I used to have a pair of pious friends. These friends were very preoccupied with “avoiding scandal.” Their quest to avoid scandal took up most of their time and energy; it made them look exceedingly strange. And, as is usually the case when people dedicate their lives to avoiding a certain sin instead of the pursuit of virtue, they missed the point entirely.
These two friends were engaged to one another. They kissed and snuggled in public; she used to rest with her feet up in his lap. But they were very against certain other, more esoteric, displays of affection or closeness that might “create scandal.”
“I just don’t want to create scandal,” the young woman said.
“I don’t want anyone to think she’s a slut,” the young man said.
The first step they took toward avoiding scandal, was to stop going to early morning Mass together on Saturdays.
“Someone might see us together,” the young man explained, “And wonder if we’d been together the night before. That would be so scandalous.”
I wondered how many people saw an engaged couple together at 8 AM daily Mass and surmised that the couple had been committing fornication the night before and woken up in time to catch daily Mass.
Then, one day, they were visiting me, and the young woman kept nearly dozing off on my sofa. I said I wouldn’t be offended if she took a nap, but she shook her head.
“We’ve decided to never both be in the same room when one of us is sleeping,” said the young man, “To avoid creating scandal.”
Apparently, someone might think they were fornicating if one of them was asleep, fully clothed, in a roomful of witnesses, while the other was awake.
I used to keep the doors in my very small apartment open at all times, since the only heat vent was in the living room– closing off my bedroom turned it into a walk-in freezer. But every time these friends would visit, the young woman would solemnly walk to the bedroom and close the door. Every time they left, I’d open it and try to get the temperature back up to normal before I had to sleep in there, and every time they visited they closed it again. Eventually, I realized that this, too, was “Avoiding creating scandal.” Their minds might be drawn to the bedroom; someone else might think that the two of them fantasized about bedrooms and sex in bed, if a bed was visible. And it just went on from there.
It was sometime later that I realized that they hadn’t been avoiding scandal at all. They had been avoiding gossip– imagining the absolute worst, most prudish and eccentric gossip, and acting to preempt it. And I think a lot of people believe that this is what the sin of scandal is– doing something, for whatever reason, that might be looked upon and spoken of as a sin by a judgmental third party. And they try to avoid being gossiped about, and call it avoiding scandal. Which is odd, because Jesus himself was notorious for never avoiding this particular imagining of “scandal.” Jesus touched and spoke with women, even Samaritan women, in a culture that thought of that as immodest. Not only did He not insist on the bedroom door being closed, on multiple occasions He walked into the bedroom to help a sick person. He voluntarily permitted Himself to be crucified for blasphemy, for that matter, even though He never blasphemed. He was remarkably unconcerned with what judgmental people might think.
So, what is the sin of scandal?
The sin of scandal, according to the catechism, is “an attitude or behavior that leads people to do evil.” It means acting in such a way as to encourage others to do evil. It doesn’t mean happening to act in such a way that you look as though you might have done something wrong; it means committing a deliberate act that leads others to sin or that makes sin look okay. A boss who encourages his employees to lie to customers is committing scandal. A teacher who teaches students to cheat, or who bullies students until they sin out of anger, is committing scandal. And yes, the sin of fornication can occasion the sin of scandal as well, if you actually draw attention to your fornication and try to make it look like a positive thing. Scandal isn’t about whether you look like you might have sinned; it’s about whether you’ve encouraged others to sin.
And just as Jesus Christ is on the record for being unconcerned with how judgmental gossips viewed Him, He is on the record for being deeply concerned about real scandal. “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Scandal is serious business.
Which brings me back to the horrible topic of Father Frank Pavone and his alleged thirty-year-old baby corpse. I want to draw your attention to a comment that a reader made on that column.