What is “Scandal”?

What is “Scandal”? May 28, 2022

If you haven’t seen it already, Gloria Purvis has an excellent interview with Archbishop Cordileone about the situation with Nancy Pelosi and Holy Communion:

If you are interested in understanding the situation, I recommend watching the whole thing.  Here are the related podcast link and text of the interview. I have not heard and read those, but I found the quality of the YouTube interview sufficient that I’m comfortable pointing you to the alternate media.

It’s important to know what definition we’re referring to when we are using a word that has more than one possible meaning.  This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the sin of “scandal”:

  1. Respect for the Dignity of Persons

Respect for the souls of others: scandal

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.”85 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.86

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.”87 This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger,88 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!”89

We don’t use the word scandal this way in ordinary speech.  We call a “scandal” any incident where people are caught behaving badly in an unacceptable way, and we have a complex set of unspoken rules about which bad behavior crosses the line, when, how, and for whom.  In this usage, the question of leading others into sin is largely ignored.  We might say a politician’s adulterous affair was “scandalous” even if the effect of that particular incident was to discourage adultery in others running for office, perhaps out of fear of political ruin if they get caught.

We also speak of someone “being scandalized” to mean that the bad behavior was shocking or surprising.  It might be used humorously, or tongue-in-cheek, either with sarcasm (no one was actually shocked, we are too jaded to be shocked anymore) or condescension (anyone who gets upset about such behavior is an old-fashioned prude).

None of this is what the word means when we are speaking of “the sin of scandal” in moral theology.  Here, such as in the case of Ms. Pelosi and the archbishop, the question of “scandal” is this: Is her behavior leading others into sin?

Pause for a moment while we object: But don’t we all lead others into sin?

Pretty much, yes.  Anytime we don’t take seriously some aspect of the faith, we are likely setting a bad example for others.  We risk scandalizing others, in the technical sense of the term, by sins that we know are wrong and try to avoid — sins we take to confession — if we aren’t assiduous in letting others know we know it’s wrong and are working on amending our ways.  Apologizing is a help here.

We are yet more likely to scandalize others by sins that we don’t believe are wrong. Cultural or personal bias can blind us to the gravity of our actions.  Lack of formation can cause us to simply be ignorant of some aspect of the faith.  And most easily: We may have a general understanding of an ideal of the faith, but a poor grasp of how and to what extent that ideal should affect our actions.

Again in this case, humility is a great help.  In matters of prudential judgment, it’s reasonable to say: I might be wrong.  I am trying to do the right thing, but there are many factors at play, and it’s possible I’ve chosen poorly.  Likewise, there might be times when a given sin is highly debated, and we might find ourselves saying I honestly do not know whether ______ is a sin, and if so, whether it is always a sin or only in certain contexts.

Of course we seek to improve our understanding of right and wrong. But since we are works in progress, we can humbly acknowledge that we don’t always even know what we should be doing, let alone have the self-control and fortitude to do as we ought.


It would be very difficult to make a case that Ms. Pelosi, and President Biden in the same way, are not leading others into sin by their persistent, vocal, active work in favor of abortion. We know far too many people who can say with a straight face “I’m Catholic but . . ..” We can see by studying years of their respective records advocating for abortion (not just against some single instance of legislation that might be ostensibly pro-life and yet have significant flaws making it an unwise law) that this is not merely a question of prudential judgement — of being uncertain whether a given law is truly a helpful law — but a matter of willfully promoting abortion.

So scandal is definitely at play.

And of course, as many have pointed out, there are no shortage of other leaders out there who also give scandal by their persistence in advocating for some evil or another.

It should be pointed out that no amount of other people committing the sin of scandal thereby eliminates mine, or yours, or Biden’s, or Pelosi’s scandalous behavior.

In any case, no matter how much your own bishop is failing to correct you for your scandalous public sins, the Pelosi case is rather cut and dried.  The Catholic faith (and common sense generally) is unequivocal about the seriousness of intentionally killing innocent human beings. One should not go around extolling one’s Catholic faith while also promoting murder as a viable life choice.

If you’ve been doing that lately, consider getting yourself to confession, and then letting the fact of your change of heart be known to those around you.

File:Aescher-Wildkirchli 20210528 01.jpg

Photo: The Berggasthaus Aescher Wildkirchli, photo via Wikimedia, CC 3.0.

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