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Thomas Says: So Scandalous It’s a Sin

November 30th, 2011 | 2 min read

By Gary Hartenburg

In the first post in this series on Aquinas’s account of scandal, we saw that Aquinas defines scandal as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall” and that he distinguishes between active and passive scandal. In this post, I want to cover his argument that scandal is a sin. Of course, we always have to keep in mind the distinction between active and passive scandal, so the question to answer is twofold: Is active scandal sinful? Is passive scandal sinful? But even these aren’t adequately formulated. We should ask instead: Is active scandal always sinful? Is passive scandal always sinful?

The answer to both questions is yes.

The reason the first answer is affirmative is that the person who causes scandal either does so in virtue of sinning or of doing something that only has the appearance of sin. Thomas says that anyone who does something that only has the appearance of sin is guilty of active scandal (and has thus, ironically, really sinned) because actions that have the appearance of sin “should always be left undone out of that love for our neighbor which binds each one to be solicitous for his neighbor’s spiritual welfare.”

Now, it’s true that a person’s good deed might be the occasion for someone else’s downfall. Suppose, for example, that I perform a manfully courageous deed that arouses jealousy and resentment in others who might hold their manhoods cheap. I have done nothing wrong even though my action has become the occasion for another’s downfall. But here we have a case of passive scandal without active scandal, not a case of an active scandal that is not sinful.

The reason the second answer is affirmative is that passive scandal means that someone has acceded to his own spiritual downfall. Someone who is scandalized in this sense has always sinned. (It’s important to remember that Aquinas is not using the current sense of “scandal.” The pious grandmother who says she was scandalized by seeing the girls wearing their skirts up to here is not saying that she sinned.)

Lastly, it’s encouraging (in some way) to see that bad hermeneutics has been with us since at least the thirteenth century. It’s nothing new. In the first objection to Thomas’s claim, he summarizes the following (unsound) argument:

(1) All sin is voluntary.
(2) Jesus says, “It must needs be that scandals come” (i.e., Scandal is necessary).
(3) What is voluntary cannot be necessary.
(4) So, scandal cannot be a sin.

I won’t get into Thomas’s response to this argument, but it’s interesting that he provides not one but three possible interpretations of Jesus’s words that are consistent with his position. On this point, he isn’t concerned to establish a single true interpretation but to simply show that there are interpretations that are reasonable and (importantly) consistent with his account of scandal.