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Thomas Says: So Scandalous!

November 7th, 2011 | 4 min read

By Gary Hartenburg

Because you can never have too much Aquinas, I’ve decided to reboot my blogging here with another series on the thought of the Angelic Doctor. The first topic in the series was Thomas’s thoughts on killing. For no particular reason, this time I’ll take up the topic of scandal.

We often hear about various scandals in the news. Right now, if you search for “scandal” in Google News, you get about 22,000 hits. In this context one reads articles about Herman Cain or Penn State or at least scans headlines such as “Solyndra Scandal”  or “Judge Rejects Arguments for Separate Trials in Alabama Bingo Scandal.”

Christians also encounter a slightly different use of “scandal” in their local congregations when one congregant is offended by the actions of another. In such cases, one is apt to recall, if one was raised on the King James, Paul’s admonition from Romans 14:21: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” Paul’s use of “stumbleth”—he was a good Elizabethan, after all—here never fails to raise questions about what it means to make another stumble. These are the kinds of questions Thomas wants to provide clarity about. (By the way, if you weren’t raised on the King James, then you probably don’t recall the uses of “offended” and “made weak” because it wasn’t in your Bible. The critical text just has the Greek for “stumbleth,” “proskoptei.” Thomas states (in the “I answer that” section to article 1) that in the Vulgate, Jerome is simply explaining the possible meanings of the Greek “skandalon” by adding the other two words.)

Thomas is, unsurprisingly, concerned more with the latter kinds of scandal than with the contemporary, thinned-out notion expressed in news headlines. Being a good thinker, Thomas starts the section on scandal (which is question forty-three of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica) by stating what kind of thing he’s talking about and giving a clear definition of what he is talking about. In the first place, scandal is a vice that is contrary to “beneficence,” which is simply doing good to someone. Beneficence is an act of charity (love), and so scandal is contrary to love. People characterized by love of God and neighbor do not scandalize others. This means that they are not the occasion for scandal, which is “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.”

Now, the main question that most of us have about this sense of  “scandal” is whether a person who causes another to stumble has done something wrong, perhaps even sinned. Thomas, like the good philosopher-theologian he is, says, “It depends.” And then he makes a distinction. (If I ever write a book about Aquinas, that will be the title: And Then He Makes a Distinction.)

The distinction he makes is between active and passive scandal. First, active scandal = an action that is sinful in itself that also leads (or could lead) another person into sin. A person who commits active scandal always sins. Not all sinful actions lead others into sin as well, but those that do are scandalous in addition to whatever other kind of sin they are (lustful, greedy, hateful, etc.).

Secondly, passive scandal = an action in which a person succumbs to a spiritual downfall. This is done by a person who “stumbleth.” It’s important to realize that by “passive,” Thomas does not mean that a person is not responsible for sinning. Quite the opposite. Sin can only come about through an act of the will. A person cannot be forced to sin. Any sin involves a choice on the part of the sinner to sin.

This distinction between active and passive scandal does not mean that they always go together. It is possible for there to be active scandal without passive (e.g., if I do something sinful in public, but no one chooses to sin after seeing it), passive without active (e.g., if I do something good, which becomes an occasion for you to envy me), or active and passive together (e.g., I sin, and you choose to sin (in part) because you witnessed my action).

On the question of “eating meat offered to idols,” Thomas says that “since it has a certain appearance of evil, and a semblance of worshipping the idol, it might occasion another man’s spiritual downfall.” Notice how careful he is in wording this: “a certain appearance,” “a semblance,” “might occasion.” But this careful wording is not to excuse someone who might eat meat offered to idols. Thomas doesn’t say this explicitly, but he seems to hold that someone who ate meat offered to idols was guilty of active scandal even if no one was thereby guilty of passive scandal. Why? Because a person is guilty of active scandal by doing either something sinful or something that appears to be sinful. In the next article, Thomas will explain more why giving the appearance of sinning is sufficient to count as scandal, and therefore sin.

We should note that eating meat offered to idols has the appearance of sin because it is closely connected with the worship of idols, which is sinful. Thomas, and the apostle Paul by extension, is not discussing situations in which a person does something morally neutral (or good) only to have another succumb to passive scandal. No. In order to qualify as an act of active scandal, a person must do something that is either a sin or closely connected with something sinful.

In later posts, I’ll take up the rest of the article on scandal and apply it to a number of related contemporary issues such as drinking alcohol, dressing modestly, and so forth.