Scandal is a word we see almost every day, and it usually describes the misbehavior celebrities embrace to attract attention. St. Thomas Aquinas defines scandal as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall” (II-II 43.1). What we see on the newsstands may be shocking, but probably does not lead to spiritual downfall. The scandals that afflict our Church today are far worse. In our theology, scandal is a sin, the most serious sin one can commit against the virtue of Charity.
Our noun “scandal” comes from the Greek word that means “stumbling against something,” and Jesus says the penalty for acting as such a stumbling-block is particularly severe. “Whoever causes one of these little ones…to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:43).
Jesus’ words aptly describe scandal as a violation of trust, someone’s leading a “little one” astray, and our Catechism observes, “Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized” (CCC, #2285). The text continues, “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.” If priests and bishops abuse the trust of those they have been ordained to lead, we need no further evidence that the ills presently besetting the Church vastly outweigh the headlines that distract us in the supermarket.
St. Paul reminds us, “…faith, hope, and charity abide, these three. But the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13). To love another person is to will good for that individual, so love, in its many forms, is the perfect exercise of Charity. We should not be surprised, then, to learn that scandal – to lead another to sin – is the most serious sin one can commit against the virtue of Charity. It is the opposite of love. And lest we miscalculate the enormity of scandal, the Catechism is very clear: “Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes…responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged” (CCC, #2287). The direct consequences of scandal are self-evident; the “indirect” consequences might not be so immediately apparent. The effects of scandal are like ripples caused by tossing a stone into water; they expand and may reach far beyond their origin. For example, if our moral or spiritual failings cause individuals to abandon their faith, or simply to scorn the Church’s teachings, we must share responsibility for their actions.
What, we might ask, is the remedy for scandal? Because scandal is a sin against Charity, embracing greater Charity ought to provide our answer. Our love for God impels us to love others, and at some point forces us to face the challenge Christ lays down when He says, “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44). This includes even those guilty of scandal, and while this may seem an impossible task, St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that while we may judge some individuals worthy of little affection or respect, we must appropriately love what is good in them, namely, their humanity and worth as God’s creatures. We naturally pray for the victims of scandal, but we must also be ready to include perpetrators of scandal in our prayers, perhaps especially our prayers for those in need.
In a few days we will celebrate the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a day on which members of the Order of Malta honor Mary as Our Lady of Philermo. If we find ourselves challenged by Jesus’ command to love our enemies – including those guilty of scandal – we might throw ourselves into Mary’s arms. The everlasting life she enjoys, body and soul, in Christ’s company, is a reward our faith invites us to look forward to, if we are willing to embrace Mary’s words to the servants at Cana and “do whatever he tells you.”