Scandal Is Not Always A Sin

Moral theology uses the term ‘scandal’ with a specialized meaning.

{9:41} “And whoever will have scandalized one of these little ones who believe in me: it would be better for him if a great millstone were placed around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Saint Jerome: “As this word ‘scandalum’ (offense or stumbling block) is of such frequent use in ecclesiastical writings, we will shortly explain it. We might render it in Latin, ‘offendiculum,’ or ‘ruina,’ or ‘impactio’. And so when we read, ‘Whoever shall scandalize,’ we understand, whoever by word or deed has given an occasion of falling to any.” [1] [St. Jerome is commenting on Matthew 15:12, but quoting from Mark 9:41.]

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Scandal is, therefore, fittingly defined as ‘something less rightly done or said, that occasions another’s spiritual downfall.’ ” [2]

The sin of scandal occurs when, as a consequence of one person’s knowingly chosen act, another person is influenced toward sin. The influence toward sin is generally by bad example, as may occur when a sin becomes publicly known. In some cases, the other person might be influenced to misunderstand a teaching of the Church on a matter of faith or morals. All such misunderstandings tend toward sin, because the truths of faith and morals, properly understood, always lead us to God and away from sin. Therefore, St. Jerome explains that the sin of scandal is any word or deed (i.e. any exterior act) that might have the bad consequence of leading another person into spiritual downfall, which includes any sin, but especially mortal sin.

That scandal can be a sin is clear from the words of our Lord (Mk 9:41). Yet it is not possible in a sinful world for there to be no scandals, i.e. no influences of one sinner on another toward sin. Even so, those who influence others toward sin are doing harm to their neighbor. Speaking particularly about influencing young innocent persons toward serious sin, Jesus speaks using a harsh figure that is mild in comparison to the offense itself.

{17:1} And he said to his disciples: “It is impossible for scandals not to occur. But woe to him through whom they come!
{17:2} It would be better for him if a millstone were placed around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than to lead astray one of these little ones.”

However, speaking generally, scandal is a consequence in the third font. And so, if a good act (second font) with good intention (first font) has both good and bad consequences (third font), then the act might be moral under the principle of double effect. Therefore, Jesus did not commit the sin of scandal, even though the Pharisees were scandalized by the good deeds and true preaching of Jesus.

{15:12} Tunc accedentes discipuli eius, dixerunt ei: Scis quia Pharisæi audito verbo hoc, scandalizati sunt?
{15:12} Then his disciples drew near and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees, upon hearing this word, were offended [i.e. scandalized]?”

The Pharisees would have sinned less if Jesus had not arrived and preached during their lifetimes. For they would not have committed the sin of rejecting the Messiah. But this bad consequence, like all bad consequences, must be weighed against the good consequences in the third font. The good consequences of Jesus’ public Ministry far outweigh the bad consequence of presenting an occasion of scandal to the Pharisees.

{7:1} Then, after these things, Jesus was walking in Galilee. For he was not willing to walk in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.
{7:2} Now the feast day of the Jews, the Feast of Tabernacles, was near.

{7:6} Therefore, Jesus said to them: “My time has not yet come; but your time is always at hand.
{7:7} The world cannot hate you. But it hates me, because I offer testimony about it, that its works are evil.
{7:8} You may go up to this feast day. But I am not going up to this feast day, because my time has not yet been fulfilled.”
{7:9} When he had said these things, he himself remained in Galilee.
{7:10} But after his brothers went up, then he also went up to the feast day, not openly, but as if in secret.

When Jesus used mental reservation, by saying that he was not going to the feast because the time was not yet right, He did not commit the sin of scandal, though some persons might have misunderstood Him and might have incorrectly concluded that He lied. For scandal is only a sin if the bad consequences outweigh the good. The good consequence of avoiding an attempt on his life, and the good consequence of giving us an example of the proper use of mental reservation, outweigh any scandal that might occur if someone misunderstands His words.

St. Thomas plainly states that scandal can occur without sin on the part of the person who gives scandal. Such is the case with any scandal resulting from the good deeds of Jesus Christ, or of the Saints who lived in imitation of Him.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Yet there can be passive scandal, without sin on the part of the person whose action has occasioned the scandal, as for instance, when a person is scandalized at another’s good deed.” [3]

Passive scandal refers to a good act with good intention, which may result in, but does not necessitate, the spiritual downfall on the part of some other persons. In such cases, a person does not necessarily sin when there is a bad consequence that some other persons are scandalized. If all three fonts are good, including the totality of good and bad consequences in the third font, then the act would be moral, despite the bad consequence of passive scandal.

But ‘active scandal’ occurs when one person sins, and that sin also influences others to sin; active scandal includes sin by definition. However, even in active scandal, the consequence of influencing other persons to sin could possibly be outweighed by good consequences in the third font. Although the act itself might be a sin under the first or second fonts (e.g. lying), and therefore be called ‘active scandal,’ the third font itself might be moral, even if the scandal of others results, if this bad consequence is outweighed by the good consequences in the third font. The three fonts of morality always determine the morality of each and every knowingly chosen act, without any exception whatsoever.

Therefore, the principle of double effect must take into account the possibility of the sin of scandal. If the chosen act might influence other persons to sin, even if only because they have misunderstood (as occurs in passive scandal), then this bad consequence must be weighed with all the other good and bad consequences. Sometimes the additional bad consequence of scandal is enough to cause the totality of the bad consequences to outweigh the totality of the good consequences, making the third font, and the overall act, immoral. The principle of double effect does not justify an act if the bad consequences outweigh the good. However, in some cases, even if there is a danger of some persons being scandalized (influenced toward sin), the good consequences might still outweigh the bad consequences. The principle of double effect can justify a good act with good intention, even with the bad consequence of scandal, as long as the good consequences have sufficient moral weight.

The above text is quoted from my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics

The conclusion of the above argument is that scandal is not always a sin, not always a mortal sin, and not necessarily intrinsically evil. Therefore, the mere fact that some persons are scandalized by the behavior of a particular Catholic does not immediately allow us to conclude that he or she is unworthy to receive Communion. The Pharisees were scandalized by the preaching of Jesus. Should He have kept silent? Certainly not.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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[1] St. Jerome, quoted in the Catena Aurea (Golden Chain) of St. Thomas Aquinas; Gospel of Matthew 15:12; translated by Parker and Rivington, London, 1842.

[2] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 43, A. 1.

[3] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 43, A. 2.

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