Over the past years, the Church has been rocked by the “scandal” of sexual abuse. Although many of these abuses are far in the past, they clearly highlight the ability of individual and institutional sins to lead people away from the faith. Christ warned, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur” (Lk 17:1). 

But what is scandal? 

The word scandal is derived from the Greek skandalon, which literally means “a trap or snare laid for an enemy.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “an attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil” (No. 2284). The range is extremely broad, includ-ing everything from a Roman emperor forcing gladiators to kill for his amusement, to the girl who causes her friend to have a lustful thought by getting her T-shirt wet. 

Theologians divide scandal into two parts: active and passive. In the Colosseum, an emperor actively induces the gladiator to commit murder, and the gladiator passively assents to this evil. The burden of guilt obviously rests with the emperor. The guilt would shift, however, in a case like that of the murder of St. Thomas Becket in 1170: King Henry II really did tempt the soldiers to commit murder, but the soldiers were not coerced, and the order to kill was only implied. The passive scandal in this case is more culpable than the active. In some cases, passive scandal may be taken where there is no active scandal at all, as when people are tempted to reject Christianity on account of the scandal of the Cross. 

Are popular “scandals” actually scandalous? 

Yes, and no. There are two different kinds of popular scandal. The first occurs when people who are in positions of trust or authority abuse their power, it is discovered, and it is published. This sort of scandal is a form of counter-witness; it does not generally lead people to imitate or condone the bad behavior, but it does cause a loss of trust and can tempt people to cynicism. When Christian leaders are involved, as in the case of the sex abuse scandal, it causes loss of faith and provides fodder for anti-Christian sentiment. 

The second kind is the result of slander and detraction. For example, a public figure does, or is accused of doing, something that is not anyone else’s business. The media fixates on the salacious details of the (alleged) wrongdoing and publishes them in order to improve ratings or readership. This may lead readers to copy the sins, or tempt them to envy and resentment, but the fault lies more with the journalists, paparazzi and purveyors of gossip than with the celebrities whose reputations are besmirched. 

In reaction to this, apply the golden rule. How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow morning and your most secret and shameful misdeeds were headline news at the supermarket? Would you want all of the other patrons to greedily consume the news of your downfall, or would you hope that they would charitably avert their eyes? 

Scandalized or morally disgusted?  

People often refer to being “scandalized” when they actually mean that they are morally disgusted. It’s not the same thing. If you are actually scandalized, this implies that you are in some way attracted or drawn to imitate someone else’s bad behavior. If your friends are going on a three-day drinking binge, and you feel a strong desire to join in the debauchery, then you are scandalized. If you are inclined to sneer and snub them, that is indignation. 

This is an important distinction, because it allows us to reconcile Christ’s eating with tax collectors and prostitutes with St. Paul’s caution to avoid bad company. Christ is not tempted to envy the tax collectors’ wealth, nor does He find the harlots’ charms alluring. Therefore, the spiritual good that He can bring to these people vastly supersedes the moral danger that they represent for Him. 

St. Paul is not telling Christians to avoid all association with sinners — that would render evangelization impossible — but he is advising us to avoid the company of those whose sins we are tempted to emulate. 

Can scandal be caused by doing something not actually evil? 

Sometimes scandal arises because someone perceives evil in a good or neutral action. The obvious biblical example of this is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, discussed in the First Letter to the Corinthians (see chapter 10). Such cases must be judged individually, but there are some general considerations that may be applied. 

What are the chances that your behavior will actually lead someone to sin? Do you have good reason to think that someone is going to be scandalized, or might it just be scruples? 

Does the offensive behavior cause the person to revile or reject the Church? Does it lead them to actual sin, or does it just cause them to shun you as an individual? 

Is the person taking scandal out of ignorance and weakness, or are they taking scandal out of self-righteous pride?  

Is the harm to the other person’s soul serious, or trivial? Does it outweigh the inconvenience or cost of changing your behavior? 

Have you made reasonable attempts to prevent misunderstanding? Is there an opportunity to explain your choices in order to prevent harm? 

Have you been appropriately discreet? Has the other party gone out of their way to be scandalized (by prying, gossipmongering, leaping to rash judgments, etc.)? 

Basically, you are obligated to be considerate of the spiritual well-being of your neighbor, especially if they will be led into sin out of weakness, but you are not obligated to obsess over the effect of every single action on others, to go to unreasonable lengths or to mollify those who are determined to be scandalized. 

What is delight in scandal? 

Delight in scandal is the joy of seeing another person’s downfall. This is generally prompted by envy or resentment, and it is often a perversion of the desire to see justice done. The evident glee that some people take in uncovering secret sins is an example of this vice. 

A second kind of delight in scandal is the joy of being a cause of moral disgust in those one perceives to be self-righteous or hypocritical through pranks or provocative actions. While such pranks may seem like innocent and amusing entertainment, they represent an uncharitable attitude toward others. They are generally counterproductive, and lead to a strengthening of the intolerant or judgmental behaviors that they are meant to lampoon. 

What is diabolical scandal? 

Usually, when someone deliberately tempts another, it is because they stand to gain: an investor might persuade their broker to trade unethically out of a desire for money, or a girl might get her boyfriend drunk in order to break down his sexual inhibitions. 

Diabolical scandal occurs when someone leads another into evil simply out of the malicious desire to see them fall. St. Jerome describes such a situation in his “Life of Paul of Thebes”: a young Christian man is bound in a pleasure garden and subjected to the allurements of a harlot. Although the seduction does not succeed, the person responsible for orchestrating this scenario is guilty of diabolical scandal, because they have nothing to gain except the desire to see a devout man fall from grace. 

Just as the witness of faith draws souls to Christ, the counter-witness of scandal turns them away. If we are made indignant by the sins of the world, we should begin with an example of virtue in charity, for, as Fyodor Dostoyevski says in “The Brother’s Karamazov,” “All are responsible for all.” TCA 

Melinda Selmys is the author of “A Crisis of Passion: Meditations on the Vocation of the Artists in a Postmodern World” (Circle Books, 2011). She converted to Catholicism 12 years ago and lives in Ontario, Canada.