Scandal Versus Embarrassment

When bishops urge dis-invitation or refuse Communion to pro-choice figures, they often use the word “scandal” if they make any public announcement.

In speaking of the Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius, Archbishop Naumann recently referred to “the public scandal of her long-standing support for legalized abortion.”

When Archbishop Raymond Burke pulled himself off a hospital board last year over a Sheryl Crow benefit concert, he said, “As archbishop of St. Louis, I have a very serious responsibility to avoid giving scandal.”

Consider a definition from the Online dictionary:

scan·dal (skndl)

1. A publicized incident that brings about disgrace or offends the moral sensibilities of society: a drug scandal that forced the mayor’s resignation.
2. A person, thing, or circumstance that causes or ought to cause disgrace or outrage: a politician whose dishonesty is a scandal; considered the housing shortage a scandal.
3. Damage to reputation or character caused by public disclosure of immoral or grossly improper behavior; disgrace.
4. Talk that is damaging to one’s character; malicious gossip.
And, for the sake of comparison, another:
em·bar·rass (m-brs)
tr.v. em·bar·rassed, em·bar·rass·ing, em·bar·rass·es
1. To cause to feel self-conscious or ill at ease; disconcert: Meeting adults embarrassed the shy child.
2. To involve in or hamper with financial difficulties.
3. To hinder with obstacles or difficulties; impede.
4. To complicate.
5. To interfere with (a bodily function) or impede the function of (a body part).
I’d like to propose that these well-meaning bishops have mixed up the terms “scandal” and “embarrassment” in their public statements.I’ll state upfront that I think bishops stepping back from public frays and choosing to contest them in the media with a long-distance dis-invite is not the best way to go. I think it would be worth a bishop’s time to attend invitiation events, request a minute or so of mic time when a pro-choice public figure is honored and say something like:
We all acknowledge N’s accomplishments that have led to the bestowal of this honor. But many Catholics are troubled by N’s ambiguous support for human life before conception. What would make this recognition a cause for true celebration would be progress on the social justice front for the basic right to life.

Or something along those lines.

Getting back to vocabulary confusion, we see the phenomenon lots of places these days. Some Catholics say “heretic” when they mean “believer with whom we disagree.” Or they say “clericalist” when they really mean “priest who is a jerk.” Or “lay clericalism” when they mean “lay people who are jerks.”

I think the time is past when Catholic politicians supporting choice on abortion are a scandal. What they really are is an embarrassment and sign of impotence in the hierarchy. That may be nearly as serious a problem as a scandal, but I think we should strive for accuracy in language and meaning.

We should dispense with the notion that laity are poor dumb sheep. I see this theme extolled by many bloggers. My sense is that they are quite correct on their point. Legalized abortion is so much a part of the cultural landscape that a Catholic supporting the right to choose is no longer a scandal, a rarity, or a curiosity. When fence-sitting Catholics see Catholic politicians and celebrities advocating legal abortion, it is no longer morally offensive, outrageous, or damaging to reputation or character.

A prominent pro-lifer advocating for choice? That would be a scandal. A bishop? Ditto. Politicians? It might be sad, unfortunate, and frustrating as spit to some, but it’s not a scandal. Not anymore.

That’s why I think the definition for embarrassment fits the bill. Pro-choice Catholics disconcert pro-life Catholics. They hinder, impede, interfere with and complicate the pro-life effort. No doubt the Catholic voice would be stronger if we could stand together. But … we can’t.

What we can do is be clearer about our language and expectations. As long as bishops continue to oppose Catholic public figures with outdated, outmoded, and at times, methods that are frankly lazy, they will continue to be embarrassed (not scandalized) by a lack of progress. Avid pro-lifers in the laity will continue to get more frustrated.

Once we get straight on the language, I think we can better see a way to be more effective in the public sphere. Just saying.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Scandal Versus Embarrassment

  1. Gavin says:

    Sad but true. Church history is filled with great saints, particularly bishops, who spoke up against injustice. Instead we have bishops whose response to public sin is at worst leeching off the publicity or at best treating the public sinners like lepers. For once I would like to see a bishop actually effect a CHANGE in someone rather than just boost his own rating among conservatives.

  2. Sean says:

    I think scandal in this sense has a different meaning.My understanding has been that scandal is something that endangers the faith of others or causes others to sin.

    From the catechism:

    “2284: Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. the person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter.

    2286: Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.”

    I know several people who refused to set foot in church after about 2002 when the abuse scandal exploded, many more stopped giving money. Several friends who hung on where then sad to see how the bishops handled themselves, and some drifted away from church.

    Looking at the catechism definition of scandal, I would say behavior on the part of any of us that damages the faith, even if we are ordained, even if we are a bishop, is a scandal in the more traditional sense.

    At any rate, that is my understanding of the term scandal.

  3. Pingback: celebration hospital

  4. Todd says:

    “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. the person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter.”

    It’s a good quote from the CCC. More danger from some of the more vehement blogs or from the bitter commentariats than from what we might consider disgraced public officials.

  5. Deacon Eric says:

    Bravo, Sean. I was ready to paste that same definition from the Catechism! Scandal is when someone causes another to sin; it is not when someone causes another to tsk-tsk. If someone is shocked by another’s behavior, it hardly makes the observer likely to imitate the offender. Ergo, not scandal.

    There is a significant difference between the secular and Church meanings of this term, and it annoys me to no end when bishops display their ignorance of this fact. Or else they know the difference and choose to embrace the secular meaning, which is perhaps even more troubling…

  6. FrMichael says:

    You would do well to read the entire section on scandal, CCC n. 2284-87. It is completely vindicates the bishop. For example, from n. 2286:

    Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice…

    And this from n. 2287:

    Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal…

  7. Deacon Eric says:

    Father, true enough in the case of Bishop Naumann. However, in the case of Archbishop Burke, I don’t see how he personally was in danger of the sin of scandal, as he states. It would have been better had he said something about his responsibility to safeguard Church teaching rather than use a secular rationale.

  8. crystal says:

    I think the word scandal comes from the Greek word scandalon and meant a stumbling block or the thing people trip over to fall into a trap. If you “give scandal to the little ones” then you supoosedly make it harder for them to believe in a good God who loves them.

    Having said that, I don’t think following your conscience is a scandal, and Jesus was said to have scandalized the religous leaders of his time :)

  9. Jimmy Mac says:

    “They who are conscious of their own sins have no eyes for the sins of their neighbors.”

    Abbot Moses in “The Wisdom of the Desert”

  10. FrMichael says:

    When in doubt, read the original post.

    I see your point about Archbishop Burke… and agree completely, Deacon Eric. Thanks for the gentle correction.

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