The Definition of Scandal

A word that very often pops up in our culture today is the word “scandal”. We hear it in reference to presidents, priests, and politicians. We talk of scandalous behavior, scandalous jokes, and even the scandal of the cross. Yet, it seems that this word has either lost its meaning or that people no longer know what it means.



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(Fr Augustine H.T. Tran attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, Italy and was ordained to the priesthood in 1998. He serves in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and is currently in residence at St. John Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, while he completes a Canon Law Degree at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He may be contacted via e-mail at atran@alumni.nd.edu.)



The word scandal comes from the Greek word skandalon, which means “a stumbling block”. Now, while stumbling blocks are always a nuisance, they sometimes have a positive effect and sometimes a negative effect. The effect is positive if it forces us to do what is right (for example, speed bumps) or if it strengthens us, such as military obstacle courses do. The effect is negative if it hinders us from achieving a good end. This is the sense in which we use it when we talk about scandal as a sin.

If one were to look for the sin of scandal in the Catechism, one would find it under the fifth commandment. (And for our non-Catholic or non-Christian readers, I am sure with the recent attention on the ten commandment case in Alabama, we remember that the fifth commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.”) People are often surprised to hear that scandal is a sin against the fifth commandment, but that's precisely what we're doing when we scandalize someone. We're killing his soul. When we think about it, this is far more damaging than killing someone's body; because death of the soul means eternal damnation, death of the body does not.

Now, technically, when we scandalize someone, we're not killing his soul, we're tempting him into doing something that will kill his soul. We're tempting him into committing a mortal sin. Remember that, by definition, no one can force us to commit a mortal sin; it must be done freely, so only we can kill our own soul, no one else can do that. However, what others can do, and what we can do to others, is to lead someone into temptation. By leading someone into temptation, we're assisting in that person's spiritual suicide, hence, we're sinning against the fifth commandment.

There are nine ways of assisting in another's sin: 1) by counsel; 2) by command; 3) by consent; 4) by provocation; 5) by praise or flattery; 6) by concealment; 7) by partaking; 8) by silence; and 9) by defense of the ill done. Each one of these is “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (CCC 2284), which is how the Catechism defines the sin of scandal. When we speak of presidents, priests, or politicians behaving scandalously, what we mean is that they are leading others to do evil, not that they're doing something shocking, but that by their example, they lead others to behave in the same way. They lead others into thinking that that sort of behavior is not sinful when it really is.

Now, where our secular society has gone astray with regard to scandals is that the world is scandalized by truth rather than by evil. The truth that sets us free has become the stumbling block that we avoid, and the evils that separate us from God are just ignored like so many shallow speed bumps. Just turn on the T.V. and see how acceptable is that crude, profane, soft-core pornography that we call prime time television or soap operas and yet how unacceptable is the preaching of the gospels in the public square, displaying the ten commandments in our public buildings, the teaching of abstinence to our children, or the invocation of the name of God in our schools.

Our Lord's teachings in Chapter 12 of Luke's Gospel is a scandal for many in today's world. He came to establish division, not peace on the earth, division even in the home. Our Lord knew well that it would be difficult to stand up for the truth, that it had the potential to separate families. He knew that people would be tempted to choose the easy way out rather than cause the waves that are demanded by a firm conviction in the faith, so He let us know ahead of time what to expect, that we might have the courage to stand up for the truth even when it's a stumbling block for others.

What truths? That there is only one Savior of mankind and His name is Jesus Christ. That He founded only one Church, which subsists in the Holy Roman Church. That there is a triune God Who is actively engaged in human affairs. That there is a priestly people, without distinction based upon sex, but that there is also a priestly ministry, to which God calls only men. That human sexuality is a sacred gift reserved for the life-long marital covenant between one man and one woman. That abortion and euthanasia are the intentional killing of innocent human life. That human life is created, not made. That artificial means of birth control are intrinsically evil. These are just a few of the politically incorrect truths to which I am referring. The truths that are stumbling blocks for so many people today, and yet, the truths that set us free.

Standing up for our faith has the potential to divide families and end friendships, as our Lord reminds us in Luke's Gospel; but not doing so can cause far more damage for it scandalizes our family and friends. It gives the example that our faith is not that important, that eternal salvation does not depend upon these truths, that it's okay to be indifferent, to be lukewarm in one's faith when, in fact, Christ tells us that He vomits out of His mouth those who are lukewarm (Rev 3:16). Far greater damage is done by this sin of scandal than by the conviction that may cause division in the family, the ending of a friendship, or, on the other hand, the conviction that may just jolt someone into taking his faith seriously.

The truth is ultimately what sets us free, what leads to eternal peace. As Christians we're called to teach and educate others about the good news of Jesus Christ, about these truths of our faith be they difficult ones or easy ones. It's easy to preach that God's mercy is great and His love infinite. It's easy to preach that all prodigals who come home to the Father will be welcomed with open arms. And it's easy to preach that the gates of Heaven have been opened. And all those things are true. But those prodigals will never come home to be welcomed if they're never challenged to repentance; and we do not help loved ones through those heavenly gates by scandalizing them, nor do we help our own faith.

Let us pray this day, then, for that grace of courage and conviction in our faith that leads to true peace and salvation.

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  • mt. airy, maryland

    Terrific! Thank you for this commentary. Helps me personally, and will be good to know for our RCIA sessions.

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