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The Sin of Scandal—and How Not to Commit It

Our words and actions must be building blocks for other people's faith—not stumbling blocks that trip them into hell

Lately, we’ve had many occasions to think about the sin of scandal. Whether certain high-profile Catholics and members of the hierarchy have truly been guilty of scandal or whether the media have just been taking reports out of context depends on each case; nonetheless, a lot of the faithful are suffering from it.

Although the word scandal is derived from the Greek skandalon (a trap or snare laid for an enemy), we’re used to it being used to describe salacious tabloid stories. But the sin of scandal has a different and more precise meaning. So what exactly is scandal?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death.” Our Lord militates against scandal, and even ties a curse to those who promote it: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6).

The Catechism explains that scandal is greater according to the authority of the one scandalizing. It is one thing for a four-year-old to say, “Jesus isn’t the Son of God,” but it would be another thing entirely for a bishop to say this. Because of the authority of the episcopate, the bishop can influence more people more effectively, increasing the gravity of the harm done to those who hear him. If the faithful (or unfaithful) believe him, they move away from Jesus Christ and the salvation he offers us.

This example displays a second, closely related element of scandal: it increases when the speaker has a duty to teach the truth. Since people trust their bishops to teach them the true Catholic faith, their errors are particularly harmful. Even when the faithful don’t believe it, the above statement is still scandalous. The faithful feel betrayed by their shepherd, who should be witnessing to Christ’s truth. This can cause a mistrust of the hierarchy and a disrespect for the priesthood.

The Catechism names two more factors that can increase the gravity of scandal. It becomes more grave when the scandalized person is especially weak or when others are deliberately led into grave sin. Given the poorly formed faith of so many Catholics, this means that today the opportunities for scandal are many. The improperly catechized can easily mistake vice for virtue and be led into sin.

In cases where scandal occurs but is less grave, it may lead to a simple misunderstanding. In the graver cases described above, scandal can encourage a gravely improper view of reality, to the point that a person sees good as evil and evil as good. In the most severe cases, as when a Catholic leader endorses a sinful lifestyle, someone could get the wrong idea about God, the Church, or salvation, causing him to run towards hell while thinking that he is closing in on heaven. This potential is amplified when the listeners are young and impressionable.

Catholic leaders aren’t the only ones with the potential to give scandal. We all have to guard against it, for it can take many forms, usually regardless of our intentions. So it is important that we honestly ask ourselves how we can avoid causing scandal.

We should first realize that scandal can be caused by the truth, too. Although we usually think of scandal in the context of a flagrant lie about the Faith, in fact it can come from any attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil—including the way we present true assertions.

If I had evidence, for example, that certain bishops were the subjects of adulterous affairs, it might not be good to share that true information with certain people, especially if they are not well-formed in the Faith. Such a claim might cause the hearer to doubt the bishops’ legitimate authority as successors to the apostles, or even lead to apostasy. And so we must be attentive to the condition and disposition of those to whom we speak (or witness by our actions). We must also be attentive to speaking the truth in the proper manner to avoid scandal.

For another example of scandal caused by truth, take this situation: perhaps there is a notorious felon who attends a parish, and everyone knows what he’s doing. When confronted by upset parishioners, the pastor replies, “Look, he really loves his family. His many good actions should speak for themselves.” In this case, the pastor’s words may be true, but he scandalizes by omission: he does not denounce the sin. This could easily lead the less knowledgeable to think that the Church condones certain sins.

Of course, there’s a difference between the natural consequences of an action and unintended or even unlikely consequences. In the previous two examples, the speaker unintentionally scandalized through imprudence and omission. However, if we proclaim God’s love to a troubled soul, and he takes that as a catalyst to double down on his despair, we have not given scandal. His sin isn’t caused by our good message, but by his own resistance to that message. There were circumstances that made our efforts powerless.

If we want to avoid scandal, it is not enough to avoid imprudence and omission. We should also steer clear of “hot takes.” In the era of social media, when so many are quick to promote emotional and uncharitable discussion, even well-intentioned Catholics are at risk of causing scandal. It is especially important that we slow down and avoid mere reactions to the torrent of bad news with which we are daily confronted. When we take both our message and our audience into account, we are much less likely to scandalize.

This drives home what is most important: to truly avoid scandal, we must speak the truth in charity, within the proper context. This means charity towards the subject and charity towards our audience. When speaking about a public figure, we should freely speak about his good qualities while carefully addressing his problematic statements. We ought to take care that his dignity is preserved in the process. When we are talking to someone who is quick to be suspicious, we need to make sure that we are not feeding his prejudice. We may need to address that prejudice towards suspicion before sharing what we have heard. In every situation, we should make sure that we are never giving others an excuse to turn away from Christ or his Church.

Perhaps now more than ever, scandal is being caused by those who never intended to mislead. In response, we ought to take seriously our duty to live the Catholic faith with integrity. We must pray unceasingly, frequent the sacrament of confession, and worthily receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Armed with these tools, we are much better prepared to evangelize effectively in the public square and not unwittingly turn souls away from God.

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