Need for Theological Precision

One of the greatest pitfalls in modern theology that is seldom discussed is the problem of imprecision in theological statements. Too often modern theologians and prelates will speak of things like "faith", "love" and "peace", but they mean them in incredibly generic ways that can be taken to mean any number of things. This makes it very difficult to understand what a theologian or bishop really be saying, let alone make any true progress in theological study. Our theologians and prelates desperately need to return to the discipline of theological precision, as does anyone who writes on issues relating to Catholicism, where words and definitions are so vital.A prime example of this lack of theological precision can be found in the passages on the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the topic of scandal. Let's begin with the CCC's definition of scandal:

"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" (CCC 2284).

The CCC goes on to speak of the gravity of scandal relative to the authority of those who give scandal and the weakness of those scandalized:

"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.

Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. 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.

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!" (CCC 2285-2287)

So we have what looks to be a fairly comprehensive definition of scandal, but as we cross reference this with the portions of the CCC that deal with Jesus Christ and scandal, it quickly becomes apparent that a grave deficiency emerges:

"If the Law and the Jerusalem Temple could be occasions of opposition to Jesus by Israel's religious authorities, his role in the redemption of sins, the divine work par excellence, was the true stumbling-block for them.

Jesus scandalized the Pharisees by eating with tax collectors and sinners as familiarly as with themselves. Against those among them "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others", Jesus affirmed: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." He went further by proclaiming before the Pharisees that, since sin is universal, those who pretend not to need salvation are blind to themselves.

Jesus gave scandal above all when he identified his merciful conduct toward sinners with God's own attitude toward them. He went so far as to hint that by sharing the table of sinners he was admitting them to the messianic banquet.But it was most especially by forgiving sins that Jesus placed the religious authorities of Israel on the horns of a dilemma. Were they not entitled to demand in consternation, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" By forgiving sins Jesus either is blaspheming as a man who made himself God's equal, or is speaking the truth and his person really does make present and reveal God's name" (CCC 587-589).

Now, it is quite clear that the Catholic Catechism teaches that scandal is a grave sin when it leads others to commit grave offenses (2284); Deicide, the killing of Christ, would certainly be a great offense, and Jesus Himself speaks of the Pharisees who had Him put to death as guilty of the "greater sin" (John 19:11). Therefore, Jesus gave scandal to the Pharisees because He provoked them to do an act of grave evil - i.e., put Him to death.

It is also quite clear that the Catholic Catechism teaches that scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of the one who gives scandal. In this example, the scandal was given by Jesus Himself, who is the Incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. Is there anyone of higher authority? It appears then that Jesus would be supremely guilty because His authority was so great.

It is quite clear that the Catholic Catechism teaches that anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it causes others to do wrong becomes "guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly caused" (CCC 2287). The teaching presented here is that one is guilty of the sin of scandal even if the scandal is given indirectly.

It is quite clear that the Catholic Catechism teaches that Jesus Himself gave scandal, at least two times: "Jesus scandalized the Pharisees" (588) and "Jesus gave scandal above all when he identified his merciful conduct toward sinners with God's own attitude toward them" (599). What is the implication here? If we put it together, this cluster of confusion apparently means the Catechism is teaching that Jesus is guilty of seriously grave sin.

What is the solution here? Obviously Jesus Christ is not guilty of any grave sin. But it is true, of course, that He "gave scandal" to the Pharisees. If both are true, how can we reconcile this? The problem lies not with what Jesus did, but with the inadequate definition of scandal found in the CCC. The CCC fails to distinguish between the two types of scandal as found in Catholic Tradition: active scandal and passive scandal, also called direct and accidental scandal, and the distinction between the two is pivotal. Active scandal is scandal in the traditional sense as condemned by the Catechism; but the sort of scandal that Jesus gave the Pharisees is an example of passive scandal. Aquinas defines passive scandal in this manner:

"One man's word or deed is the accidental 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 of another's good, and then he who does this 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 the occasion" [1]

So one can be scandalized by another, but because of one's own wickedness, not because of any error on the part of another. For example, taking offense at another's good deeds, envying my neighbor's good fortune, etc. In these cases, one is scandalized passively, but without any active giving of scandal on the part of the agent. This is the sort of scandal Jesus gave to the Pharisees, and clearly He is not guilty of any grave sin.

But if we were to simply connect the passages, we would not know this, because the Catechism does not differentiate between active and passive scandal, and it does say one can be guilty of scandal indirectly, which would lead us to the logical but absurd conclusion that Jesus Himself is guilty of sin. This error needs to be cleared up, either by including definitions of active and passive scandal, or perhaps better, rewording the passages to note that it was the Jews who took scandal rather than the Lord who gave it. Jesus never actively gave scandal ("But that we may not scandalize them..." (Matt. 17:26).

Such distinctions used to be common in Catholic theology. For example, in the Douay-Rheims Bible, Matt 15:12 ("Then came his disciples, and said to him: Dost thou know that the Pharisees, when they heard this word, were scandalized?") contains a footnote which says, "It must be observed here, that Christ was not the direct cause of scandal to the Jews, for such scandal would not be allowable; he only caused it indirectly, because it was his doctrine, at which, through their own perversity, they took scandal." The editors of the Douay-Rheims knew immediately that the words could be misinterpreted and took pains to point out that it was the "perversity" of the Pharisees that gave them scandal, not the good deeds of Christ.

And yet we now have the Catholic Church, in CCC entry #2287, teaching that even scandal caused indirectly is sinful and earlier on saying that Jesus gave scandal. Good Lord, what is wrong here? It is this passage itself which is scandalizing!

I understand that the Catechism is meant only to be a "sure norm" for the Church's faith and morals and is not supposed to be a comprehensive manual of theology. I am writing this article not to pick on the CCC, but to note how lack of theological precision can lead to misunderstanding and erroneous conclusions, especially when we are using equivocal words like "scandal." Alyssa Lyra Pitstick in her book Light in the Darkness points out how Von Balthasar would use equivocal theological terms to make arguments not justified by Catholic tradition - just as scandal can have different connotations, Balthasar uses the term "glory" in a way radically different from how most theologians have used it, which gives the impression that he is presenting traditional teaching when in fact he is saying something quite unorthodox.

Theological precision is incredibly important. If we use words like "faith", "scandal", "glory", "nature" etc., we need to be precise in how we use them and use the Church's traditional vocabulary in explaining them. In Pope Paul VI's encyclical Mysterium Fidei (1965), the Pope taught that not only must traditional Catholic dogmas be preserved, but even the language or vocabulary that dogmas were explained in terms of. He says:

"And so the rule of language which the Church has established through the long labor of centuries, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and which she has confirmed with the authority of the Councils, and which has more than once been the watchword and banner of orthodox faith, is to be religiously preserved, and no one may presume to change it at his own pleasure or under the pretext of new knowledge." [2]

Our theological vocabulary, like our architecture and music, is intimately connected with the content of faith itself. When we change our traditional terminologies, or try to omit important distinctions, we end up with the potential for serious confusion, as in the case of the CCC and scandal. Let the Faith be preserved, and let is be preserved by preserving the formulas in which it is explained.

For another article on the types of scandal, please click here.

Article by "I am Not Spartacus"; Edited by Boniface


[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, STh, II-II, Q. 43 art. 4
[2] Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, 24