Twice a day. (updated)
Yesterday, at his indispensable blog Spiritual Politics, Mark Silk pointed out that Justice League President Bill Donohue, PhD, managed to be not wrong about something important. Last week victims attorney Jeff Anderson released a 2003 letter from Archbishop Timothy Dolan (now of New York, then of Milwaukee) to then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asking that a pedophile priest be laicized. “The public display that will now take place in the criminal trial in California, to say nothing of the civil suits that could arise there, makes the potential for true scandal very real,” Dolan wrote. Anderson called that document a “smoking gun” proving “Dolan’s desire in concert with the Vatican to think about one thing: secrecy and preservation of their own reputation.” Donohue pointed out that in Catholic parlance “scandal”
is defined as “a word or action evil in itself, which occasions another spiritual ruin.” In other words, once the public finds out more about Becker, his misconduct will give scandal to the Church by causing the faithful to question their faith. For that reason, and for his past record, Dolan said he wanted him out of the priesthood.
Mark gave Donohue props for pointing out Anderson’s distortion, and, in a coda to his post, wrote:
If anything has become clear over the past quarter-century, it is that the doctrine of scandal has been the occasion of greater scandal in the Catholic Church than the sexual abuse itself. Nothing has done more to drag the Church into disrepute–and to alienate the laity–than the revelations of cover-up. It’s time for the doctrine to go.
I winced when I read that. Apparently Donohue did too. After claiming Mark lacks “ethical standing” (whatever that is) as a Jew (classic Dr. D.) , Donohue issued a press release titled “The Scandal of Church Critics.” (See what he’s doing there?)
Imagine a Catholic professor telling observant Jews that they need to change one or more of their doctrines. If such a character could be found, I would be the first to tell him to mind his own business.
As Mark correctly notes, the Catholic notion of scandal is a medieval teaching, not a matter of revelation. (Although you’ll find the term in 1 Corinthians and the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.) Meaning there’s nothing wrong with non-Catholics using common human reason to evaluate it. You might even say it’s natural. So the good doctor is wrong to claim that Mark has no business opining on this particular Catholic teaching. What Donohue doesn’t point out, however, is that Mark doesn’t have it quite right.
Donohue’s definition of scandal is sound. In moral theology, a scandal isn’t simply something that shocks one’s moral sensibilities. Rather, a scandal is an act that could–but doesn’t have to–incite someone to sin or cause his spiritual ruin. Of course, this being a term of art in moral theology–and one rooted in the thought of Thomas Aquinas–there are distinctions to be made. There’s active scandal (the work of the scandalizer) and passive scandal (the suffering of the scandalized). Direct and indirect.
There can be no doubt that Catholic leaders (bishops mainly, but others too) used the notion of scandal to justify keeping damning facts from the faithful. And the police. Philadelphia Catholics have been treated to two scathing grand-jury investigations of their archdiocese. Last month’s report lambastes church officials for hiding a priest’s abusive history from his parishioners. I haven’t found anything in the grand-jury report indicating that church officials were leaning on the notion of scandal–in the theological sense–to justify their sins of omission. (Although it’s certainly possible.) Mark seems to think offending officials’ interpretation of scandal is inherent to the teaching itself. In other words, Mark apparently believes the teaching on scandal necessarily entails secrecy.
Does it? At least, does it any more than the church’s teaching on sin? After all, how many abusive priests were returned to ministry after receiving absolution for their crimes? How many bishops viewed abusers’ transgressions as sins to be forgiven rather than pathological crimes?
No, the notion of scandal cuts to the very heart of the crisis: bishops who were ordained to protect the faith of their people instead were responsible for destroying it. Many of them misused the idea of scandal to protect their own. But it is within the teaching itself that Catholics might find a way through this slough. Because scandalizers are required to make reparations for their offenses. That’s something the archbishop of Dublin understood when he prostrated himself in front of a bare altar before washing the feet of abuse victims.
Update: Read Mark Silk’s gracious response right here.