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Sean SalaiJune 11, 2021
President Joe Biden holds his first formal news conference at the White House in Washington March 25, 2021. (CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

“Scandal” is a word often heard used in recent months by U.S. bishops regarding the best ways to provide pastoral care and communicate authentic church teaching to pro-choice politicians who identify as Catholic. But the word does not necessarily always mean what it does in common parlance. What does the Catholic Church teach on this issue?

Recent statements from Catholic prelates, including Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Father Louis Cameli of Chicago (as well as many public comments by priests and Catholic theologians) have all mentioned scandal as an issue that touches upon any discussion of giving Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. The Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the church’s Code of Canon Law and recent letters from the Vatican also suggest the complexity of an issue that the hierarchy has yet to resolve publicly and may have no fruitful pastoral way of settling.

What does the Catechism say?

Under the heading of respect for the dignity of persons in the Fifth Commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses scandal in Nos. 2284-2287. Defining scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,” the Catechism says scandal acquires gravity “by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized.” In other words, the term has a nuance in church teaching that it lacks in our everyday use of the term as something shocking or disedifying: Another danger of scandal is that it can lead other people into sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.”

Speaking directly to political leaders, the Catechism adds that “they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice” or who establish “social conditions” that make following Christian morality and the commandments more difficult. Whoever uses his or her power to cause scandal “becomes guilty of the scandal and responsible for the evil” it encourages.

What does the Bible say?

The idea that a Christian’s public behavior might scandalize fellow believers in this way goes back to the Bible. The early Christian community Paul addressed in his letters to the Corinthians appears to have struggled with several instances of scandal, including a man committing incest with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1) and men frequenting prostitutes at the pagan temples of Aphrodite (1 Cor 6-7). But another case parallels the issue of scandal in the case of politicians even more closely.

The idea that a Christian’s public behavior might scandalize fellow believers goes back to the Bible.

In 1 Corinthians 8, St. Paul responds to the case of believers eating meat sacrificed to idols in a way that disturbed others who refused to do so. Establishing a nuanced but firm position, Paul writes to the Corinthians:

There are some who have been so used to idolatry up until now that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, their conscience, which is weak, is defiled. Now food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, nor are we better off if we do. But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. If someone sees you, with your knowledge, reclining at table in the temple of an idol, may not his conscience too, weak as it is, be “built up” to eat the meat sacrificed to idols? Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died. When you sin in this way against your brothers and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin. (1 Cor 8:7-13, NABRE translation)

Here Paul does two things. First, he notes that his new Christians have the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, as the food in itself won’t hurt them morally and they know it. But secondly, he notes the danger of doing it in front of fellow believers with weaker consciences, making them feel O.K. to participate in practices antithetical to their faith.

Adapting a communitarian view of scandal, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the values and needs of others within the Christian community, admonishing them to remember their mutual responsibility to safeguard ecclesial unity. Ultimately, Paul declares that Christians who publicly do something they know to be scandalous to other Christians act on a disordered freedom that elevates their opinions above the community’s good. Therefore, as the Catechism says, they commit a sin against Christ even if they did not do the action (e.g. sacrifice the meat) themselves.

Paul declares that Christians who publicly do something they know to be scandalous act on a disordered freedom that elevates their opinions above the community’s good.

While it was a grave sin for a Christian in Corinth to sacrifice meat to idols in the pagan temples, eating the meat was not necessarily a sin in itself for Paul. The sin arose from eating it in front of others, knowing it would cause them pain and confusion.

What does canon law say?

Like St. Paul in the above passage, the 1983 Code of Canon Law understands scandal as any action that prompts others toward wrongdoing. Regarding this cooperation, Canon 1329 talks about collaboration in a wrong action (or a “delict” in the code’s legal language) as meriting penalties for the principal perpetrator and those who conspire together to commit a sinful act. But Canon 1314 says that generally a penalty for such collaboration is ferendae sententiae, meaning it does not bind a guilty party until after it is imposed. That has traditionally been interpreted to mean that a bishop needs to talk with a Catholic accused of scandal and verify a few things before imposing a penalty of excommunication or restricting one’s right to the sacraments.

Pope Francis: “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium."

Recent developments

On May 7, the current prefect of the C.D.F., Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., sent a letter to Archbishop José H. Gomez, the president of the U.S.C.C.B., responding to a letter on March 30 from Archbishop Gomez. In that letter to the C.D.F., Archbishop Gomez had written that the U.S.C.C.B. was preparing to draft a document at its June meeting on “the worthiness to receive Communion” of Catholic politicians who support legislation permitting abortion, euthanasia or other moral evils.

Cardinal Ladaria asked that his response be shared with all U.S. bishops and warned that the proposed discussion at the bishops’ meeting over a national policy about pro-choice politicians receiving Communion could “become a source of discord rather than unity.” Only after an “extensive and serene” two-stage dialogue, first among the bishops themselves and then with pro-choice politicians, he said, should formal discussion of such a policy begin.

This intervention appears significant within the context of the current papacy. Pope Francis generally applies the principle of subsidiarity more radically to the Catholic hierarchy itself than did his predecessors, entrusting decisions of pastoral application of canon law to the most localized levels of church governance. When Catholics around the world press him with controversial questions of pastoral discipline, as distinct from questions of changing church teaching, he often encourages them to make their own decisions rather than await a C.D.F. instruction.

Following his 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis famously refused to impose a centralized interpretation of a footnote that appeared to create a loophole for civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. In paragraph three of that document, he wrote that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”

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