All sins are not the same. Some are mortal, some are not. Some mortal sins are more grave than others. Sins of weakness are less grave than sins of spiritual pride, etc.
Now, the sin of deliberate scandal is worse than sins of weakness. It is this sin on which I wish to focus presently.
The sin of scandal is the sin of leading someone astray by one’s action or words or by the omission of what one ought to do or say. However, scandal can be deliberate or unintended. Now, sometimes our good actions lead another astray. For instance, Mother Teresa’s astounding charity was cause for Christopher Hitchens – may he rest in peace – to foment violently against God and Catholicism. However, in this Mother Teresa was not to blame. Rather, Hitchens, looking for an opportunity to deride the faith, took the good in her action as occasion for another act of rebellion against the Creator. Because those who seek a bad end will almost invariably read things, even good things, in a bad light, even good actions can cause someone to go astray. However, such actions are not properly speaking scandalous.
An action is scandalous if it is proximately disposed to cause others to go astray, even if this is not the intention. When an objectively good action is proximately disposed to causing moral confusion in another, it is a scandal. For instance, if there were a virulently pro-abort politician running for a national office, and a national religious figure were to greet him cordially, slap his back like a chum, laugh heartily and publicly joke with him like good old boys, entertain him and feed him, etc., all publicly, such actions would be proximately disposed to cause others to go astray. Why? Because they would cause moral confusion. They would so cloud over massively important issues – life and death – with the air of affection that they would lend the impression that such issues – life and death – are not really that significant after all. That we should all just “relax” a little and not get so hung up on 50 million innocent infants slaughtered in the womb of woman. They might even cause some to vote in favor of the politician. All this was against the intention of the religious figure. For he merely intended to show affection and present himself as a good sport. Prudent?
Scandal is worse if the objective action is itself not good. If a Bishop were to administer communion to a man publicly known to be living in sin, a man for instance who has divorced his wife and is living with another woman, that action is proximately disposed to lead others astray. Worse if that man is a radical pro-abort. Why scandal? Others might think, “Well, it is not so bad to commit adultery or fornication. One can also donate to the bishop or diocese and do these things. Therefore, it must not be so evil after all. Bad, yes, but not evil.” Or, “It is not so bad to be pro-choice. Let us move on with things.” Both actions cause moral confusion. These actions are twice bad, since the very person receiving communion is not disposed to receive the Eucharist. The judgment of the public forum must be held out in the situation: “You are living in sin; You are promoting access to murder.”
Now, to be clear, the aforesaid objectively scandalous actions – both the good show of affection and the evil sharing of communion with one known to be ill disposed – are well intentioned. Thus, the agent aims to accomplish some good – a show of affection to a wayward sinner, an offering of peace and grace to an adulterous fornicator, a chance for a murder’s aid to repent – but thereby causes others to be led astray. (Indeed, he causes even the very recipient of his human, all too human, affection to go astray. He sins not only against the flock, which he leads astray as sheep without a real shepherd, but against the very one whose hand he shakes. In the flames of hell or purgatory, the question asked may well be, “Why did you not correct me? Why did you let me go unwittingly to this end where I suffer in flames?” Addressed to one whose sin was perhaps worse and whose status also. For, to those to whom more is given….)
But worst of all, what of ill intentioned scandal? What of an action one commits so as to lead the flock astray? God forbid such should be committed. But the intention would be clear: To lead astray. And the one who wishes to lead astray par excellence is Satan. Thus, intended scandal is diabolical.
Now, those who commit sexual sins in weakness are to be treated with a pastor’s care. The Good Shepherd reaches out to them. They run the danger of hardening their hearts should they persist in such sins. Yet, we must also be aware of the great danger of every sin. Sins of weakness, being indulged, lead to acceptance of the sins. And acceptance of sins leads to hardness of heart. Hardness of heart leads to impenitence. And this leads to damnation. Thus, sins of weakness are no light matter. Their matter – we are speaking of sins of the flesh – is grave. However, they call for the gentle hand of the shepherd. Private counsel. Prayers.
But when a group, an agency, an institution, a city, a state, or a nation endorses sins of weakness as “natural and good,” it intends that people find such actions worthy of embrace. It intends that people not call such actions evil. This is a direct cause of scandal. It is a direct leading astray.
Let us consider how intimately this scandal works. For it works on the secret of man’s counsel – on the principle of his conscience. It aims at a reordering – a diabolical disorientation – of man’s grasp on the natural law.
In our moral decisions, we have as it were a “universal principle” about the law. This universal principle is a cause of the act of conscience, its root. For instance, “It is always wrong to cheat.” In the concrete, we encounter some opportunity to cheat (a great mathematics student is sitting in front of us in a tiered auditorium; the judge of the contest will never know). Our conscience for a moment condemns the action, for it violates the rule which is the principle of conscience. Yet, the attractive opportunity can dominate our attention, especially if we have assented to such attractions in the past. Now, when we decide to cheat, we do not thereby deny the universal rule. We may well still hold it. We may well reprove ourselves later, or certainly others if they copy our own intellectual labor. However, in the moment, we allowed the attraction to pull our minds away from the universal rule to which we ought to have attended. Therefore, we sinned.
Note how helpful is that universal rule. It is the immediate source for us to rebuke ourselves after sinning. It is the principle of the act of conscience. It reminds us that the way we have chosen is not the way that leads to the good to which the Author of Nature conducts us. Thus, we cannot be happy choosing this sin and clinging to the rule. We are divided! We are in battle. Who will take the upper hand? Will sin, which crouches? Will the law of God, which beckons and reproves? Peace of mind will not tolerate long this waffling. It is a dangerous state to be a repetitive sinner.
Recall the divisions of sins I noted at the beginning. Some sin in weakness, others are hardening their hearts, others have hardened their hearts in impenitence. Now, intended scandal is aimed at producing sinners of the worst kind, impenitent sinners. Intended scandal aims at getting sinners to embrace their sin. Joyce’s Dedalus loved his secret sin, as he continued to pray the Rosary. He was already in the arms of Satan. He had embraced the sin. Only the outward trappings remained for a time.
When a person or people approves unnatural sex as good or natural, it becomes qua such impenitent in this vice. The people or persons voice their heart’s approval of unnatural sex which, as the Catholic Catechism notes, cries to heaven for vengeance (CCC 1867). They thus formally cooperate in the actions of which they approve. Further, they aid and abet those who commit them. For instance, they wage war on the universal principle that forbids unnatural sex, etc. Psychologists who define masturbation as “normal” and not pathological wage war on the universal principle that all sexual action must be personal (i.e., open to the other of the opposite sex) and open to fecundity. Formerly, with no fault divorce, the state waged war against the universal law against adultery. All these movements oppose themselves to God directly. For they maintain that his law is wicked.
To do this is not kindness to weak sinners. It is, objectively, most harmful for the sinner. For it produces the City of Man Unto the Contempt of God. And when sinners are impenitent, it becomes less and less possible for them to repent.
Thus, predators who seek out confused young men to induce them into the way of death are no less than agents of Satan. All the worse, then, if, unlike Dedalus, they forever remain in the sheep’s clothing, so as to produce the City of Satan in the midst of the City of God.