June 23, 2011

Scandal: The forgotten sin

By Andrew Haines *

Recent events having transpired—e.g., Fr. John Corapi’s “bombshell” plan to leave the priesthood, Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter dalliances, etc.—force a discussion of that forgotten sin that seems to lurk forever in the background of our popular culture: scandal.

To most of us, scandal ranks somewhere far down the totem pole from murder and fornication, even below cheating, although perhaps a little above scrupulosity. In short, it’s mostly viewed as playing second fiddle to the real culprits—sexual deviancy, abuse of power, and so forth.

But what is scandal, really? The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as an “attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” In its essence, so to speak, scandal doesn’t necessarily entail any further species or type of sin. It can be coupled together with another sin (e.g., sexual abuse of a minor by a member of the clergy or someone in political authority); but this isn’t always the case.

While it’s easy to spot “scandal” in the headlines of obvious cases—Fr. Corapi, Anthony Weiner, et al.—it’s perhaps the unnoticed instances that prove more dangerous. If not by virtue of their gravity, then at the very least because of their frequency and popular excusability. It’s the every-day scandal that is, in many respects, the greatest threat to the work of the Church and the edification of Christian moral standards. And, unfortunately, it’s many of us who are to blame for these most egregious errors.

A few examples might be helpful—I’ll name some that I’ve come across personally over the last couple of years.

Here’s a popular scenario for most Catholics: we’re invited to a wedding, but we’re fully aware that the bride- and groom-to-be have been cohabitating (i.e., living together) for some time now. The wedding will be a Catholic one, and the expectation—per Church norms—is that the couple has completed the pre-nuptial course with a priest or deacon, wherein cohabitation is expressly rejected as a viable option. And so on and so forth.

The facts are simple: we’re not committing any sin by wishing the couple well, or by feeling relieved that their unfortunate “shacking up” will be put to an end by the ratification of the sacrament. That’s a (generally) healthy sentiment. But just how far can we go in endorsing the marriage? What does our presence at the altar say to them—and to our friends and neighbors who are privy to what’s happening—about the sanctity of marriage? What if our own persona entails defending the Church and her teachings publicly (e.g., as a theology teacher or catechist, etc.)? In short, although we might not  be “cooperating with evil” by attending the wedding, are we acting in a way that “leads another to do evil”?

I won’t supply the answers; just something to think about.

Another more popular case might be our discussions at the water cooler. (I don’t work in an office; but I watch The Office, and I assume that’s a pretty fair portrayal of reality. Right?) Here, there’s a double-edged sword in the mix: on the one hand, there’s the possibility of becoming apathetic—separating out “professional” and “pious” duties, allowing ne’er the twain to meet. And on the other hand, there’s the temptation to forsake one’s religious convictions when times are tough, or when situations become impassable. Neither is recommended; and either could potentially be an occasion of scandal for our coworkers. (E.g., “This guy mentions going to Sunday Mass, but didn’t raise an eyebrow when I told him my girlfriend is on the pill. I thought Catholics didn’t like that? It must not be that serious, after all…”)

Of course, this isn’t at all about becoming scrupulous. We don’t need to hunt down every occasion of scandal from morning to night. And not every time we act cowardly or imperfectly are we committing an action that “leads another to do evil.”

Rather, my point is only that scandal abounds—and that it’s not limited to the “bombshell” cases of pedophile priests of philandering public servants. We’re all quite often to blame; and we ought to do our best to confront and deal with scandalous behavior whenever possible.

The counterpart to scandal (as a sin) is, of course, virtue. That is to say, the best remedy for scandal—which is most usually the fruit of cowardice and laziness—is the virtue of fortitude. In either example above, fortitude is a key—either to acknowledging, discerning, and defending resolutely the teachings of the faith at work, or to witnessing heroically to the sanctity of the sacraments in inappropriate situations. (I should add: where scandal is concerned, there’s usually no “right” or “wrong” answer. Rather, combating scandal requires much reflection, good judgment, and most importantly some sort of preemptive action.)

While Christians shouldn’t be perpetually afraid of slipping into scandal at any turn, they should—by virtue of baptism—take seriously the charge to renounce it, and to do whatever it takes to eliminate the possibility of scandalous action in daily life.

Just think: if the seeds of the Gospel planted by hard work and ardent evangelization were all allowed to take root and flourish rather than be pecked up by birds of the air, or be trodden over by careless passers-by, how much more noticeable would the message of the Gospel be in our so-often laissez faire moral culture?

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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