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Scandal and the Catholic Publicist

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Nov 27, 2007

I had a very interesting and worthwhile exchange with a priest concerning my blog entry about questionable Eucharistic theology in Holland (to which, out of respect for my correspondent, I will not link again here). The problem he posed was essentially this: How do I square the public criticism of faults in the Church with the methodology described by Christ for fraternal correction?

Our Lord told us to take our brother aside privately to remonstrate over a fault and, if that does not work, to join with a few others in a second attempt at quiet persuasion. After this, we are to refer the sinner to the Church, and if he does not heed even the Church, we are to treat him as an outcast. Given these instructions, can I justify publishing criticisms of those within the Church who appear to be guilty of some fault? Does this not give scandal by washing the Church’s dirty linen in public?

Understanding the Question

We should begin with a proper understanding of Christ’s comments on fraternal correction. There is no surrounding context for this instruction (Mt 18:15-17). It occurs in the midst of a collection of sayings which reflect variously on scandal, the importance of avoiding temptation, the joy in heaven over a repentant sinner, the authority of the Church, the power of prayer, the necessity of forgiveness, and the mercy of God. In the absence of a wider setting for the remarks, we are left to discern the context directly from the implications of the passage itself.

The interior context, set in verse 15, is simply that the sinner is someone with whom one is close enough (both spatially and fraternally) to take aside into a private discussion in the hope of conversion. In other words, this is advice on the best way to persuade a family member, friend, associate or subordinate—someone in one’s own circle. Indeed, what sort of friend would fail to discuss such a matter personally before hauling his brother before the congregation or turning him over to Church authority? Privacy and discretion provide the best chance of success. If conversion is our objective, then this passage puts us on notice: Proceeding first to a public judgment will reduce our chance of success.

A moment’s reflection will reveal that this is the only conceivable context for a private or little-known fault. In such a case, only other members of the sinner’s immediate circle have any possibility of being aware of the fault to begin with. Moreover, insofar as the sin is private, the most clearly legitimate motive is the conversion of the sinner. But for a public fault—a scandalous fault—another context and another legitimate motive are possible. It is true that for someone reasonably close to or in authority over the sinner, the chance for conversion should still be taken. In this new context, however, there remains an obligation to repair the scandal whether the attempt at conversion succeeds or fails.

It is worth noting that in both contexts, for those in authority, Our Lord apparently envisions a fairly rapid progression from persuasion to judgment. But I pass over the opportunity to complain yet again about the general neglect of the third step demanded by Jesus Christ, because my point here is simply that, for the rest of us, the wider context of the scandal stands alone and apart from the context of conversion. Our concern can only be with the impact of the sin on others, and the pressing need to minimize that impact, not for the sinner’s good but for the good of all those whom his sin adversely affects.

The only part of Our Lord’s instructions on fraternal correction which address this wider context is our obligation, once judgment has been rendered, to treat hardened sinners honestly as no longer members of the community of faith (another aspect of the passage which is very frequently ignored). But even before official judgment is passed (which may, indeed, never occur), the Church has frequently made the spiritual situation clear through her constant teaching, and there is nothing in this passage, nor in all of Scripture, nor in Tradition to suggest that the faithful should not express their concern or do their best to correct misconceptions whenever Church teaching and Christian life are undermined in public and scandalous ways. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a serious obligation on the part of all Christians to address and minimize the harm caused by the scandal of persistent disregard for the Church’s teachings or the abuse of other spiritual goods.

The Nature of Scandal

A common misconception about scandal holds that its essence consists in publicity given to evil. But Our Lord, who publicly commented on scandalous situations many times, made it clear that the essence of scandal is not its publicity but its ability to undermine the spiritual well-being of others (see, for example, Mt 18:6-7). In one common translation, Christ refers to scandal as “a cause of stumbling to one of these little ones who have faith in me.” While publicity is involved, it is not precisely the publicity which does the tripping. No, the tripping is caused by the scandal’s power to disillusion, confuse and tempt. Making an object lesson of a scandal affords it greater publicity while stripping it of this power, drawing good out of an unfortunate situation.

Clearly, therefore, there are four ways to cause or add to scandal: (1) To sin publicly through personal behavior or the disregard of Catholic teaching, thereby causing others to weaken in either their commitment to or their understanding of the Christian life; (2) To publicize the private sins of others (real or imagined) with much the same effect (it doesn’t matter whether the sins are deplored; scandal is given here by the additional sin of detraction or calumny); (3) To further publicize the already public sins of others in a neutral or approving manner, without taking due care to inoculate one’s audience against the dangers posed by these already public sins; (4) To fail, when it is within one's power, to take reasonable steps to minimize the damage caused by public sins.

Now, in a culture which sets a high value on personal self-determination and worldly sophistication, we are surrounded on every side by Catholics, often in high places (and these sometimes even in the Church herself), who create public scandal by their personal behavior or their practical rejection of Catholic teaching. The nature of the scandal is that otherwise innocent Catholics (and often others) are misled concerning what the Church truly demands of them, and so they “stumble” in their spiritual life, weakening their attraction to Christ. Insofar as the competent authority fails to correct and discipline in such cases, the scandal is exacerbated, for the nature of the problem and its proper resolution are not effectively presented to those harmed by the scandal. The evil situation retains its full power to do spiritual damage.

The ideal response, of course, comes first from those in authority, the Pope and the bishops (when, please God, they are not the source of the scandal). It would seem delightful indeed to live in a world in which the rest of us were not burdened with any public responsibility for truth because we could always count on our ecclesiastical superiors to deal decisively with sin and error. Of course, such has never been the case. It is certainly not the case now. And it would in fact be a false vision of the Christian life to assume that it ever could or even should be the case. If we’re honest, we know that all children of the light are called to share in the responsibility of shining it.

The Role of the Publicist

All loyal sons and daughters of the Church have an obligation by virtue of their baptism and according to their various talents to attempt to bring proper Christian order out of the spiritual chaos introduced by public, scandalous sins. These are sins, failings, and departures from Catholic teaching which, by their notoriety, do real harm. Those well-versed in the Faith, with some skill at writing or speaking publicly, have a correspondingly greater responsibility to refer to public scandals precisely in order to identify the dangers they pose, contrast these dangers with authentic Catholic teaching and spirituality, and so neutralize their deleterious impact on other souls.

There is a strong Christian obligation for parents to do this at home as their children become old enough to be aware of these scandals; for teachers to do this in schools as their students mature and begin raising questions; for priests to do this in the pulpit with reference to those scandals that are public knowledge in the community; and for publicists (like those of us at CatholicCulture.org and Catholic World News) to play this same role in the larger public discussion of Catholic affairs in the Church and in the world. It is certainly possible—indeed it is most likely—that such public commentary will reach some persons who otherwise would not have known of a particular problem. But these will at least learn about it in the proper context of correction and reform, and many more will benefit who have already been exposed to the scandal without any effort at correction and reform whatsoever.

Not for the Conversion of the Scandalous

I feel bound to deny again that the immediate goal of the Catholic publicist should be either the conversion of the persons at the center of the scandal or the minimization of publicity. On the contrary, for all those who are not close enough to reach out personally, the proper and immediate goal is to minimize the damage caused by an evil situation that is already public, primarily by attempting to bring good out of the evil through instruction. For this reason, the Catholic publicist, insofar as he comments on Catholic scandals, does not focus on the conversion of those at the source. Rather, his goal is the ongoing conversion of the rest of us. His goal is to prevent all those “little ones”, among whom he counts himself, from stumbling or, if they should stumble, to help them arise and continue on their way.

This is not to say that the Catholic publicist does not desire the conversion of those involved. Insofar as he is authentically Catholic, he never succumbs to the temptation to be glad to have more grist for his mill. Nor is it to say that the Catholic publicist’s sole concern should be with scandals. It would be a dreary and unsuccessful publicist indeed who, plying his craft in the glorious realm of Christian faith and life, should never find a positive and uplifting tale to tell. Finally, and above all, neither does the publicist deny that heaven rejoices especially over the return of one who is lost. But because the Catholic publicist recognizes so well all that is positive, he is gripped by the unshakeable conviction that, since everything the Father has is ours (Lk 15:31), it is far better not to be lost in the first place. That is both his motivation and his justification. Insofar as he comments on scandals, the Catholic publicist does so to reduce their infectious power: He does not want more souls to be lost.

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