This is the third in my intermittent series on Aquinas on the topic of scandal, which is covered in question 43 of the second part of the second part of his Summa Theologiae. In the first two posts I covered the main contours of his thinking on the issue. First, scandal is defined as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.” Second, there are two aspects of scandal: active and passive. Active scandal occurs when a person sins (or even has a strong appearance of sinning) and thereby causes another to sin. Passive scandal occurs when a person is enticed to commit a sin after observing the actions of another—regardless of whether those actions are sinful. The upshot of this is that there can be cases of active without passive scandal, or passive without active scandal.
In the third article of his question on scandal, Thomas raises the question of whether scandal is a special sin. A strange question, until you understand what he means by “special.” He’s not asking whether it is unique. By asking whether scandal is a special sin, he’s asking whether it is a specific kind of sin—like murder, theft, gossip, which are all opposed to some specific kind of virtue or good. As he mentions in the first objection to his claim that scandal is a special sin, scandal is defined as something less rightly said or done, but that applies to every sin. So, it would seem that scandal is not a special sin.
Thomas’s first point is that the idea that scandal is a special sin is supported by scripture, specifically, Romans 14:15: “If, because of thy meat, thy brother be grieved, thou walkest not now according to charity.” Hence, scandal is specifically opposed to charity (love).
Beyond this point, however, Thomas makes distinctions (as is his wont). First, passive scandal is not a special sin, because you might fall into any kind of sin through the words or actions of others. Second, some kinds of active scandal are special. In particular, accidental active scandal is not a special sin because someone who commits such a sin does not intend to lead others astray. But direct active scandal is a special sin because a person intends to draw others into sin through his own sinful words or actions—or at least through words or actions have the appearance of sinfulness. To summarize: all scandal is sinful, but only direct active scandal is specially opposed to charity.
Here’s an example from everybody’s favorite recent topic: Newt Gingrich. Was (from what we can tell) Gingrich guilty of the sin of scandal in committing adultery with Callista? Clearly, Gingrich’s actions were “something less rightly done,” so they qualify as active scandal if they occasioned the spiritual downfall of someone else. And, to be clear, “occasion spiritual downfall” means “encourage toward sin.” Notice that scandal does not mean that Gingrich caused someone else to sin; it only means that his actions encouraged others toward any kind of sin (lust, adultery, covetousness, hatred, etc.). We can’t know whether anyone else was encouraged to sin by Gingrich’s actions, but I’d say that, with the number of people who know about it, it’s likely that someone was led to sin after hearing about Gingrich’s infidelity. Perhaps a warning to those in the limelight.