How serious is scandal? What makes for scandal?

by Father James Ermer

Father James Ermer

In my many years of teaching about morality, it seems the notion of scandal and its serious nature is often misunderstood and/or overlooked. This struck me most when preparing high school students for Confirmation and we discussed the topic of living together before marriage. On more than one occasion a student would say, “There is nothing wrong with that. Everyone is doing it.” Obviously young people have seen this behavior and have concluded it is okay. Do those who cohabit give scandal?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) declares, “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to evil... he damages virtue and integrity... (it) is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (2284).

Scandal begins with the assumption that the moral life is not just a private affair. Our lives are interconnected and we shape and form one another in our relationships. Scripture reminds us, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). After the fall and Cain kills Abel, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). The answer to that question is “yes.”

When God sends Ezekiel to be a prophet to Israel, God says to Ezekiel, “If I say to the wicked man, you shall surely die; and you do not warn or speak out to dissuade him from his wicked conduct so that he may live: that wicked man shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, on the other hand, you have warned the wicked man, yet he has not turned away from his evil nor from his wicked conduct, then he shall die for his sin, but you shall save your life” (Ezek. 3:18-19). It seems God is clear about what is expected of Ezekiel. We have responsibilities not only for ourselves but for others.

More specific to scandal, Christ speaks of it in Matthew’s Gospel. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who would believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18: 6-7). It is inevitable that scandal should occur. Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes.

Paul speaks about the issue of scandal in relationship to people of “weak conscience” who regard eating of meat that had been sacrificed at pagan altars as being wrong. Rather than scandalize those of “weak conscience,” Paul refrains from such eating (1 Cor. 8:1-13; Rom. 14:14-24).

Scandal means one foresees, or should foresee, the likelihood of one’s action being the occasion of sin for another person. Obviously, the other person has free will and intellect to make choices, but since we are interconnected and interdependent beings, we are called to avoid being an occasion of sin for others.

Since we have some responsibility for others, any flagrant abuse of God’s commandments and Gospel living (deliberately missing Sunday Mass, encouraging fraud, living together before marriage, etc.) can lead others to sin, tatter their call to holiness, diminish the light of Christ within them, pull them away from the grace of the sacraments, and harden their hearts.

This task of not leading others into sin is particularly true for those in authority who educate and teach others. To be occasions of sin in such matters would make such persons “wolves in sheep clothing” against whom Christ warned in Matthew 7:15. This includes those who establish laws or social structures that lead “to the decline of morals and corruption of religious practices...” (CCC 2286). All who do such things “become guilty of scandal responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged” (CCC 2287).

This is precisely the reason why the present sex abuse crisis is so scandalous. Those guilty of such abuse have mocked the beauty and dignity of sexuality and trashed its God-given nature, thereby leading others to impaired understandings of purity and chastity, among other injustices. Such is scandal.

In treating the matter of scandal, the Catechism of the Catholic Church places scandal under its reflection on the 5th Commandment, which declares, “The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death” (CCC 2284).

Once a person understands and accepts we have a role in being “our brother’s keeper,” it is not a huge step to see how our sinful acts can lead others to do the same, misinform their conscience, or diminish their practice of virtue. Scandal is serious business and demands our attentiveness to moral integrity, to virtuous living, to social justice, and to love one another as Christ has loved us.

Father Ermer serves as the pastor of St. Leo’s Church in Casselton and St. Thomas Church in Buffalo.

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