Scandal In an Age of Scandal

Scandal In an Age of Scandal November 25, 2020

I bit back a smile when I saw a new essay pop up on Catholic Answers’ web site today. David Dashiell, a freelance writer and lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, wrote on “the sin of scandal—and how not to commit it.” I couldn’t help but think about my own recent essays outing myself as pro-choice and struggling with the faith. It had taken me a considerable amount of soul searching before writing on such intensely personal topics, but I thought the time was right to discuss the issues. And, as I expected, I received plenty of comments from conservative Catholics wondering why I’d chosen to scandalize the faithful.

Interested in Dashiell’s take on the topic, I clicked in and started reading. For the most part, he provided a good overview of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches on the subject. As he noted, the Catechism defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” It’s not merely an attitude or behavior that raises eyebrows, but one that leads others to commit evil. For example, refusing to concede a loss might merely be poor sportsmanship in a private game of poker, where everyone present knows the person is acting obnoxiously. But when a public official refuses to concede the loss of an election, and in doing so, provokes others to actions that impede a peaceful transition of power, that is scandal properly defined.

While Dashiell’s definition of scandal was unobjectionable, my own eyebrows lifted when he tried to make the case that telling the truth can be a cause for scandal:

We should first realize that scandal can be caused by the truth, too. Although we usually think of scandal in the context of a flagrant lie about the [Catholic] faith, in fact it can come from any attitude or behavior that leads another to do evil—including the way we present true assertions.

If I had evidence, for example, that certain bishops were the subjects of adulterous affairs, it might not be good to share that true information with certain people, especially if they are not well-formed in the faith. Such a claim might cause the hearer to doubt the bishops’ legitimate authority as successors to the apostles, or even lead to apostasy. And so we must be attentive to the condition and disposition of those to whom we speak (or witness by our actions) [emphasis added].

Within the same month the Vatican released its long-awaited report on who knew what and when about the sexual proclivities and abuses committed by the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, I’m sincerely gobsmacked that Catholic Answers chose to publish an essay suggesting that a Catholic could be committing the sin of scandal by telling the truth about the sexual proclivities and abuses committed by Catholic bishops.

The most charitable reading I can give this is that Dashiell sees “adulterous affairs” as private, consensual sins between the persons committing the acts. What he’s overlooking, and what his editor evidently didn’t notice, is that when an ordained person, entrusted with authority in the Church, engages in sexual acts with a person under his authority—whether or not the act is “consensual”—then the person in a position of authority is committing both sexual and spiritual abuse against the other person. There’s also the possibility that the abuser may compound that abuse, committing even more abuses to cover up the initial grave act. McCarrick, for example, was found by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to have committed “solicitation in the sacrament of confession, and sins against the sixth commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”

Abuse, it shouldn’t have to be said, isn’t something that should be covered up for fear of leading other persons into committing evil. To the contrary, the very acts of covering up sexual and spiritual abuse are what have contributed to the loss of faith by many Catholics in the authority of bishops and in the Catholic Church.

But there was another flaw in Dashiell’s consideration of scandal. He didn’t weigh the potential for scandal against an obligation to the truth, a topic also tackled in depth by the Catechism. And it may be the very fact that he apparently didn’t look up what the Catechism had to say about the Christian’s obligation to the truth that may have led to his poor example of causing scandal. The Catechism states, regarding the sin of detraction:

He becomes guiltyof detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them (CCC 2477, emphasis added).

There we have what Dashiell left out of his example of scandal; it can create scandal (and also constitute detraction) to share true information without objectively valid reason to do so. If you have true information about someone that casts an unfavorable light on that person’s character, but does not in any way cause or contribute to harm for other people, it’s detraction. If the person is a priest or bishop, sharing that information without valid reason could also create scandal. So, for example, if a bishop cheats at board games, that may be true information that reveals a disturbing flaw in his character, but in itself doesn’t rise to a matter the public needs to know. But if he cheats with a layman’s wife (or with a laywoman’s husband for that matter), that is something that should be brought to light for the protection of souls.

We live in an age of scandal, it’s true. At every level of public and private life, it seems, persons in positions of authority or public trust are defying the norms of civilized behavior. Celebrities chatter about the most intimate details of their children’s lives; priests and bishops declare that American Catholics who vote for Democrats are going to hell; public officials brazenly exploit the prerogatives of their office to benefit their cronies and maintain their own power. So, it is worth exploring, as Dashiell did, how we can avoid creating scandal while continuing to witness to the truth.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself that may help you when you’re trying to decide whether you’re in danger of giving scandal.

Is this act necessary to maintaining your own integrity? Despite the suspicions of some readers that I publicly revealed my political viewpoints and spiritual struggles purely for the sake of attention, that wasn’t my reason for doing so at all. I’d spent the better part of a decade walking a tightrope between intellectual integrity and providing information about the Catholic faith in keeping with the moral and doctrinal conservatism promoted by the apostolate I worked for. As long as doing so served a valid and necessary purpose (e.g., performing my job to the best of my ability), I walked that tightrope. But when that purpose no longer existed, I spoke more openly about my own viewpoints.

Am I revealing information about others that they have a right to keep private? Just because you saw someone you know during a visit to your urologist’s office doesn’t grant you license to reveal to anyone else that this person is receiving medical treatment—much less to speculate that the person may be experiencing bladder problems.

Could innocent third parties be unnecessarily harmed by revealing the information? Dashiell wasn’t entirely incorrect about the need to protect the innocent from information that could cause them harm. What’s necessary is determining whether there is proportionate reason to reveal that information anyway. Back in 2016, parents faced the challenge of discussing the presidential election in terms that wouldn’t unnecessarily damage their children’s innocence. Shielding a child from public discussion about a candidate who bragged about sexually assaulting women was reasonable because there wasn’t a realistic danger that the child could be in immediate, direct danger of a similar assault from that person. That’s an instance in which revealing such information, without regard for the harm it could cause, may not be appropriate. It wouldn’t have been appropriate though for journalists covering the election to have buried the story to protect the candidate’s reputation.

The Church teaches that scandal is a sin, yes. But it also teaches that we have an obligation to witness to the truth:

The duty of Christians to take part in the life of the Church impels them to act as witnesses of the gospel and of the obligations that flow from it. This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds. Witness is an act of justice that establishes the truth or makes it known (CCC 2472).

It may not always be easy to discern when the danger of scandal is present and should be avoided, but I believe it’s always better to err on the side of truth. If you believe that others might be harmed if the truth isn’t brought to light, tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

(Image: Girl with a cell phone, Pixabay.)

(ETA, 11/30/20: Slightly edited for purposes of clarification.)

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