Forty-Second in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
On only rare occasions do people who follow the bent of their unbridled passions bethink themselves of the double guilt that frequently attaches to their sins. Seemingly satisfied with the evil they have wrought unto their own souls, they choose to ignore the wrong they may have done unto others as a consequence of their sinful doings. They believe in the principle that every soul is personally responsible for its own damnation - which is true, but they forget that many elements may enter as causes into such a calamity. We are in nowise isolated beings in this world; our lives may, and do, affect the lives of others, and influence them sometimes to an extraordinary extent. We shall have, each of us, to answer one day for results of such influence; there is no man but is, in this sense, his brother's guardian.
There who deny this are like Cain. Yet we know that Jesus Christ spoke clearly His mind in regard to scandal, and the emphasis He lays on His anathemas leaves no room to doubt of His judgment on the subject. Scandal, in fact, is murder; not corporal murder, which is a vengeance-crying abomination, but spiritual murder, heinous over the other in the same measure as the soul's value transcends that of the body. Kill the body, and the soul may live and be saved; kill the soul and it is lost eternally.
Properly speaking, scandal is any word or deed, evil or even with an appearance of evil, of a nature to furnish an occasion of spiritual downfall, to lead another into sin. It does not even matter whether the results be intended or merely suffered to occur; it does not even matter if no results follow at all. It is sufficient that the stumbling-block of scandal be placed in the way of another to his spiritual peril, and designed by nature to make him fall; on him who placed it is the guilt of scandal.
The act of scandal consists in making sin easier to commit - as though it were not already easy enough to sin - for another. Natural grace, of which we are not totally bereft, raises certain barriers to protect and defend the weak and feeble. Conspicuous among these are ignorance and shame; evil sometimes offers difficulties, the ones physical, the others spiritual, such as innate delicacy, sense of dignity, timidity, instinctive repugnance for filth, human respect, dread of consequences, etc. These stand on guard before the soul to repel the first advances of the tempter which are the most dangerous; the Devil seldom unmasks his heavy batteries until the advance-posts of the soul are taken. It is the business of scandal to break down these barriers, and for scandal this work is as easy as it is nefarious. For curiosity is a hungering appetite, virtue is often protected with a very thin veil, and vice can be made to lose its hideousness and assume charms, to untried virtue, irresistible.
Scandal supposes an inducement to commit sin, which is not the case when the receiver is already all disposed to sin and is as bad as the giver. Nor can scandal be said properly to be given when those who receive it are in all probability immune against the evil. Some people say they are scandalized when they are only shocked; if what shocked them has nothing in it to induce them into sinning, then their received scandal is only imaginative, nor has any been given. Then, the number of persons scandalized must be considered as an aggravating circumstance. Finally, the guilt of scandal is greater or less according to the helplessness of the victim or intended victim, and to the sacredness of his or her right to immunity from temptation, children being most sacred in this respect.
Of course, God is merciful and forgives us our offenses however great they may be. We may undo a deal of wrong committed by us in this life, and die in the state of grace, even after the most abominable crimes. Theologically, therefore, the idea has little to commend itself, but it must have occurred to more than one: how does one feel in heaven, knowing that there is in hell, at that moment, one or many through his or her agency! How mysterious is the justice of God to suffer such a state of affairs! And although theoretically possible, how can anyone count on such a contingency in his or her particular case! If the scandalous would reflect seriously on this, they would be less willing to take the chances offered by a possibility of this nature.