May 2019 Print

A Moral Primer on Scandals

A Moral Primer on Scandal

By Fr. Juan-Carlos Iscara

Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh (Mt. 18:7).

Throughout history, many men and women have committed unspeakable crimes, unspeakable sins, and—out of malice or ignorance, imprudence or carelessness—have led others into sin. The present-day occurrences of those sins are most likely to have an even greater effect, as their publicity is immeasurably amplified by our modern technologies. Indeed, they now cry out to us from the news headlines. Ubiquitous screens parade them before our eyes, and, if we are curious for a better look, a few keystrokes easily bring them back to us. The media dwells on them in almost exquisite detail, and, more often than not, makes a spirited defense of every immorality and perversion under the sun—except, of course, a carefully selected few that, at least for the time being, are still considered to be beyond the pale. Even worse, yielding to the “spirit of the times,” our civil laws condone, allow, and promote the violation of divine law [As Roberto de Mattei states:]. The world is full of scandals…

As much as those scandals shock our moral conscience, and as much as we would prefer not to see them or talk about them, we cannot ignore them. Edmund Burke defined a scandal as an event upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent. In spite of our moral outrage, spiritual self-preservation and fraternal charity oblige us to speak up.

But before jumping into the fray and adding our voice to the denunciation of the myriad of crimes that are coming to light today, we should clearly grasp the moral principles that define and describe the sin of scandal, so as not to add our vague, imprecise notions to this ever-increasing moral confusion.

St. Thomas Aquinas, when considering the virtue of charity, [Cf. Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, q. 43.] lists its external acts: beneficence, almsgiving, and fraternal correction; and then, as is his wont, he explains which vices are opposed to those charitable acts. Among them, scandal is the sin directly opposed to fraternal correction—instead of leading our neighbor away from sin by our warnings and advice, our own sinful actions lead him into sin…

What is “Scandal?”

Etymologically, scandal (from the Greek σκάνδαλον, skándalon) is a trap, a stumbling block, any impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall.

In today’s language, a “scandal” is an event—either a crime or a transgression of accepted social norms—that provokes indignation or shock in the observers. Thus, it refers to our subjective reactions when witnessing that event.

But the precise theological language, building upon the etymological meaning, defines scandal as an external act which, posed without sufficient cause, gives our neighbor the occasion of spiritual fall, of sin. Thus, it refers to the objective quality of the action, its capacity of inducing others to sin.


First of all, it must be an external acti.e. words, gestures, attitudes which are capable of leading another into sin. Even the voluntary omission of an act—one that should have been done to prevent a sin—may have the malice of scandal, in that it may induce others to abstain from doing what is necessary to avoid sin.

Obviously, to be “scandalous,” the act cannot be purely internal. If our thoughts or desires are not expressed by our words or gestures, they remain unknown to our neighbor and thus cannot have any influence on his conduct—they cannot cause scandal.

In principle, the act must be reprehensible, evil in itself. But sometimes, to induce another into sin it might be sufficient that, due to circumstances of place, time or person, the act appears to be sinful to the observer, although it is not such. For example, someone may be scandalized at seeing a priest not fasting on Ash Wednesday, when in fact that priest has been dispensed from that obligation due to age or illness—the action appears to be sinful, but it is not.

Indeed, even a good action could be cause of scandal for someone, on account of the circumstances in which it is accomplished.

Finally, it must give occasion of sin, or at least of spiritual damage. It does not exercise physical violence on another to force him to commit a sin. It is only a moral cause—it only prompts or encourages another to sin.

For scandal to exist it is sufficient that the act is by itself capable of inducing another to sin, even if the other does not fall into it. There is also scandal if the act is capable of inducing the neighbor to commit another sin, a sin that is different from the bad example received, but which he would not have otherwise committed without that example.

Different Kinds of Scandal?

Yes. If we consider how it is caused, the scandal may be active (also called “given”) or passive (also called “taken” or “accepted”). But if we consider the intention of he who gives the scandal, it may be direct or indirect.

Active and Passive Scandals?

As in every relationship, there are two sides of a scandal: that of he who scandalizes and that of he who is scandalized. Thus, active scandal is the action, either evil in itself or only apparently evil, which gives to another the occasion of spiritual ruin. Passive scandal, on the other hand, is the fall of someone caused by that action.

For example: an active scandal is committed by he who speaks badly about a person, but he who, listening to it, thinks badly of this person and nourishes feelings of hostility or contempt falls into passive scandal.

Active and passive scandals are usually associated, but they may also exist separately.

The active scandal may exist without the passive scandal, for example, if I commit a sin that is capable of inducing the observer into sin, but he resists the temptation and does not fall into it.

Conversely, the passive scandal may exist without the active scandal, for example if I perform an action that is itself either good or indifferent, but nonetheless, due to its appearances or to the mistaken judgment of the observer, it becomes an occasion of sin for him.

Direct and Indirect Scandals?

The scandal is direct if the agent has the explicit intention of inducing another into a similar sin.

But it is indirect if the agent, while not intending the fall of another, nonetheless foresees that his action may induce such a fall, even if the action in itself is not sinful or only apparently so.

What Kind of Sin is Scandal?

St. Alphonsus Liguori explains that direct scandal is a sin both against charity and against the virtue that is violated by the one who is scandalized [Theologia Moralis, lib. III, n. 45].

In confession, this particular must be clearly stated, that is, one is obliged to confess not only the fact of having caused scandal, but also the species of sin induced.

Are Some Scandals More Serious than Others?

The gravity of this sin is stressed by the harsh sentence that Our Lord passes on those who give scandal: He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea (Mt. 18:6).

In practice, the scandal is a mortal sin when it leads another to sin mortally, even if the original act was only venial.

But its gravity must be also measured by the real influence that some factors of the sinful act may have on the fall of another. For example, it must be taken into account who is the person who causes the scandal (parent, priest, teacher, friend, etc.), or who are the persons scandalized (the weak, children, those not well instructed to be able to resist, etc.), or the number of those who fall due to that bad example…

Thus, a public figure, one continuously exposed to the eyes of the world, or one constituted in dignity or entrusted with the guidance of others, sins more seriously than a simple individual by the scandal that he gives, because the impression left is stronger and its effects wider. For example, a father who, by his actions, inspires in his children the contempt for religion is guiltier than others who may give the same bad example, because he uses for the destruction of the souls entrusted to him a power that God has given only for their edification.

Indirect scandal is not a sin when the act is good or indifferent in itself, or when an honest end is intended, or when done with proportionate cause or motive. Nonetheless, if the scandal can be avoided by giving some explanation to the observer, it must be given. And if the action is not obligatory or strictly necessary, it is better to abstain from it, so as to avoid the risk of giving scandal.

“Necessary” Scandals?

No, of course not!

Those sins are not part of the divine plan for us. Holy Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God is intent on our salvation, not on our damnation: For God hath not appointed us unto wrath, but unto the purchasing of salvation by Our Lord Jesus Christ (I Thess. 5:9).

Consequently, He does not want the evils that men commit: Let no man, when he is tempted, say that he is tempted by God. For God is not a tempter of evils, and He tempteth no man. But every man is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured (Jas. 1:13-14).

What God does desire is our love. But for love to be true it requires having both the freedom to make choices and the opportunity to do so. Therefore, He has created us with a free will. He will not induce us into sin, but neither will He force us into virtuous acts. The choice remains ours.

What Does Our Lord Mean?

Thus, when Our Lord says that sins and scandals are “necessary,” He is simply describing the nature of things in this fallen world—because original sin has wounded us, we are capable of making the wrong choices and, unfortunately, we do make them...thus, scandals are not only likely to happen, but they will assuredly happen...

Crime, sin, and scandal are bound to exist, as St. John Chrysostom says, due to the implacable malice of Satan, the malignity of the men of the world, their aversion and enmity to Christ.

God accepts those things, for the trial of the just, for the discovery of hypocrites, and for the manifestation of His grace, power, and fidelity in the preservation of His children.

Reparation for Scandals

In charity, we have the obligation to make reparation to our neighbor for the bad example given. The obligation is under pain of mortal sin if the scandal was given in grave matter.

When the scandal has been given in private, reparation must be made to those who have been exposed to it. Most of the time, if they have not fallen into sin, it would be enough to give them now a good example that, contradicting our previous behavior, implies our repudiation of it.

However, the difficulty of making efficacious reparation increases when the scandal has been public. In those cases, reparation must be also publicly made to those who have been exposed to it. Sometimes it would be enough to give a good example, but in other cases, an explicit repudiation of our previous action would be required.

The attempts at repairing the damage caused would be unlikely—even at the best of times—to reach all the people who have been exposed to the scandal.

But our times are not “the best of times,” due to the global reach of the internet. Today, if someone in one small town does something—a crime, a sin—that captures the attention of the media, it will be instantly known by millions of people around the world, it will pop up in every outlet of the social media upon which we are so dependent. And, thanks to various internet search engines, we may be assured that the scandalous example will never fade away from people’s eyes or memories. The public scandal we have given will have acquired a kind of perpetuity and it will continue luring souls into sin well beyond our own lifetime.

In such conditions, any efficacious reparation becomes both physically and morally impossible.

A Final Word

Some of our laws and institutions are scandalous when they declare as good some actions which, in truth, are intrinsically evil, thus leading the citizens to commit evil acts. Popular culture is scandalous when it standardizes, even encourages, disordered behaviors that soon everybody will end up considering normal.

The warnings of Our Lord in the Gospel do not directly address those scandals that come from the world, but those that may arise in the community of His disciples—that is, they are addressed to us. Our Lord calls us to be exemplary, so as not to be one of those who scandalize the little ones and the weak. He calls us to the spiritual combat, to fight unceasingly against evil, to the acquisition and increase of virtue, to prayer and penance.

Those who have been perverted by our bad examples must learn from us to repent of their sins, as they learned from us how to commit them. Unfortunately, not all those who followed us in our deviations will imitate us in our penance—for it is much easier to find imitators of our defects than of our virtues, and we will have to cry bitterly over scandals that we will be never be able to repair entirely.