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What “Scandal” Really Means

In recent years the term “scandal” has achieved new vitality in politics, finance, and religion. Hardly a day goes by that headlines do not feature the word, particularly in reference to the Church. The word has become so ubiquitous that Catholics use a shorthand when speaking among themselves. We refer to “the scandal,” with no need for further elucidation. We all know which scandal we mean, even if we do not all know what is meant by the underlying term.

Most Catholics were brought up thinking that scandal means giving a bad example. Protestants commonly thought that it referred to sexual improprieties. It actually has a wider and deeper sense. I like the way Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888–1957) explained it in Trials of a Translator when he noted that our Lord’s teaching was said to “scandalize the Pharisees.”

“What was the trouble with the Pharisees?” asked Knox. “Not that they were shocked, exactly—that is a modern connotation of the term; not that they were indignant—that is a false inference from the Authorized Version’s ‘offended.’ To be scandalized is, rather, to be ‘put off’; if only slang were not so much more expressive than English! . . .

“You have been going along, so far, quite happy and undisturbed in your religious beliefs, your spiritual loyalties, and then suddenly something crops up, something seen or heard, which throws you out of your course; you have the feelings of a man who has tripped over some unseen obstacles and stumbled off the pathway into rough ground; that is to be scandalized.”

A lot of Catholics have been tripping over obstacles recently—some of their own making, some made by leaders of the Church. It has not been a pretty sight. Understandably enough, we take more offense at scandals perpetrated by others than by ourselves. If the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so the scandal in the neighbor’s yard is always worse than the one in our own.

This is almost always true in terms of perception, but sometimes it is true in terms of fact. This should not be grounds for self-satisfaction, of course; my neighbor may be guilty of a spiritual felony, but that does not mean I am not guilty of a string of misdemeanors.

How will “the scandal” or any other scandal play out? I have no idea—and neither does anyone else. We all have hopes, but few of us will allow our expectations to match our hopes—we have been disappointed too often in life to set ourselves up for that kind of fall. Only the very young and the very holy are likely to get through times of scandal without anxiety and without keen disappointment. The rest of us will just have to offer it up.

In his autobiography, The Church and I, Catholic apologist Frank Sheed titled one of his chapters “I Lose My Awe of Bishops.” He was writing about the way things were at the upper levels of the Church in America in the 1930s. There was no evidence of today’s problems back then, but there were problems nevertheless among bishops and priests—only to be expected, since the sacrament of ordination does not do away with the effects of original sin.

If nothing else, we can take satisfaction in knowing that God brings good out of evil and that he can bring great good out of great evil. This is not to say that we should will evil so that God might display his magnanimity, but it is a consolation. How unbearable it would be if the only result of evil were still more evil! The ancient Romans had a saying: “The corruption of the best is the worst.” It hurts more when those who should be exemplars turn out to be bad examples.

Despite recent religious scandals, I don’t have the sense that Catholics are turning their backs on the Church, at least not in large numbers. That still may come, if at length it appears that authentic reforms aren’t in the making. For all I know, today’s scandals, large and small, may redound to the Church’s benefit in terms of raw numbers.

It does seem that Catholics of all stripes are acknowledging that Church teachings have not been lived up to—if nothing else, this implies we have teachings that are supposed to be followed. What we see observed in the breach, if not in the practice, may end up making some people focus on what those teachings are.

If they do that, they may find the teachings attractive because true, and that might mean that any exodus from the Church will be offset by an influx. Stranger things have happened.

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