Scandal, Holy Church, and You

Right now controversy swirls around a diocese and its bishop because someone had the audacity to point out to priests that we – all Catholics, but in particular priests – have to be vigilant about that which produce “scandal”.

“Scandal” isn’t well understood, it seems.

Let’s have a brief scholion.

Consideration of “scandal” falls under the 5th Commandment.  Hence, it’s pretty important.

True respect and charity towards others must necessarily involve the truth. True respect looks to the authentic good of the other person, what is really good, not just what is expedient or self-interested.

Hence, true respect and charity towards others also requires not provoking them to, guiding them to, or involving them in sins.

Sins are always harmful to the person who commits or – and this is important for our theme of “scandal” – occasions them. Sins can never be for another person’s true good. It is the opposite of charity to occasion another person to sin.

“Scandal” is a word which, in recent times, has drifted in its impact. On the one hand, it tends immediately to be associated with lurid or criminal activities. That is surely one dimension of scandal. However, the other way in which we understand scandal is an act that occasions another person to commit a sin.

There is active scandal and passive scandal.

Active scandal leads, by an word or deed, another person to sin. Passive scandal, therefore, is the sin that the other commits. Active scandal is a sin against charity. It is a mortal sin if the other person is, by your word or deed, brought into a proximate occasion of mortal sin. If you should foresee or intend that the other person commit an evil deed, then you are also guilty of the sin that the other commits.

An good action which could appear evil to onlookers should be avoided unless grave inconvenience would result from its omission.

Something which is “scandalous” is an action or proposition which is condemned because it is calculated to occasion wrong thinking or wrong acting in others.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that:

2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.
Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.

“Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!” Luke 17:1

2287 Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged.

The flip side of this is, of course, that when an authority fails to act to prevent or diminish scandal, that authority is negligent, perhaps sinfully so.

Think about parents are responsible if they let their children run wild or if they guide them to do something that is wrong.  Similarly, bishops and priests are guilty of neglect if they do not guide their flocks, which includes correcting, teaching, rebuking, encouraging, etc.

Next, we influence each other by what we say and do and by what we fail to say and do.

For example, we tend to speak in way similar to those with whom we spend time. If they use foul language, it is easier for us to use it too. If you use it, therefore, you are making it easier for others to do so. That’s scandal. By your actions or words, you have caused another person to commit a sin.

Also, if, depending on our state in life, we fail to decry intrinsic evils, we give the appearance that they are acceptable, which can lead others to commit those evils or to stand silent when they are committed.

It can be difficult, in this life, to make determinations about the right thing to do or what to avoid in concrete instances.

This is one reason why we are blessed to have the guidance of the Church’s teachings and laws. For example, canon 1184 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law specifies that ecclesiastic funerals must be denied to those who were manifest sinners unless they gave some signs of repentance before death.

This canon, 1184, has an underlying principle: avoidance of scandal.

By allowing an ecclesiastical funeral for a person who manifestly is an unrepentant sinner (for example, an unrepentant abortionist, racist, criminal, etc.) the appearance is given – by the Church! – that the deceased’s crimes are not serious, which could, in turn, lead to acquiescence to those sins or even in some cases complicity or commission. “What X did must not have been so bad, if the Church has a funeral Mass for him!” That would mean that the Church authorities were negligent in their vocations and had violated charity toward their neighbors by occasioning sin or doubts about faith and morals.

In another, more common situation, permitting or condoning or participating in a wedding between two people who are not free to marry would be scandalous. By participating or condoning, you give the appearance that the evil taking place is not so bad.

That’s a violation of what is truly good for the couple and for all other onlookers.

It is not charity towards neighbor to erode virtue or Christian values.

It is sometimes very hard indeed to see clearly through the tangle of circumstances of a person’s life. Hence, we need to tread prudently in all these matters.

We tend to want to be kind and lenient, and that is a good instinct. However, Christian charity and our vocational responsibilities (as parents, teachers, elected officials, law enforcement, military, clergy, etc.) cannot be set aside for the sake of fleeting appeasement in an emotional moment.

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, great evils result in the world when, by doing nothing, we allow them to continue and grow.

If we stand by and allow evil to seem “not so evil after all”, or even to seem “good”, then we allow evil to triumph, which is a violation of charity, and itself a sin.

There are some intrinsically evil behaviors that have been allowed to take root for so long and so deeply, that when bishops and priests attempt to fulfill the obligations they swore before God and man to uphold, they become the hiss of the world… indeed of “The World”.

Our interests are not the praise of The World.  Our eyes are fixed on the horizon which is Heaven and its goods and promises.  That’s why we stand against committing scandal even when the worldly are screaming at us to stop.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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