, because it helps us deal without our own pain.
Mentioning that we are frustrated with others' faults.
Telling about a negative experience with a person or organization in order to warn others away.
I hang around a lot of good Catholics who are definitely opposed to gossip. And I can tell when they think something is gossip: they say "I can't stay and hear these things" or "Let's be positive now" or they fade out of the conversation. And I think that's a fine reaction when you hear someone making cutting remarks about a mutual friend, trying to take someone down, sharing stuff that is no one else's business. Sure. Just walk away.
But, to take an extreme (and completely made-up) example, say there was a close-knit, religious community. One well-respected man in the community was secretly a rapist. One of his victims mentions to her friends, "You won't believe this, but I was raped by X."
Wouldn't it be a little unfair if everyone stood up and said, "You're trying to damage X's reputation, I can't stay and hear this"? Or, "Let's talk about X's wonderful virtues!"
Not all speech has to be positive. Yes, we have to watch what we say that's negative. We shouldn't be a fountain of negativity, that's just depressing. And you know what happens to girls who complain all the time about their boyfriends -- everyone tells them to break up. And if they don't, they may find they can never reconcile their boyfriends with the girls they dished about him to. And I whole-heartedly agree that it's very wrong to share your spouse's secret faults publicly (though with a trusted person, such as a priest or counselor, you sometimes should).
Yet sometimes we kind of need to be negative. When we're feeling bad, when there's stuff troubling us, when we want advice, sometimes it helps to talk about it. When I was a teenager, I obviously had some complaints about my parents. I had a close friend I could talk to, and I'd say, "My parents are very demanding; it's frustrating me!"
Luckily my friend didn't say, "Oh, let's not be negative about your parents" and change the subject. She knew that I was stating a (neutral) fact and my own (admittedly negative) reaction. Her opinion of my parents wasn't harmed. And she'd respond, "Gosh, I know just how you feel." Or sometimes, "Have you tried X, Y, or Z?" Either way, I always felt better. She and I are still great friends, and I know I can trust her with what bothers me.
You have to be careful though. In college I was very frustrated with John, how he seemed to like me but wasn't making a move. I vented to an acquaintance about it. Her reply was, "He's a total jerk. You deserve a thousand times better." She and I never became friends. I had made a mistake in trusting my problems to her, because she had a private grievance with John and wasn't willing to listen objectively. (Mind you, a good friend sometimes does have to be in the position of saying, "You should break up with him." But this is something to be done very carefully...)
My usual rule for venting about friends and family is to make sure I never do it in such a way as to damage that person's reputation or esteem among their friends. In other words, if someone's really bothering me, I either talk to someone who doesn't know that person at all, or I talk to someone who loves them a lot and will understand. I have a few dear friends whom I can trust not to take me too seriously, but to weigh what I say against what they already know of a person. This kind of friend will say, "Yes, I know you're mad at her now, but remember when she did that one thing for you?" Or, "Gosh, that must have been frustrating, but I know it was probably because of this reason." A friend who can do this for you -- treasure them like gold!
Here's another example. Mrs. A sent her daughter to Happy Days Preschool. And it was really, really awful. A year later, long after Mrs. A had pulled her daughter out, Mrs. B happens to mention that she wants to send her son to that preschool. Mrs. A jumps right in and says, "Not a good idea -- we had a horrible experience with that place!" And she tells her entire story.
Would you say, "Mrs. A can't get past her experience, she needs to forgive and move on"? Well, no. Chances are, she's moved on fine. But she's trying to help someone else. I don't even think there's something wrong with publicizing her opinion, publishing a review, deliberately damaging others' good opinion of Happy Days Preschool. Because she's not doing it to hurt, she's doing it to warn others.
In Catholic circles, there's a real problem over criticizing priests and bishops. Some do it so freely it's practically a hobby. Some will shut down if you even mention a word. I think balance is called for. Obviously the priest or bishop is only human and is bound to have faults -- the fact that he's in authority doesn't mean all respect, charity, or consideration go out the window. On the other hand, I don't think his authority makes him beyond criticism either. Personally, I try to treat those in authority with the same respect I do everyone else, by asking, "What harm could come to the person if I speak? What good is there in speaking?" So, if someone comes to me asking if Fr. Q is a good marriage counselor, and I know he's not, no harm in saying so. But if I'm in a parish where the priest isn't very bright, and we all know it, there's no point in my ridiculing him every time he comes up in conversation. If someone says, "Hey, this document from Bishop R says abortion could be okay sometimes," it's totally fair to say, "Ah, but did you know he's been disciplined by the CDF?" It helps people make decisions about who to trust and believe. But I don't go around constantly complaining about bad bishops either. Generally speaking, they all mean well; they are just misguided.
In conclusion, I know gossip is bad, I know it's best to focus on the positive, I know you have to be really careful with negative speech, but sometimes you really do have to say something bad. Bad things happen, and if we can't talk about them, it feels like there's a gag rule around. I have experienced firsthand the evil that gag rules have done. If people had been willing to listen to the "disaffected," the "detractors," the "complainers," maybe a lot of evils would have been stopped a lot sooner.
I used to adhere to the maxim, "Believe all the good you hear, and only the evil you see." Now I hold more to, "Weigh the evidence and make an objective decision." Not as simple, but it's the only logical way to judge things. Evil people exist, they do evil things, and they flourish in silence. On the other hand, liars exist as well, and they try to bring down good people with falsehoods. We have to use our brains to sort through the evidence and make the best judgments we can.
The priest scandals are a great example of this. Some people hear of an accusation against a priest and crow, "He's guilty!" simply on the rumor that they were accused. Others, trying to be charitable (as well as realizing that many accusations are later found to be fabricated), immediately deny the faintest possibility of guilt. I don't think either of these reactions are justified. Instead, we have to wait for more information, and do our best to suspend judgment till we get it. It might well be wise to keep our kids away from these priests until we hear more. It's sad that an innocent priest might be kept from ministering to kids for awhile, but it would be terrible if we let something happen to our kids simply to avoid making the priest feel bad. If we really think the priest is innocent, we can offer our comfort and support in other ways.
In any event, what we never should do is shut up someone who's bringing a real criticism or even accusation against another. Ask more questions, verify, sure, but not silence. 90% of the time, truth is better than silence.
So, those are my opinions on gossip. Do you think I'm drawing the line in the right place? Anything you'd like to add? (Want to criticize me? Go ahead!)