The Nature of Scandal
I was asked if I was committing scandal about the Pope and the way I speak about so many priests and bishops. It was a legitimate question and I welcomed it as an opportunity for me to be critical of myself and ask why am I doing this.
The dictionary on my computer defines scandal as, “An action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.”
The first part of the definition is easy to understand. It is the doing of something that is wrong. However, scandal is something more than JUST doing something wrong. It is doing something wrong that has a negative impact on society. It is this negative impact on society that makes scandal so terrible. It causes public outrage. It upsets the calm of the people. It destroys trust in authority. It causes people to hate, to doubt, to even rebel. If scandal is grave enough, it can cause some form of anarchy or even revolution (e.g. “Let them eat cake!”).
In the Church, scandal is of particular importance as we have the care of souls (salvation) in mind. If something happens in the Church that causes scandal, and the people lose hope or turn in rebellion against the priesthood or the teachings – that is bad. It causes harm to the bond of trust between the people and the Church. The effect then being that the Church looses her effectiveness in saving souls. The greater effect yet, and I dare to say sin, is that it hinders the ministry of Jesus Himself. The Church is the Bride of Christ, His institution, mechanism, tool, instrument… to implement His ongoing work of salvation in the individual lives of each generation. Within this Church are all the individuals that make up what is called the Body of Christ. This includes the pope, bishops, priests, deacons and the laity. When any member of the Body is not able to function in building up the Kingdom of God on earth in the lives of self or others, that is a terrible thing.
We understand that we are working against principalities and powers in this world, that is to say: evil. We understand that evil happens, but as Jesus says, woe to the one by whose hand gives scandal to one of these little ones, better to have a stone tied about his neck and thrown into the sea. While we understand that the world will give scandal, it is far worse when the scandal comes from within the Church, from one of the members of the Body of Christ. We are to be looking, acting, speaking like the Body of Christ. We are to be Christ present in the world. When people see us, they are to see Christ. There is a bond of trust that is in the Church between people who have given their lives to serving God and each other. When that trust is violated, the harm is immense and it can cause people to leave the Church and even burn in hell. On the less severe side, it can cause people to doubt or simply not try as hard as they normally would to get holy in life.
In particular, a grave sin indeed is when one causes scandal about a priest. A priest is a special part of the Body of Christ and is charged to fulfill his ministry in the name of Christ. It is here, that priests are different than the laity. All the faithful, laity and priest alike, are called to participate in the apostolate, the general call of Jesus to build the kingdom of God on earth. But priests also do ministry (a word misused when applied to the laity, because “ministry” is the official “work” of the ordained). By virtue of ordination, clerics have a special grace from God in the work of salvation. Priests are called “another Christ” or “in the person of Christ.” This difference is not symbolic, but true and real. A priest undergoes an ontological change at ordination. This change is a real alteration in his person, an indelible mark. He is no longer the same man his mother gave birth to. This mark or change to the soul is indelible, permanent and unchangeable. It cannot be lost. Even in death he takes his priesthood with him. Imagine the shame of being a priest in hell.
We need to look at a few more moral concepts to better understand what it means to cause scandal about a priest.
Let us look at gossip, which is the needless talk about another. Let us use a different word: detraction. This is when we needlessly talk about another and in doing so, we cause injury to their good name. Another word is calumny. This is like detraction, but what we say that harms the person’s good name is a lie. So it is detraction if we speak the truth about another and it is calumny if we use a lie to do it. Everyone has a right to his good name, but for this discussion we will say that a priest has a special right to his good name because of the importance of the ministry he does for the salvation of souls. Remembering that if a priest is hampered from fulfilling his ministry it is the same as Jesus being hampered.
What if the priest is doing something bad? Is this not the problem we had with the pedophile issue? People were told not to talk about the priests and so many innocent children were harmed. Certainly this would not be detraction? Correct. The difference is the priests were committing crimes for which they must pay. They were failing to be priest. They were failing to be Christ to their people (children in this case). In fact, it was the priest themselves who were committing scandal. It was they, themselves who brought harm to the trust and reputation, not only of themselves, but to all priests everywhere. This is why the Church defines detraction as “the unnecessary…”. When a priest (or anyone) is a pedophile, it is necessary to speak of it. In this case you did not give scandal to them, but they brought it on themselves.
Another way to look at it is this. Ask yourself, what good are you thinking it will bring about if you tell someone about another’s fault. If no special good can come of it then it is best not to speak it. What do I mean by special good? Two examples. 1) Will it protect someone from physical, emotional, physiological or spiritual abuse? 2) Can my speaking of their faults help them change; I tell a friend or a professional in confidence so that they can give me advise on how to help this person.
Causing scandal about another is about hidden and private matters. What if a person’s crime is already known and they caused the scandal about themselves. What can we do if the matter is already public? What if the problem of the person is already known by everyone? Can we speak of it now? This is different. This would not be gossip in the sense of detraction or calumny. It is something different. We are talking about being critical now.
What is “criticism”? Criticism is the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. We can make the same distinction again by asking if it is necessary to be public about our criticism of another. If it is not necessary, then it is yet another scandal. This time the scandal is about our own character. Everyone makes mistakes and we need to respect that and allow others to learn form theirs the same as we would hope that others would be patient with us as we learn from ours. People fail often on this matter. Why? Because it is easier to tear someone down than to build yourself up. If I can make that person look bad enough, then I will look good by comparison and then I do not have to go through the effort of changing myself.
When can we be critical of others? If you had a pedophile living across the street, would you tell your child that that man is OK and that it is fine to talk with him? Again, if a new neighbor moved in down the street and they had children, would you notify them about the pedophile across from you? It is not that we do not want to give this person a chance, just not with my child. Speaking of other’s faults needs to be about protection and a real opportunity to help and allow them to grow. If not, then it is just gossip.
As a priest, I have the duty (not an option, a DUTY) to care for the people under my direction. I cannot allow them to be subject to ambiguities, distortions, manipulations, half-truths, lies or errors about the faith. No matter who they come from. We keep in mind that whoever committed these atrocities against God, the Faith and the people of God is the one who commits scandal. They are the one who did wrong. Once such a wrong is committed, it is so often the case that it is left to someone else to have to clean up the mess (set the faith right).
We also note that this problem knows no rank. We have had many Popes in the past who have been in serious error about the faith. We have had popes who lived lives of decadence. There have been popes who preferred to be liked rather than do their job. Some popes let the power go to their heads. That these things happen is a scandal, but it should be no surprise as they are human too and frail. It should not be an excuse for some to stray from the faith or leave the Church. Unfortunately some are ignorant of the Faith and place unconditional trust in the Pope and say, “Well the Pope says… It must be true.”
This brings us to respect and obedience. Obedience is an easy one. We owe obedience when an authority commands within their proper jurisdiction. This means that if they give a just order that is within their power to give, then we must obey. Their intentions for giving the order or the extent of prayer that went into the order is irrelevant for the most part. That is between them and God.
Respect is more difficult. What if the one in authority is just picking on someone? Giving order after order after order that becomes burdensome. Then the authority fails to respect the subordinate. Respect is a two-way street. One may not use his or her authority to push private agendas or to pick on someone he or she does not like. One cannot demand respect if they do not first give it. In this case one could refuse an order as a way to stand up against the undue abuse. There may be consequences for it, but it would not be an act of sin.
The same is true with the teachings that come from authority. In the Church, one may not teach whatever they want. They may only teach truth. The full teaching on truth, in this case, has a wide meaning that is too big for this article. In this case, what I am referring to is that truth is a line of teaching that comes from Jesus Christ through the Apostles and has been faithfully handed down in an unbroken secession of popes and bishops to this day called the Apostolic Tradition). Truth means that what they say must be in line with that teaching of the Church, not of an individual or subgroup. This limits us and protects us. In other words, if a pope were to go nuts and say, “I solemnly declare, pronounce, define… that Mary is the forth person of the Trinity which shall hence forth be known as the “Quadity.” We could all laugh at him and say a prayer for him or even call a psychologist for him to proscribe some nice drugs. There is no history of that ever being taught in the Church and so such a teaching would be dismissed with no consideration. Remember that just because he is the Pope, does not mean that he get to declare whatever he wants. He, like us, is not allowed to deviate from the Apostolic Tradition (The unbroken line of teachings that goes back to the apostles and to Jesus Himself.) This is even one of the official rules in order for a pope to be considered infallible on a teaching.
Another issue about respect for an authority. What if the speak a half-truth? What say may be partially true, but it leaves the wrong impression that is very dangerous? Here we have the issue of Pope Francis saying that atheist can go to heaven. There is truth to this teaching. It is believed by the Church that one who through no fault of their own, do not know God or believe in God might go to heaven. It is only a “might” though. We do not know. It is speculative theology. It is in the realm of possibilities, but we do not know.
Let us look at another example so that we can understand the harm of the Pope’s statement. It is the question of appropriateness of the teaching. Parents, you tell me. Your 4-year-old child comes to you and asks where to do babies come from? Do you tell them all the gory details of sex? No! Of coarse not. It would be inappropriate. We must be age appropriate. So you tell them the first piece of information they need about the subject. You tell them that they come from God or something like that.
The Pope was not sensitive to the faith level of the world. What he taught was all the gory details that (while true to some degree) the world is not ready for. He taught some obscure deep theological thought to a world that has no understanding of Faith or theology. Such a teaching needs to be heard and understood in the light of Faith. The world does not have Faith (they are riddled with hedonism and secular humanism) and so only heard what they wanted to hear; everyone is going to heaven.
As the Church, Jesus established us to teach the world about Him and to bring the world to Faith, to baptize them and bring them into the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The atheist (having no understanding of the full and correct Church teaching) now says to himself, “I do not need to be Catholic to be saved, in the case were I wrong to believe that there is no God.” The Church now has no way of conversion for this man or anyone one else. If the atheist goes to heaven, then the Buddhist must go to heaven also, and the Hindu, the Jew, the protestant, the Satanist, and the Muslim also. If that were true, no one would have to be Catholic to get to heaven. So why join the most difficult faith on the planet when we can stay with a nice and easy faith and still go to heaven?
The true teaching is that we must teach and bring people into the Church. What will happen next is that when one has a deeper faith, they may ask what of those who do not believe like us. Then we can say, “Well – we do not know for sure, but God knows their heart. If they are innocent in not accepting the Gospel due to human frailties, but still live a moral life as if they believed, well God might be able to apply his grace to them also, but we do not know. What we do know is that the Church is the only sure way given to us by God to assist us to heaven.”
Faith appropriate is just as important as age appropriate. In my estimation the Pope failed in this. It then becomes my job as I stand before God one day to be judged to teach that the Pope was not quite right here. I must protect the innocent, frail faith of my flock. Respect set aside, I commit no scandal, the Pope did by giving such a deep theological speculation to a world that does not have the faith to understand it.
Notice that in all which I have said, I did not say anything personal about the Pope, only that his off-the-cuff teaching was bad and dangerous. I addressed the facts and supported them with Church Teaching, not personal bias and with no regard to human respect (that is, I do not care if people like me or not for writing this). I did not disrespect the Pope, denounce the Pope, call for a rebellion, say that the Pope is an apostate or heretic, or anything else. No such thing was said in this article or any other. The Pope is the Pope and that is respected. But when he is wrong he is wrong and is not above correction.