By Angela Senander (Liturgical Press, 2012)
If asked to reflect on the word scandal, most Catholics would immediately think of the clerical sexual abuse scandal that continues to reverberate in both the church and the broader culture. This event corresponds well with a sociological understanding of scandal as an act or statement that leads to public shame and humiliation.
In her new book Scandal: The Catholic Church and Public Life, Angela Senander reminds us that scandal is also a theological concept. Its root is the Greek word skandalon, meaning stumbling block. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Scandalous acts are those that make it harder for others to believe in God or to act rightly.
Senander observes that avoidance of scandal has become a major motivation for many recent actions by church leaders. The disciplining of theologians who dissent from church teaching and the denial of communion to pro-choice politicians are said to be justified by the fear that the broader community will embrace erroneous views of the faith.
The question is whether this understanding of scandal is too narrow. Senander notes that there are many potential “stumbling blocks” to faith. Even the language we use for God is ultimately inadequate, but that does not prevent us from trying to speak of God. She also argues that efforts to use ecclesiastical discipline to prevent scandal may create its own kind of scandal. “Efforts to avoid scandal have resulted in failures of love,” writes Senander.
Senander concludes with a call for the church to move beyond scandal. Jesus did not let fear of scandal limit him in his proclamation of the kingdom of God or his willingness to break bread with well-known sinners. Senander argues that the church should learn from Jesus’ example.
This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 1, pages 51).