Meditations for Layfolk - Scandal

In ordinary English the word "scandal" has taken on a meaning that is altogether different from that attached to it in the Church s sense. Conversationally, and even in exact literature, scandal signifies nothing more or less than gossip, true or false, that reflects evilly upon character. "Talking scandal" is our phrase for indulging in the tittle-tattle about our neighbours or the prominent men of our world, which forms the staple produce of many of our conversational efforts. To refer to the corrupt practices of a politician or the mal-administration of some public fund is commonly done by alluding to such and such a "scandal." Matrimonial difficulties, immoral practices, are also spoken of as scandals when they have been described in some detail by the public press. But for the most part, the significance attaching to the word may be summed up in the idea that it supposes the revelation of something hitherto hidden or hushed up, which, when known, seriously injures the good repute of an individual or of individuals. In other words, scandal means that some culprit has been discovered and is being discussed. Now in the Latin signification scandal means nothing of this at all. It implies rather that something has taken place which will in all probability be suggestive of evil to others. It does not simply mean the discussion of someone's misdeeds, the publication of them; but it means that these misdeeds have caused others to follow their example. In the ordinary phrase scandal implies sin on the part of the speaker; in the ecclesiastical phrase it implies sin on the part of the doer. It means those actions of ours whereby we lead others into sin; hence it is usually bracketed with " bad example."

It is undoubtedly true that our Lord uses the word thus when He denounces so strenuously in the Gospel those who would "scandalize" little children. He pointedly and fiercely anathematizes all who lead astray those younger, more innocent, than themselves, and bids them prefer maimed lives to such a train of captives to their evil example. Scandal, therefore, means that there is such a further addition to evil acts, as that they not merely concern the perpetrator, but also through him have an influence upon those who may come to the knowledge of them. When I have done wrong I may imagine that I alone suffer the penalties, whereas in reality by my very act I may have started others also along a like career of wrong. Or even it may be that my wrong actions do not so much lead others to copy me, but raise in their minds thoughts against the value of the sacraments or against the divinity of the faith. People looking on may well say to themselves that if I who go daily or weekly to my duties am no better than I am, they had better not attempt to improve their own negligence; or if Catholics do no more than I, then there could be no reason for converting men to it. Further, it is necessary to remember that this sin of scandal can be perpetrated unintentionally. It is quite possible that without considering the effect of what I am doing or saying, I am really and effectively "corrupting youth." Carelessness and ignorance do not make a sin less, simply because we do not choose to remember who is watching or listening, or to whose ears our sin will come. We have therefore to consider how far what we do is not merely sinful, but likely to lead others into sin.

Of course, we are not responsible if people unreasonably are scandalized at us; for there would seem to be certain souls who consider it to be the test of their own goodness that they can find so easily evil in others it is almost worth while thinking just for a minute or so whether I may not myself possibly be counted among that number. Things in themselves innocent, even charitable, may yet get interpreted by narrow and suspicious minds into misdoings. Now this, obviously, I cannot help and have a right to ignore; nay, it is more than certain that it would be wrong of me to allow myself to give any encouragement to such baseless ideas. It is sometimes said that this readiness to be scandalized is a particular vice of pious people; but the answer is, that people who do indulge in it are certainly not pious, whatever the outward semblance of their lives appear. Still, in spite of all this false and hypocritical "scandal," I must never forget the responsibility that attaches to life. To a very large extent, from the very nature of human existence, I must live in the full view of my fellows, who are quick to repeat as well as watch, and who will find in my age, or better education, or higher position, or Catholic belief, a justification or excuse for imitating my shortcomings. I must certainly never set out to edify people, for so I should probably never succeed in doing any such thing, but should merely become a hypocrite myself; but I must, all the same, be continuously careful of the influence I cannot help exerting on the minds of those with whom I come in contact. I must beware lest I prove a scandal or stumbling-block by my sins.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.