Is It a Scandal to Leave the Priesthood?

Is It a Scandal to Leave the Priesthood? May 20, 2019

A few commenters on social media were upset and even angry over the news that Father Jonathan Morris has asked to leave the clerical state. I remarked that this is not, from all appearances and from the statement of Father Morris, scandalous — unlike some other high profile priests who have followed a similar path. I take him at his word that there is no present relationship involved that has led him to this decision, and that he wishes to remain a faithful and committed Catholic — albeit, one who can marry and have a family.

Some readers objected. No, they replied, this is a scandal. One reader told me to look again at the definition of scandal.

Okay. From the catechism: 

2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.

2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “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.” 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.

2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.

Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger,  or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.

2287 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!”

From St. Thomas Aquinas, via New Advent: 

According to St. Thomas (II-II:43:1) scandal is a word or action evil in itself, which occasions another’s spiritual ruin. It is a word or action, that is either an external act—for an internal act can have no influence on the conduct of another—or the omission of an external act, because to omit what one should do is equivalent to doing what is forbidden; it must be evil in itself, or in appearance; this is the interpretation of the words of St. Thomasminus rectum.

…Still less can that be considered scandal, which only arouses comment, indignation, horror etc., for instance blasphemy committed in the presence of a priest or of a religious; it is true that the act arouses indignation and in common parlance it is often called scandalous, but this way of speaking is inaccurate, and in strictly theological terminology it is not the sin of scandal. Hence scandal is in itself an evil act, at least in appearance, and as such it exercises on the will of another an influence more or less great which induces to sin.

Absent any other details, what we have here is heartbreaking, but it is not — strictly speaking — evil. Sad? Yes. Sinful and scandalous? No.

Pray for Father Morris. Pray for all of our priests. The road is long. The journey is difficult. The laity sometimes do not make it any easier.

And, indeed, sometimes that itself can be a scandal.

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