From the Greek σκάνδαλον, in the sense of "offense, downfall, or a stumbling against something"; in popular use scandal signifies an objective act, person, or thing that gives offense or shocks the moral feelings of people. Thus it might be said that the slum section of a large city is a "scandal." Often it is used in a subjective sense to signify the reaction in people to the knowledge or report of something shameful or discreditable. In this case the word is used to refer not so much to the person or act that causes the shame, but to the reaction itself. In this sense a decent citizen might be said to take "scandal" at the sight of notorious slums.
In moral theology, however, scandal signifies not so much something shameful and therefore likely to cause a reaction of indignation and outrage, but something that provides occasion and incitement to the sin of another. It is not necessary that sin be actually committed in consequence of it; it is enough that the evil act or word provides incitement to wrongdoing, and it is precisely in this that the sin of scandal consists. If charity obliges us to assist our neighbor in his spiritual and temporal necessities, it obliges us still more strongly not to cause him spiritual loss or ruin.
The word "scandal" occurs a number of times in Sacred Scripture and appears to be used in various senses. Christ says to the followers of St. John the Baptist: "Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me" (Mt 11.6). He told Peter, who had suggested that He evade the cross: "Get thee behind me, satan, thou art a scandal to me!" (Mt 16.23). After His promise of the Eucharist He said: "Does this scandalize you?" (Jn 6.62). In these instances He used the word in the sense of offense or shock to the recipient's moral feeling. In a well-known passage Christ used the word very clearly in the sense of leading someone into sin: "It is impossible that scandals should not come; but woe to him through whom they come! It were better for him if a millstone were hung about his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin" (Lk 17.1, 2).
Theologians make certain distinctions in treating of scandal. The incitement to the sin of another by word or deed may be indirect or direct. It is indirect if the sin is not intended, although it may be foreseen as inevitable or at least likely. The scandal is direct if the sin of another person is intended as a direct consequence of one's word or action. If the giver of scandal has the specific intention of expressing his own hatred of God by inciting another to sin, he is said to be guilty of diabolical scandal, because quite clearly he is doing the devil's work by his evil action.
Scandal may be understood either in an active or a passive sense: active scandal is that of a person who incites another to sin; passive scandal is found in the person who is the victim of the incitement. The immediate effect of scandal can be only the temptation to sin, not sin itself. No one sins except willingly.
Moral Evaluation. What is the malice of scandal giving? In the case in which the sin of another is directly willed, or, although not directly willed, is foreseen by the scandal giver as likely to follow upon his evil example, one must acknowledge that serious guilt can be involved. In both cases there is a sin against charity. Direct scandal (and, according to some, indirect scandal as well) involves also an offense against the virtue or commandment that the scandal giver incites his victim to violate. Thus, to persuade another person to commit an act of theft would be, for the scandal giver, a sin against both charity and justice.
Direct scandal is serious sin unless there is a lack of sufficient deliberation, or unless the sin to which occasion is given is of its nature venial, or unless circumstances make it clear that no one is likely to be much influenced by the scandal giver.
Pharisaical Scandal. Scandal is not infrequently taken unreasonably. Pharisaical scandal is the morose reaction of those who, like the Pharisees in the time of Christ, wrest the words and actions of a good man to their own hurt by a perverse misconstruction. Thus, when Christ healed the sick upon the Sabbath, they professed to be scandalized (Lk 13.14). It should be clear that no guilt devolves upon the one whose conduct is maliciously misconstrued in this way.
Scandal of the Weak. There is, however, some obligation incumbent upon all of taking reasonable steps to avoid scandal of the weak and the ignorant, even when the particular actions involved are in themselves good or at least indifferent. If we perceive that scandal is the likely result of a certain act, we should refrain from that act, if this can easily be done, while making it clear at the same time that we are not refraining from it because we regard it as wrong. St. Paul, after making it clear to the Corinthians that they were permitted to eat food even though it had been sacrificed to idols, nevertheless went on to advise them: "Still, take care lest perhaps this right of yours become a stumbling block to the weak … if food scandalizes my brother, I will eat flesh no more forever, lest I scandalize my brother" (1 Cor 8.9, 13).
It should be added that the fulfillment of positive precepts, whether divine or human, if necessary for salvation, may never be omitted in order to avoid scandal. Much less would it be permissible to do something essentially evil, such as lying, stealing, or blaspheming, for the purpose of preventing the sin of another. There may even be circumstances in which one is bound to continue on a good course of action even though, through ignorance, the weak are scandalized; for it would not be right, for the sake of avoiding scandal, to inflict serious harm or loss on oneself or the community.
Reparation for Scandal. As to the duty of making reparation for having given scandal, it would seem clear that if, by his words or actions, one has led others into serious temptation or sin, he should do what he can to undo the wrong. At the very least, he should offset the bad example previously given by the good example that he now strives to offer. Generally, indeed, the reparation that is demonstrated by a visible and outward change of life will be the best way to make reparation. It is fitting that one who has given public scandal, and especially one of some standing in the community, should in some way publicly acknowledge his wrongdoing and his sincere intention to better his life.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 43. h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, 4 v. (rev. ed. New York 1958) 1:333–340. a. vermeersch, Theologiae moralis: Principia, responsa, consilia, 4 v. (3d ed. Rome 1944–48) v. 2.
[l. g. miller]
576. Scandal (See also Controversy.)
- Abélard, Peter (1079–c. 1144) French theologian takes Héloïse, abbess, as lover; marries her in secret. [Fr. Hist.: EB, I: 18]
- Black Sox Scandal Chicago White Sox baseball players accused of taking bribes to lose the 1919 World Series. [Sports: EB, II: 66]
- Chappaquiddick car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy plunges off bridge; woman companion dies (1969). [Am. Hist.: Facts (1969), 452]
- Edward VIII (1894–1972) King of Britain whose decision to marry a divorcee forced him to abdicate throne (1936). [Br. Hist.: NCE, 835–836]
- $64,000 Question, The game show discovered to be fixed (1958). [TV : Terrace, II, 295–296]
- South Sea Bubble fraud is exposed in British South Sea Company (1720). [Br. Hist.: EB, IX: 383]
- Teapot Dome government oil reserves fraudulently leased to private concerns (1922). [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 353]
- Watergate scandals involving Nixon’s administration (1972). [Am. Hist.: Kane, 460–462]
Scapegoat (See DUPERY .)
scan·dal / ˈskandl/ • n. an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage: a bribery scandal involving one of his key supporters. ∎ the outrage or anger caused by such an action or event: divorce was cause for scandal on the island. ∎ rumor or malicious gossip about such events or actions: I know that you would want no scandal attached to her name. ∎ [in sing.] a state of affairs regarded as wrong or reprehensible and causing general public outrage or anger: it's a scandal that many older patients are dismissed as untreatable. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French scandale, from ecclesiastical Latin scandalum ‘cause of offense,’ from Greek skandalon ‘snare, stumbling block.’
So scandalize1 †make public scandal of XV; †be an occasion of stumbling to; slander; disgrace XVI; horrify by impropriety XVII. — (O)F. scandaliser or ChrL. scandalizāre — ecclGr. skandalizein. scandalous. XVI. — F. or medL.