Friday, May 29, 2009

St Thomas on scandal

Recent events like the sad and strange case of Fr Albert Cutie in Miami have gotten me thinking about how to handle scandals in the Church. As Jesus said, it's inevitable that they will occur. But they needn't disturb our faith.

I looked up what St Thomas had to say about it. He treats the topic of scandal as a vice opposed to the virtue of charity. Scandal means to put a stumbling block in the way of another person (understood as a spiritual block). The word comes from the Greek word "skandalon" which literally means stumbling block. It's opposed to charity because the virtue of charity enables us to help our neighbors, not trip them up.

In question 43 of the part of the Summa on the virtues, St Thomas asks the question if holy persons are scandalized -- that is, if a holy person sees or knows about the sins of others, does that trip them up? Thomas says no, because a person who is firmly anchored in virtue looks to God alone. He emphasizes that besides active scandal (that is, actually giving scandal), there can be a passive scandal. That means to "take" the scandal, so to speak, to actually be scandalized in the sense of letting it upset us or disturb our faith. If we look to God alone, the sins of others won't shake our faith because our trust is in God, not fallible human beings. All of us can sin. Just as I know my own weaknesses, it shouldn't disturb me that others have weaknesses too. Here are Thomas' own words (from the public domain version of the Summa):

"Passive scandal implies that the mind of the person who takes scandal is unsettled in its adherence to good. Now no man can be unsettled, who adheres firmly to something immovable. The elders, i.e. the perfect, adhere to God alone, Whose goodness is unchangeable, for though they adhere to their superiors, they do so only in so far as these adhere to Christ, according to 1 Corinthians 4:16: 'Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ.' Wherefore, however much others may appear to them to conduct themselves ill in word or deed, they themselves do not stray from their righteousness, according to Psalm 124:1: 'They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Sion: he shall not be moved for ever that dwelleth in Jerusalem.' Therefore scandal is not found in those who adhere to God perfectly by love, according to Psalm 118:165: 'Much peace have they that love Thy law, and to them there is no stumbling-block [scandalum].' "


Anonymous said...

Thanks. I needed to read this today.

Jay said...

Very thoughtful, however, it does not mean we may not feel 'just anger', as Scripture says, this kind of anger is well justified when we face scandalous behaviour etc - we should let go off this feeling of anger as quickly as possible and we should not in any way encourage it to stay with us longer than necessary by pondering on the causes. God bless