By Fr John Flader
I have been confused for quite some time as to exactly what scandal is and whether it is a sin. For example, we say that a person was scandalised, or that someone’s behaviour was scandalous, or that someone gave scandal. Is there sin in any of this?
As you say, we use the word scandal in many ways. The word, by the way, comes from the Greek word skandalon, meaning a stumbling block or trap. When we say that someone was scandalised, we usually mean they were shocked, or horrified, by the immoral behaviour of someone. But in being shocked they were not inclined to imitate that behaviour. Quite the contrary. Similarly, when we say that someone’s behaviour was scandalous, we are normally indicating our strong disapproval of what they did. Again, we are not inclined to imitate their conduct.
But when we say that someone gave scandal, we are saying that they acted in a way that was likely to lead others into sin. This is the proper sense of the term in moral theology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Scandal is an attitude or behaviour which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbour’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offence if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offence” (CCC 2284).
One of the worst things we can do to others is lead them into sin. If we hit them, insult them or gossip about them we do not harm them in their relationship with God, which is their most priceless possession. But if we lead them into sin we harm this relationship and can even jeopardise their eternal salvation. As the Catechism says, we become their tempter, much as Satan does, and we can draw them into spiritual death, or mortal sin. Indeed, as the Catechism says, if our behaviour leads someone else to commit a grave offence, or mortal sin, we have committed a mortal sin ourselves.
Especially serious is scandal caused by persons with authority over those led into sin. This includes parents, teachers, priests, and in general any adult with an underage person. Our Lord was particularly strong in condemning it: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). The Catechism teaches: “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing” (CCC 2285; cf. Lk 17:1).
There are many ways in which one can commit scandal. The most obvious is by leading another person directly into sin. A young man who engages in sexual activity with a girl, a married man who entices a woman to commit adultery with him, a person who invites someone to attend an inappropriate film or show, someone who encourages another to commit a crime with him, a business manager who tells his staff to lie to the customer, etc., all commit scandal and are responsible not only for their own sin but also for that of the other.
Another obvious way of committing scandal is by giving bad example, without necessarily intending to lead others into sin. This can include using bad language, dressing immodestly, praising a film that contains inappropriate material, drinking alcohol to excess, etc. This is what we mean by scandalous behaviour. A girl, or a boy for that matter, who dresses or behaves immodestly can be guilty of the sins of all those who look at them with lust or have impure thoughts or desires as a result. Parents have a special responsibility to take care that their children dress and act appropriately.
Parliamentarians who vote for legislation that permits immorality in such forms as abortion, pornography or embryonic stem cell research are guilty of scandal and are responsible for all the sins committed as a result. Similarly those who make immoral films, who make and sell immodest clothing, who run brothels, etc., are guilty of scandal on a grand scale.
Scandal can also be committed simply by encouraging, advising or teaching someone to do wrong, and even by not discouraging them if they tell us they are thinking of doing it.
In summary, as the Catechism explains, “Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!’” (Lk 17:1; CCC 2287).