Communicantes: July 2002

Of Scandal
By Saint Thomas Aquinas

Summa theologica, 2, 2, Q. 43


First article: What is Scandal?

Dictum vel factum minus rectum praebens alteri occasionem ruinae spiritualis. Scandal is fittingly defined as being something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall (sin).

‘Less rightly’ here means something that has some lack of rectitude, either through being evil in itself, such as sin, or through having an appearance of sin. Thus, for instance, if a man were to sit at meat in the idol’s temple, though this may not be sinful in itself, provided it be done with no evil intention (Saint Paul explains this at length: I Cor. 8:2-13. See below), yet, since it has a certain appearance of evil, and a semblance of worshipping the idol, it might occasion another man’s spiritual downfall. Hence the Apostle says (1 Thessal. 5: 22): From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves.

In replying to the fourth objection, Saint Thomas gives the division of the different kinds of scandals. Another’s word or deed may be the cause of another’s sin in two ways: “per se” (by itself or directly) and by accident.

There is scandal “per se”, or directly, when a man either intends, by his evil word or deed, to lead another man into sin, or, if he does not so intend, when his deed is of such nature as to lead another into sin (and when he can forsee this): for instance, when a man publicly commits a sin or does something that has an appearance of sin. In these cases he that does such an act does, properly speaking, afford an occasion of another’s spiritual downfall, wherefore his act is called active scandal.

Accidentally, one man’s word or deed is the cause of another’s sin, when he neither intends to lead him into sin, nor does what is of a nature to lead him into sin, and yet this other one, through being ill-disposed, is led into sin, for instance, into envy because of another’s good action. In this case he who does the righteous act, does not, so far as he is concerned, afford an occasion of the other’s downfall, but it is this other one who takes occasion to sin. (This can happen either through his own ignorance or weakness, in which case we call it scandal of the weak (Matth. 18: 6), or through his own malice, in which case we call it pharisaic scandal (Matth. 13: 57; 15: 12)). Wherefore this is passive, without active scandal. (...)

Sometimes it happens that there is active scandal in the one together with passive scandal in the other, as when one commits a sin being induced thereto by another. Sometimes there is active without passive scandal, for instance when one, by word or deed, provokes another to sin, and the latter does not consent.


Second Article: Whether Scandal is a Sin?

(...) Active scandal is always a sin in the person who gives scandal, since either what he does is a sin, or if it only have the appearance of sin, it should always be left undone out of that love for our neighbour which binds each one to be solicitous for his neighbour’s spiritual welfare; so that if he persists in doing it he acts against charity.


Fourth Article: Whether Scandal is a Mortal Sin?

Active scandal, if it be accidental, may sometimes be a venial sin; for instance, when, through a slight indiscretion (even without having the intention to induce into sin), a person either commits a venial sin, or does something that is not a sin in itself, but has some appearance of evil, with a slight indiscretion.

On the other hand, it is sometimes a mortal sin, either because a person commits a mortal sin (with only a slight indiscretion, otherwise it would be a direct (“per se”) active scandal), or because he has such contempt for his neighbour’s spiritual welfare that he declines, for the sake of procuring it, to forego doing what he wishes to do.

But in the case of active direct (“per se”) scandal, as when a person intends to lead another into sin (or, even if he does not intend such, if the action is by its very nature able to induce another into sin and if he can forsee it), if he intends to lead him into mortal sin, his own sin will be mortal; and in like manner if he intends by committing a mortal sin himself, to lead another into venial sin; whereas if he intends, by committing a venial sin, to lead another into venial sin, there will be a venial sin of scandal.


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