By this point, I am sure that we are familiar with the term “fake news.” The term itself refers to a type of news that is found in traditional news (print & TV) and in social media websites that has no basis in fact but is presented as being factually accurate. In other words, fake news is a lie masquerading as the truth.

What ought our Salesian response be to fake news; that is, to news that is not true? In the Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales calls us to denounce fake news when we see it. He writes:

“It is an act of love to cry out against the wolf when he is among the sheep.”

But St. Francis de Sales goes even deeper than that. He realizes that it’s not just politicians, famous people, and media outlets that spread fake news. He recognizes that we, by how we speak, can also sometimes say things that are not true. And, when we do this, we too are creating and spreading fake news.

St. Francis’s remedy to this is a simple one: In order to avoid creating and spreading fake news in your life, always speak the truth. Here are some of his comments on this from the Introduction to the Devout Life.:

“Your language should always be sincere, frank, candid and honest.” (IDL III.30)

“Be on guard with how you speak. Avoid using equivocation [ambiguous language which may disguise the truth].” (IDL III.30)

“Your tongue [and what you type on a keyboard] is like a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon who has to do surgery between the nerves and the tendon. The cut must be perfect so that neither is hurt. In like way, what I speak must be neither more nor less than the truth. Any more so will cause damage to the patient [other person].” (IDL III.30).

What if, in a certain situation, you ought not tell the entire truth? St. Francis de Sales does agree that, in certain situations, not everyone has the right to hear the entire story; however, he also cautions that one ought never to deliberately speak against the truth:

“It is true that sometimes it is not always advisable to say all that is true; however, in these same situations it is never permissible to speak against the truth. Therefore, you must become accustomed never to tell a deliberate lie whether to excuse yourself or for some other purpose. Remember that our God is the “God of truth.” And, if you do happen to tell a lie accidentally, correct it immediately by an explanation or making amends. An honest explanation always has more grace and force to excuse us than a lie has.”

In addition, St. Francis de Sales asks us also to recognize that there is a difference between what we say and how other people receive it. He states: “Be careful to never let an indecent word leave your lips, for even if you do not speak with an evil intention those who hear it may take it a different way.” (IDL III,27). Who has not had someone misinterpret what we say either because they were not really listening or because we were not clear in saying it?

Furthermore, St. Francis de Sales tells us never, in our speech, to mock anyone. If you read comments on Instagram posts or tweets you will see lots of mocking either in words or a series of emoji’s. Mocking is to laugh and tease someone with the intention of causing them harm. If you’ve ever spoken to someone in such a way that you want them to feel stupid, you’ve mocked them. I have a vivid memory of this from when I was teaching Spanish. I can remember teaching one particular section of Spanish III where many of the students did not want to be there. One day I got so upset that I deliberately yelled at a student and publicly humiliated him. While I ‘won’ at that moment, in the long run what I did was destructive because he became even more obstinate for the rest of the school year.

Finally, at the heart of St. Francis de Sales’ teaching here is the theme of respect. While a college student at the University of Padua, Francis wrote this rule for himself regarding how he would speak to others:

“I will never disdain meeting any person, whoever they may be, nor will I show any sign of wishing to avoid them, for this earns one the reputation of being proud, haughty, unfeeling, arrogant, snobbish, ambitious, and manipulative…Above all, I will be careful neither to criticize, nor to mock, or to be sarcastic to anyone. It is a sign of stupidity to make fun of those who have no reason to put up with such treatment. I will show a great respect for all, and I will not be pretentious.”

Just think how much fake news would be eliminated if politicians, celebrities, and news media followed this rule! And how much better our lives would be if we did as well.

~ Fr. Michael E. Newman, OSFS