Scandal - Our Response

As long as we live in this world there will be scandals. Jesus said so, and promised great punishment for those who give scandal to His little ones, the devout faithful (Mt. 18:6). To give scandal means to lead others into sin by one’s bad example. This is called active sandal or giving scandal. It is something we should not do, as it is a second sin, of the same gravity, as the sin we committed that gives scandal.

There is also what is called passive scandal, that is, to take scandal at the sin of others. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

I answer that, Passive scandal implies that the mind of the person who takes scandal is unsettled in its adherence to good. Now no man can be unsettled, who adheres firmly to something immovable. The elders, i.e. the perfect, adhere to God alone, Whose goodness is unchangeable, for though they adhere to their superiors, they do so only in so far as these adhere to Christ, according to 1 Cor. 4:16: "Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ." Wherefore, however much others may appear to them to conduct themselves ill in word or deed, they themselves do not stray from their righteousness, according to Ps. 124:1: "They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Sion: he shall not be moved for ever that dwelleth in Jerusalem." Therefore scandal is not found in those who adhere to God perfectly by love, according to Ps. 118:165: "Much peace have they that love Thy law, and to them there is no stumbling-block [scandalum]." [Summa Theologiae II-II, q43 a5]

Reply to Objection 3. Perfect men sometimes fall into venial sins through the weakness of the flesh; but they are not scandalized (taking scandal in its true sense), by the words or deeds of others, although there can be an approach to scandal in them, according to Ps. 72:2: "My feet were almost moved." [ibid.]

This answer of St. Thomas shows us what our reaction to scandals, including liturgical scandals, ought to be: holding fast in peace to the Supreme Good, that is, to God. The righteous reaction to scandal might involve circumstantially appropriate anger, but it would not involve losing our peace. It would not involve losing respect for and obedience to authority because those exercising that authority have sinned. It would not involve self-righteousness, as the perfect man is not puffed up by the sins of others. He knows that “there but for the grace of God go I.” It would not involve sadness, which would show a lack of trust in God’s Providence.

Few of us are perfect yet, so we are easily scandalized by the faults of others. We need to resist the inclination to take scandal, however, by recognizing our moral obligation "not to be moved," and by adhering to God in prayer. To have virtue means to have the habit of doing good without struggle, peacefully, gracefully.

Matthew 18:15-17 "If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. [16] If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' [17] If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Another part of a virtuous response is giving correction to the sinner for the sake of the common good. Such correction is absolutely necessary for the good of a society, whether the family, the Church or the nation. Without it, men would continue to do evil without rebuke, leading others into sin and depriving society of justice, charity and peace. Correction means pointing out the objective evil of sin. It does not mean judging the culpability, or condemning, the person committing the sin. Unfortunately, many today incorrectly equate giving correction with being judgmental, and so refrain from giving it out of a false sense of charity. True charity seeks the salvation of one's brother and desires the removal of any obstacle to salvation, among which ranks serious sin. It also has concern for the common good, and the effect of scandal on others in the society.

Correction belongs, in the first place, to those in authority. Superiors have a duty to maintain the order of justice in the society they lead. That order would break down if public authorities exempted themselves from the common law of the society. So, the common good demands that those who are superior authorities correct inferior authorities who commit sins or violations of the law. In a Christian society, such as the Church, this obligation receives added force from the law of charity, which obliges Christians to seek the salvation of others. When superior authorities correct inferior authorities they show a paternal concern for the good of the sinner, as well as for the good of the other members of the society.

There is also what is called fraternal correction. This means correction of faults by private individuals who do not have an official duty to correct. In the Church this would include such peer to peer correction as priest to priest, or laity to laity, as well as the correction of the clergy by the laity, or higher clergy by lower.

The following principles on fraternal correction are derived from the moral theology tradition of the Church:

Who should correct? Fraternal correction should be given by someone with the requisite knowledge and temperament to give it correctly and effectively. Those whose response to sin is to be scandalized and become ill-tempered are probably NOT the ones to give fraternal correction. They will give it badly, and therefore ineffectively.

What should be corrected? We are obligated to correct grave sins, and grave liturgical abuses are the matter of grave sins, if the following conditions are met:

1. It is not likely that the sinner will be corrected, either by acquiring the knowledge himself, or by the correction of an equally or better qualified person than myself. In other words, he is unlikely to be corrected by his superior, by his peers, or by a better qualified person than me.

2. There is a well-founded hope that the sinner will profit from the correction. If such a hope does not exist then correction is not morally obliged, except when to not correct would itself give scandal.

3. Correction can be given without great personal detriment. While those in authority have a duty to correct grave faults, private individuals do not have such a duty if giving correction entails great cost to themselves.

We may prudently correct outside of these conditions, but observing them guarantees the probity of our fraternal correction. Correction of each and every venial sin (or all minor abuses) is clearly not envisioned by the moral tradition of the Church. One should weigh the gravity and the circumstances carefully. As I have often counseled people, pick the gravest abuses and start there. If you can’t have an impact on those the possibilities are slim to none for the rest.

Where should it be given? Following the order commanded by Christ in Mt. 18, fraternal correction should be given privately to the individual himself, then by a number of individuals together in private, and only publicly as a last resort. Immediate public correction is justified , however, where the common good is at stake and immediacy is necessary to avoid scandal, or, where the fault is a public one and private correction would be manifestly ineffective.

When should it be given? Circumstances can make or break the effectiveness of fraternal correction. Prudence requires making the best judgment about when and how to give correction. An anonymous flyer on the windshields of cars in the church parking lot, or an angry voice mail, is unlikely to work. Pick a time, a place, and a manner with prayer, whether a letter, a private conversation, the gift of a book on the subject or some other means. Within families especially, fraternal correction is often undone by the vehemence and imprudence of how it is given.

How should it be given? One should maintain the order of justice oneself by treating the other person with respect, especially if in authority, and the order of charity by giving the correction in a Christian manner, regardless of the response of the other. This insures that the one giving correction does not sin in the process, and provides the best chance that the correction will produce fruit. Otherwise, it is “a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:13).

It should be clear that correction, especially fraternal correction, is done with great difficulty, being more of an art than a science. In the case of liturgical abuses, since grave matter is often involved (see Redemptionis sacramentum 169-171 on this point), and the common good always at risk, there can frequently be a need to give it. However, it should be given by the best suited person, at the right time, in the right way, and observing the conditions noted above for correcting grave matters.

Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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