On Giving Scandal

A reader writes:

I was recently thinking about the prayers for Bin Laden — and felt I had butted up against the scandal of the Gospel. Specifically, I found it difficult to pray for Osama Bin Laden after his death, because I felt that lots of people would, and why should this mass murderer who did evil get all these worldwide prayers when others lived decent lives and didn’t get them because we don’t know about them. You know, because they didn’t commit mass terrorism. The best I could do is pray for everyone who died that week.

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I think I understand the general concept — that what Christ really asks from us as far as mercy that it seems scandalous. But I’m confused by how that fits in with the catechism’s definition of the sin of scandal, too. Is it safe to say we’re talking about two different definitions of the same word? Can you please clarify what these definitions are?

“Scandal” comes from the word skandalon in Greek and does not mean “something that hurts your feelings or makes you blush,” but encompasses such things as “a trap, a snare, or a stone that causes you to stumble.” It’s an image that refers to something that makes you fall down as you are walking. In other words, it’s about something that makes you “stumble” as you are trying to “walk with Jesus.” That’s significant because most people today mean “something titillating” when they refer to “scandal.” So when Brad leaves Jen for Angelina, the headlines call that a scandal. But that’s not a scandal in the Christian sense, because nobody is tempted abandon their walk of discipleship to Jesus Christ by what Brangelina are doing.

The gospel is spoken of as a scandal sometimes because it makes outrageous claims — “This man is God,” “This bread is my flesh,” “Unless you hate father and mother and your very life you cannot be my disciple” — that are hard to believe and/or obey. You can see the “scandal” of the gospel at work many times in the New Testament — as, for instance, when the Rich Young Man stumbled at the thought of going and selling all he had, giving it to the poor, and following Christ (Lk 18:18-27). You can see John the Baptist stumbling (temporarily) when his prophetic ministry results not in the dawn of an Old Testament Davidic kingdom, but in his own imprisonment. That’s why he sends messengers to find out if he’d goofed in declaring Jesus the Messiah (Lk 7:20).

You can see the crowd at Capernaum stumble over the shocking words, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Their reaction: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” They were “scandalized” not by sin but by the proclamation of the gospel. And so, “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66). This was not because Jesus did something “scandalous” in the modern sense, but simply because these disciples “stumbled” in following Jesus because they refused to believe something He said. Since Jesus speaks the truth, that means, in this case, the skandalon existed not in Jesus teaching, but in the heart of the unbeliever. Such “scandals” can be overcome by faith, because they are hard truth we need to face and conform our lives to.

At the opposite pole are scandals due not to hard truths, but to clear and obvious sins by Christians. So when priests abuse kids and bishops cover it up, that’s an obvious scandal: It’s a sin by people who represent the gospel that makes it difficult for others to believe the gospel they represent is true.


That said, however, there are scandals that occupy a curious middle ground, too. They are due to the complex interplay of Christian liberty and tender conscience. Classic example: eating meat in the New Testament.

During the New Testament period, some Jewish Christians of tender conscience were concerned about eating meat because, in urban areas, the meat you bought at market was typically sent there from local pagan cults who had offered it in sacrifice. Some Jewish Christians feared that, by eating the meat, you were participating in the sacrifice to demons.

Paul’s response was twofold: First, he insisted that food was just food. There was no problem eating meat, because “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” However, he also insisted that the stronger brother (who knew that eating meat was not a sin) must still consider the weaker brother (who was troubled in conscience), lest by eating meat the stronger created a skandalon for the weaker.

It is important we clearly understand, in our culture of victimism, what is and is not meant by this. Many today think that it is “scandalous” when the stronger brother’s use of his liberty in Christ causes the weaker brother to don the mantle of the Professionally Aggrieved Grievance Professional and scowl in Pharisaic disapproval of the stronger brother while complaining that he is “offended.” And so, “giving offense to prickly, judgmental twerps who appoint themselves the Spiritual Police of others” is also often what we tend to mean by “scandal” today. Many of us feel intimidated by people who run about feeling “outraged” and “scandalized” because of some little shibboleth they’ve decided to impose on the world, whether it’s the use of the “Pronoun Formerly Known as He” angering little Inclusive Language Liturgy Cops, or communion in the hand angering Reactionary Liturgy Cops.

Paul’s advice to that sort of weaker brother is, “Mind your own business and stop judging other people” (cf. Rom 14:4). Ticking off self-appointed bishops who want to dominate others is not, in fact, what Paul means by “scandal.” Indeed, Paul has harsh words — extremely harsh words — for people who lay down laws where the Church permits freedom (as, for instance, he had for the Spiritual Cops in Galatia who insisted that Gentiles could not be Truly True Christians™ unless they observed the law of Moses and were circumcised). To them, Paul writes:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves! (Gal 5:1-12)

It’s been a while since a bishop has suggested that self-appointed lay orthodoxy cops should castrate themselves. But that’s what Paul has to say to narrow Pharisaic Christians and their perpetual threats of “outrage” against people using their Christian liberty in ways that don’t suit the Pharisee. Remember that the next time somebody tries to intimidate you over a legitimate point of liberty. Ideological narrowness on a brother Catholic’s part does not constitute a crisis of faith on your part.

That said, however, there remains the truth that Paul is concerned with the real danger of scandal. But what concerns Paul is a different kind of skandalon: where the weaker brother is tempted not to judge others, but to violate his own conscience. That’s why Paul writes the Galatians in the very next breath, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Gal 5:13).

So (returning to the problem of eating meat sacrificed to idols) Paul tells the Corinthians:

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. (1 Cor 8:4-13)

What concerns Paul is not that some narrow, self-appointed bishop will judge his liberty, but that Paul’s own use of his liberty will lead somebody else to violate their conscience. For the sake of such a one, Paul voluntarily refuses to eat meat, lest his use of his liberty tempt a brother with a tender conscience to violate his own conscience by doing something he thinks is wrong. The weaker brother is, in such a case, objectively mistaken about the morality of eating meat (“We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do”). But, believing it to be wrong, he would be wrong to do it till he is settled in his own mind. So Paul foregoes his rights in Christ for the sake of his brother’s conscience.


Similar situations abound throughout Christian history, down to our own day. So, for instance, among some Catholics there is a real question of conscience about reading Harry Potter books. For myself, I am completely persuaded in my conscience that Harry Potter books are harmless and fun reads. But I frequently get email from people who are angry at me for thinking this, who warn me I am on a straight road to Hell for doing so, and who demand that I stop. A modern speaker of English would say that my enjoyment of Harry Potter books is “scandalous” to these people (meaning “I offend them because I enjoy Harry Potter books and they think such books are wicked”).

But that’s not “giving scandal” in the biblical sense, because my outraged correspondents are not tempted to violate their consciences by my Harry Potter enjoyment. They aren’t contemplating forbidden fruit and thinking, “Maybe I will sin and read a Harry Potter book after all.” They are merely eager to try to control and dominate my life and conform it to their own opinions, just as Judaizers were eager to control and dominate Gentile converts and force them to observe the law of Moses.

Now the fact is, the Church has no doctrine concerning what one must think or do about Harry Potter books. Harry Haters are not the boss of me, and I have perfect liberty, as a Christian, to read the books and form my own judgments about them in light of the gospel. If Catholics with control issues don’t like that, tough. And, of course, in the same way, I have no right to tell people they must share my taste for Harry Potter stories. If one enjoys them or not, de gustibus. To paraphrase Paul, he also who reads Harry Potter reads in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God (Rom 14:6).

However, if I am, for instance, visiting a home with children whose parents have told them that Harry Potter novels are evil, I am obliged, for the sake of the children’s consciences, not to read or discuss a Harry Potter novel in their presence lest I throw them into a crisis of conscience about whether to respect their parents. For me to do that would be, in the biblical sense, a skandalon, because my use of my liberty would be tempting a child to violate his conscience. The greater law of love supercedes and overrides the exercise of my Christian liberty, for the sake of that child’s conscience.

This is but one sample of the complicated ways in which our gospel liberty is to be used or foregone depending on the higher question of the law of love. My recommended reading is Romans 14, in which Paul again deals with the matter of how to deal with the brother with a tender conscience (and, just as importantly, how the brother with the tender conscience must avoid becoming a judgmental Pharisee).

As to the question of praying for bin Laden, I suppose the thing to ask is, “Is this a scandal and, if so, what sort of scandal is it?” I can see, for example, where one might object to the idea of praying publicly for bin Laden, not so much because one objects to praying for bin Laden (we are, after all, urged by Our Lady to pray for “those most in need of thy mercy,” and he would certainly qualify), but rather to a certain ostentation about prayer for bin Laden (“Look at me! Aren’t I merciful?”). If that’s the real objection, the stumbling stone is not prayer for bin Laden per se, but simply prayer offered so that the supplicant can be seen by men and have his reward in this life. That’s a very healthy thing to cavil at.

However, if the objection is to the very notion of forgiving bin Laden, then I think the scandal is not felt toward sin, but toward the gospel counsels of mercy, which is perhaps the most difficult part of the Church’s moral teaching.

For Jesus is quite plain: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk 11:25). One way to do that is, as my reader did, to fold prayers for bin Laden into more general prayer for the dead. But since it is, in fact, the case that prayers for mercy are not a zero sum game, my reader’s difficulty with praying for bin Laden specifically suggests that the problem is, in fact, with forgiving this particular man — which in turn suggests that a specific prayer of forgiveness for this particular man is also in order. If that is too hard, then perhaps the best place to start is to ask Jesus for the grace to “be made willing to be made willing.” Forgiveness, particularly of people who are dead, is as much about our freedom as it is about their salvation. Hand them over to God, relinquish your anger, disgust, and contempt for them, and their cold, dead hand no longer holds your ankle in its grip — and they can no longer cause you to stumble.

Bottom line: Anything that trips us up in our complete faith in and obedience to Jesus is a scandal. When the scandal is about a sin, the trick is to distinguish between Jesus and the sinner who represents Him. A priestly pervert or bishop-enabler demonstrates not the falsity of the gospel, but the truth that we are sinners in need of Christ’s salvation. When the scandal is about something Jesus demands that is beyond us to deliver, our task is to ask the help of the Holy Spirit to obey. And when the scandal is about some matter of Christian liberty, our task is to discern whether the law of love demands we stand our ground against Pharisaism or surrender our rights for the sake of the law of love. The whole thing is summed up in the old saying: “In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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