From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.
2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger, or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.
2287 Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!”
I was thinking about this last night after having had several conversations in the past week with Catholic friends who were urged by priests and others not to report wrongdoing by other Catholics for fear of “giving scandal.” I once interviewed a well-respected Catholic professional who had certain knowledge of serious wrongdoing by a senior prelate, and had gone to the Vatican with the information (to no avail). When I asked him about it, he refused to answer for fear of, yes, giving scandal. And, as we all know, far too much evil was concealed, and allowed to grow, re: the sex abuse scandal, because bishops were afraid of giving scandal.
You can see how even well-meaning bishops and others would think that it’s so important to protect the image of the Church in the eyes of the people that they would try to conceal this dirty business. But that ethic led to gross corruption. As a friend of mine put it to me, “Only God knows how many lives have been ruined by fear of giving scandal.” That friend also said, “If an institution stands to be ruined by the revelation of the truth, then it probably doesn’t deserve to exist.”
Do you think there’s a good general rule, or set of rules, for deciding when one shouldn’t reveal something out of a justified fear of giving scandal, and when it is a greater risk to harm by keeping quiet about it? Not everything should be disclosed, but how do you know when withholding information protects not the common good, but scoundrels?
UPDATE: Let me clarify my point here, because comments suggest that at least some aren’t getting me. I don’t intend for this thread to be another discussion of the Catholic Church’s problems. Rather, I’m using that as a jumping off point to discuss the idea of scandal, and the virtues of keeping silent about something that’s true but scandalous, versus making it known. I think that the idea that revealing something true but unnecessarily hurtful to the reputation of an individual or institution can be a serious sin is an important one, and one that we don’t have a sufficient appreciation of in contemporary culture.
We all tend now to have a bias toward disclosure — and disclosing truths about other people. Outing closeted homosexuals, for example, is sometimes practiced by gay activists who believe that certain figures have no right to their privacy (usually closeted homosexuals who have, in the judgment of activists, used their positions to harm gay rights). An outing activist would say that the figure they wish to out has forfeited his right to privacy because of this or that reason. Others might deplore the conduct of the closet case, but believe that the practice of outing is an offense against that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy, and harms the common good in other ways.
Journalists deal with this all the time. I think many in the public assume that reporters are dying to reveal embarrassing information about public figures and institutions. It’s just not true. I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion that a decision was made not to reveal something the reporter knew was true, because the judgment was made, in consultation with editors, that it would be more harmful to reveal the information than to keep it secret. I have done this myself, and wondered later if I’d made the right decision. It’s a difficult thing, and the Church is not wrong to call giving scandal a sin.
The question, though, is just what constitutes a sinful giving of scandal. In the case of the RC Church’s sex abuse situation, it is clear now that far worse evil was done by covering up the evil in the name of avoiding scandal. In the case of the Orthodox Church in America’s financial scandal with the previous two metropolitans, same deal. In fact, the OCA didn’t begin to heal until its future metropolitan, Bishop Jonah, stood up in front of all the other bishops and hundreds of laity and said, without mincing words, that the previous two metropolitans were a pair of crooks who had “raped the church.” That was truth-telling that served the common good, though it was bracing to hear. So there’s scandal, and there’s scandal…