Scandal Redeemed?

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Over at DotCommonweal, the estimable Grant Gallicho takes up a cudgel on behalf of the doctrine of scandal. Yes it’s true, he allows, that the doctrine has been abused by bishops to protect their own.

But it is within the teaching itself that Catholics might find a way
through this slough. Because scandalizers are required to make
reparations for their offenses. That’s something the archbishop of
Dublin understood when he prostrated himself in front of a bare altar
before washing the feet of abuse victims.

Fair enough: If you cause scandal you are obliged to make amends. But here’s the problem. In the course of day-to-day ecclesiastical business the issue arises when there’s a choice between revealing some bad thing (and causing scandal) or not (and avoiding it). Now it could be judged that worse scandal would result if the shielding itself became public, as has happened (and continues to happen, viz. Philadelphia) in the Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

But such future scandal is hypothetical, as compared to the certainty of scandal if the revelation takes place now. The temptation to take one’s chances with the former is all too great. Worse, the whole calculus is faulty. It makes the minimizing of scandal the key consideration. In protecting their own, the bishops were guilty first and foremost of failing to punish abuse and thereby enabling more abuse, not causing a greater scandal.

Judaism–and I know some of Bill Donohue’s followers will appreciate this–itself has a doctrine similar to scandal. It’s called lashon hara (evil tongue), and treats as a serious sin the publicizing of true information that reflects badly on someone. Like scandal, it has given religious leaders a reason to engage in ugly cover-ups of bad behavior by clergy.

But unlilke scandal, it comes with a critical exception. It does not apply if the information is needed to protect a third party or the community at large. If the doctrine of scandal were amended to include such an exception, I’d be down with it.

Update: Here’s what a bishop (unnamed, to be sure) appointed by Pope Benedict told Rocco in re: Philadelphia.

Instead of being overly cautious to protect children from any possible
further harm and the church from further scandal, they let these guys
back into ministry. Now the scandal is amplified ten-fold because it
looks like it is the same old church and the same old leadership doing
what it has always done in the past.

Not to put too fine a point on it.

  • Thanks for the gracious reply, Mark.
    Rocco’s source is echoing mine. Cardinals Law and Rigali are on the Congregation for Bishops. These men are helping to decide episcopal assignments. This is going to get uglier.

  • Carolyn Disco

    And let’s not forget Raymond Burke on the Congregation for Bishops, who right now may be offering his views on the replacement for John McCormack, late of Boston, in my NH diocese.
    Ugly, is right.
    This is an interesting back and forth on the intricacies of scandal. Still, I am unpersuaded that Dolan or Rigali or any confrere took other than the plain modern meaning of scandal as their true guide: protecting first their reputations and the assets of the church.
    In the numerous legal depositions of bishops I’ve read, none has claimed scandal in the sense of concern for spiritual ruin as the operative meaning of the term. Bishops responded as witnesses discussing scandal in precisely the way it is popularly understood. Jeff Anderson is right, IMHO.
    Theological and canonical terms offer countless ways to parse evidence, as John Allen often reminds us. But at some point, the smell test pertains.