Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
November 13, 2015
The Jesus we encounter in the Gospel speaks continuously of mercy and demonstrates it. He gives us the Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son and tells us to forgive 70 times 7 times. He shows forgiveness to the paralyzed man, to the woman caught in adultery, to the woman at the well, and to the woman who bathes his feet in tears of sorrow. He called a tax collector — a notorious public sinner — to be one of the twelve and promised the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to a fisherman whose initial words were, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man!” Throughout the Gospel, he shows himself to be meek and humble of heart, someone so gentle that he wouldn’t break even a bruised reed.
Yet at the same time, without spiritual schizophrenia or contradiction, he spoke in categorical, almost merciless terms about scandalizers — and when he found money changers scandalously turning the temple precincts into a den of thieves, he violently overturned their tables and formed a whip to drive out their animals.
“Scandals will inevitably occur,” he emphatically declared, “but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:1-2).
Execution by millstone was a particularly terrifying way to die. It was practiced, scholars tell us, by Syrians, Romans, and Greeks during Biblical times. A millstone is a huge, flat circular stone, weighing roughly 1,700 pounds, with hole in the center through which a rope can be placed. Once affixed to someone’s neck, the condemned would be thrown from a boat into a body of water, descend precipitously to the bottom and drown.
Jesus was saying that that form of death was preferable to what would happen to us if we gave scandal!
Scandals are in the news.
The movie Spotlight is occasioning us to revisit the sickening details of the clergy sexual abuse crisis — a double scandal not only of abominations on the part of certain priest abusers but also of an inexcusably inadequate response on the part of some Church leaders — that no matter how much progress the Church has made in subsequent years in caring for victims, screening seminarians and becoming a model for safe environments, cannot erase the horror or mitigate the shame. It’s a scandal that keeps on scandalizing.
Theologically, scandals are actions or omissions, comportment or attitudes, that can lead others to sin, either by tempting others to imitate their sinful behavior — like celebrities using drugs or authority figures cohabitating — or through the offense scandals give, drawing others away from good actions (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2284-7). And the clergy sex abuse scandals have led many Catholics to stop practicing their faith and gravely damaged the reputation of the Church, of priests and bishops — with many who used to presume clerics holy now prejudging them to be corrupt.
Other scandals, too, are in the news.
On October 14, Pope Francis began his Wednesday General Audience by stating, “I would like, before beginning the catechesis, on behalf of the Church, to ask for your forgiveness for the scandals that have happened in recent times both in Rome and in the Vatican.”
The Holy Father didn’t define the scandals to which he was referring, but journalists proffered various educated guesses: a Polish monsignor working in the Vatican who held a press conference with his gay lover proclaiming that it’s the Church that has a doctrinal problem, not he who has a moral problem; a leaked letter to Pope Francis signed by 13 cardinals pointing to serious concerns whether the October Synod of Bishop on the Family process would be hijacked by the organizers toward a predetermined agenda; or corruption in the Rome mayor’s office that involved, among other things, going all out for the funeral of a notorious mafia don.
Since that time we’ve had the arrest of two people who worked on a Vatican financial commission, including a priest, and the publication of various Vatican documents to which the authors of two books are trying to give the most defamatory interpretation.
To these we might add a scandal to which the Synod was responding — that the “Church” judges as scarlet-letter wearing sinners rather than loves those who are divorced-and-civilly-remarried — and another it was creating, namely that in order to make those in such circumstances feel welcome, the Church can change or functionally ignore for “pastoral” reasons Jesus’ teaching on adultery, St. Paul’s teaching on worthiness for receiving Holy Communion, and the Church’s teaching about the need for conversion and a firm purpose of amendment with regard to the Christian life and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The appearance of scandal is likewise a scandal and there is at least the appearance that various churchmen think such a decision is consistent with Catholic faith.
I sometimes think it might be wise to have some millstones lying around to focus our attention with regard to the consequences of decisions and behavior that could lead others — especially the young, the simple and the more vulnerable — to spiritual confusion, dejection or sin.
How should we respond to scandals? I’ve always found St. Francis de Sales’ advice helpful. He called giving scandal the equivalent of spiritual murder but said that there was something even worse: committing spiritual suicide through focusing on scandals so much that we voluntarily cut ourselves off from Christ in the Sacraments and in the Church he founded.
He wrote in a pamphlet to the people of Thonon after the scandals that had led many of them to embrace Calvinism, that “those who forge scandals for themselves,” who “persuade themselves that they will die if they do not alienate the part that they have in the Church,” are “much crueler than the man who gives scandal, because to commit suicide is a more unnatural crime than to kill another.”
When we allow scandals to destroy our faith, he implied, we essentially tie a millstone around our own neck and toss ourselves out of the barque of Peter, where Christ is at the helm, into the depth of a sea toward spiritual death.
Scandals, unfortunately, “will inevitably occur,” as Jesus tells us. And therefore we need to on high alert not only not to cause them and tempt others toward sin but also not to take them and allow them to lead us to sin and spiritual suicide.