On Taking Scandal

Stick with me here.

Pope Francis has surprised us all in many ways – some good, some perhaps not. I have refrained from sharing any criticisms I might have here, because I simply do not think it productive or edifying. I also have faith and believe what the Church teaches, so I do not worry – as some do – that the Pope is going to change the Church’s teaching or whatever.

Some of the things that he has said and done may very well have been ill-advised; some of it may, as some fear, cause more harm than good in the long run. Or it might not. In any case, Pope Francis has yet to ask me for advice on how he should do things. And that’s just fine.

It is the Lord’s Church. We might not like what someone is doing in it but we must always – always! – remember that when we point the finger at someone else there are a few fingers pointing back at us! If you don’t like the way someone is doing something in the Church, you need first to reform yourself. You need to be a better Catholic. You need to make more of a difference by living a holier life than you have until that point.

Until you have the holiness (and attendant humility) of a St. Catherine of Siena or a St. Paul, you are probably not in a very good position to criticize the Pope or anyone else harshly. “But our Lord expressed righteous anger when He drove the money-changers from the Temple!” Yes, but this is part of the problem: you still think that you’re righteous.

In light of the above, I think it would be good if we all took a few moments to read the great Father Faber’s words on taking scandal. If taking scandal was a problem when he was writing in the 19th century – before blogs, Twitter, and 24-hour news – then it is hard to comprehend how much worse of a problem it is now.

You might be thinking, “But I like Pope Francis – what the heck is Fr. Jerabek talking about?”

Oh, no you don’t!   You, too, need to read the following reflection! We all need to read it and think!!

(You can download it in PDF format at the link below to read it more comfortably.)

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ON TAKING SCANDAL
From the Spiritual Conferences of Fr. Frederick Faber
Download a PDF here

To give scandal is a great fault, but to take scandal is a greater fault. It implies a greater amount of wrongness in ourselves, and it does a greater amount of mischief to others.

Nothing gives scandal sooner than a quickness to take scandal. This is worth our consideration. For I find great numbers of moderately good people who think it fine to take scandal. They regard it as a sort of evidence of their own goodness, and of their delicacy of conscience; while in reality it is only a proof either of their inordinate conceit or of their extreme stupidity. They are unfortunate when this latter is the case; for then no one but inculpable nature is to blame. If, as some have said, a stupid man cannot be a Saint, at least his stupidity can never make him into a sinner. Moreover, the persons in question seem frequently to feel and act as if their profession of piety involved some kind of official appointment to take scandal. It is their business to take scandal. It is their way of bearing testimony to God. It would show a blamable inertness in the spiritual life if they did not take scandal. They think they suffer very much while they are taking scandal; whereas in truth they enjoy it amazingly. It is a pleasurable excitement, which delightfully varies the monotony of devotion. 

They do not in reality fall over their neighbor’s fault, nor does it in itself hinder them in the way of holiness, nor do they love God less because of it,—all which ought to be implied in taking scandal. But they trip themselves up on purpose, and take care that it shall be opposite some fault of their neighbor’s, in order that they may call attention to the difference between him and themselves.

There are certainly many legitimate causes for taking scandal, but none more legitimate than the almost boastful facility of taking scandal which characterizes many so-called religious people. The fact is that an immense proportion of us are Pharisees. For one pious man who makes piety attractive, there are nine who make it repulsive. Or, in other words, only one out of ten among reputed spiritual persons is really spiritual. He who during a long life has taken the most scandal has done the most injury to God’s glory, and has been himself a real and substantial stumbling block in the way of many. He has been an endless fountain of odious disedification to the little ones of Christ. If such a one reads this, he will take scandal at me. Everything that he dislikes, every thing which deviates from his own narrow view of things, is to him a scandal. It is the Pharisaic way of expressing a difference.

Men marvelously like to be popes; and the dullest of men, if only he has, as usual, an obstinacy proportioned to his dullness, can in most neighborhoods carve out a tiny papacy for himself; and if to his dullness he can add pomposity, he may reign gloriously, a little local ecumenical council in unintermitting session through all the four seasons of the year. Who has time enough, or heart enough, or hope enough, to try to persuade such men? They are not sufficiently interesting to us to be worth our persuading. Let us leave them alone with their glory and their happiness. Let us try to persuade ourselves. Do not we ourselves take scandal too often? Let us examine the matter and see.

Now, here is a thing which I have often thought upon. Certainly no one can remember every thing in the voluminous lives of the Saints; for it would take a lifetime to read them all. But I do not remember to have read of any Saint who ever took scandal. If this is even approximately true, the question is decided at once. Big men, swollen with self-importance, who see the faults of others with eyes of lynxes, and criticize them with clever sarcasms, and delight in the pedantry of a judicial frame of mind, can only humorously apply to themselves the name of the little ones of Christ. Yet books tell us there are two kinds of scandal,—the scandal of the little ones of Christ, and the scandal of Pharisees. It follows, then, that these men must be Pharisees. But I say that, if this remark about the Saints is even approximately true, it must give us a check, and make us very thoughtful, if we are earnest men, although we are not Saints, and what belongs to Saints is by no means safely applicable to us in all respects. Let us suppose it not to be strictly true. Let us suppose it only a rare thing for Saints to take scandal. We can draw a sufficiently broad conclusion from this to be very practical to ourselves. For we may infer that it is a matter about which persons aiming at being spiritual are not sufficiently careful. Every time we take scandal we run a great risk of sinning, and a manifold risk as well as a great one. We run the risk of impairing God’s glory, of dishonoring our Blessed Lord, of giving substantial scandal to others, of breaking the precept of charity ourselves, of highly-culpable indiscretion, and, at the very least, of grieving the Holy Spirit in our own souls. Here is enough to make it worth our while to inquire.

Let us see, first of all, how much evil the habit of taking scandal implies. It implies a quiet pride, which is altogether unconscious how proud it is. Pride is the denial of the spiritual life. Spiritual pride means that we have no spiritual life, but the possession of that evil spirit instead of it. Pride is hard enough to manage even when we are conscious of it; but a pride which has no self-consciousness is a very desperate thing. It often seems as if grace could only get at it through a fall into serious sin, which will awake its consciousness and at the same moment turn it into shame. Now, the habit of taking scandal indicates that worst sort of pride, a pride which believes itself to be humility. Any thing like a habit of taking scandal implies also a fund of uncharitableness deep down in us, which grace and interior mortification have either not reached, or failed to influence. If we pay attention to ourselves, we shall find that, contemporaneously with the scandal we have taken, there has been some wounded feeling or other in an excited state within us. When we are in good humor, we do not take scandal. It is an act which is not for the most part accompanied by kindness. A genuine gentle sorrow for the person offending is neither the first thought nor the predominant thought in our minds when we take the offense. It is the offspring generally of an unkindly mood. Sometimes, indeed, it springs from moroseness, brought on by assuming a seriousness which does not become us because it is not simple. We precipitate ourselves into recollection, and find that we have fallen over head and ears into sullenness. Neither can taking scandal be very frequent with us without its implying also a formed habit of judging others. With a really humble or a naturally genial person the instinct of judging others is overlaid and, as it were, weighted with other and better qualities. It has to exert itself and make an effort before it can get to the surface and assert itself; whereas it lies on the surface, obvious, ready, prompt, and predominating, in a man who is given to taking scandal. Is it often allowable to judge our neighbor? Surely we know it to be the rarest thing possible. Yet we cannot take scandal without, first, forming a judgment; secondly, forming an unfavorable judgment; thirdly, deliberately entertaining it as a motive power inclining us to do or to omit something; and, fourthly, doing all this for the most part in the subject matter of piety, which in nine cases out of ten our obvious ignorance withdraws from our jurisdiction.

It also indicates a general want of an interior spirit. The supernatural grace of an interior spirit, among its other effects, produces the same results as the natural gift of depth of character; and to this it joins the ingenious sweetness of charity. A thoughtless or a shallow man is more likely to take scandal than any other. He can conceive of nothing but what he sees upon the surface. He has but little self-knowledge, and hardly suspects the variety or complication of his own motives. Much less, then, is he likely to divine in a discerning way the hidden causes, the hidden excuses, the hidden temptations, which may lie, and always do lie, behind the actions of others. So it is in spiritual matters with a man who has not an interior spirit. There is not only a rashness, but also a coarseness and vulgarity, about his judgments of others. Sometimes he only sees superficially. This is if he is a stupid man. If he is a clever man, he sees deeper than the truth. His vulgarity is of the subtle kind. He puts things together which had no real connection in the conduct of his neighbor. Base himself, he suspects baseness in others. If he saw a Saint, he would think him either ambitious, opinionated, or hypocritical. He sees plots and conspiracies even in the most impulsive of characters. He cannot judge of character at all. He can only project his own possibilities of sin into others, and imagine that to be their character which he feels, if grace were withdrawn from him, would be his own. He judges as a man judges whose reason is slightly unsettled. He is cunning rather than discerning. To clever men charity is almost impossible if they have not an interior spirit.

We shall also find that, when we fall into the way of taking scandal, there is something wrong about our meditations. There are times when our meditations are inefficacious. With some men it is so nearly all through their lives. The fact is, that the habit of meditation will not by itself make us interior. When a man’s spiritual life is reduced to the practice of daily meditation, we see that he soon loses all control over his tongue, his temper, and his wounded feelings. His morning’s meditation is inadequate to the sweetening of his whole day. It is too feeble to detain the presence of God in his soul until evening. Like general intentions, it has theological possibilities which are hardly ever practical realities. It is like a shrub planted in the clay; if we do not dig around it and let in the air and moisture, it will not grow. Its growth is stunted and impeded. This is a perilous state of things, when our meditation is but an island in a day which is otherwise flooded with worldliness and comfort. For we must remember that comfort is one of the worst kinds of worldliness, and is most at home in our own rooms, at a distance from the gay, noisy, and dissipated world. We are not far from some serious mishap when mortification and examination of conscience have deserted our meditation and left it to itself. A habit of taking scandal often reveals to us that we are in this state, or are fast tending to it.

It also poisons much else that is good, and desecrates holy things, almost making them positively unholy. It infuses somewhat of censoriousness into our intercessory prayer. It turns our spiritual reading into a silent preachment to others. It charms away the arrows of the preacher from ourselves, and aims them with a pleased skill at others whom we have in our mind’s eye. It plays into the hands of whatever is unkindly and unlovely in our natural dispositions; and it makes our very spirituality unspiritual by making it uncharitable. All this complicated evil it implies as already existing in us; and it fosters and increases it all for the future, while it is implying it in the present. It is plain, therefore, that it would be well for us to take scandal at our taking scandal, seeing what a degrading revelation it is to us of our own misery and meanness. We are aiming at a devout life. We have only just extricated ourselves from the swamps of mortal sin. We know something of the ways of grace. We have the models of the Saints. We are more or less familiar with the teaching of spiritual writers. We are not obliged, either because of our ignorance or because of our weakness, to look to the conduct of others as the rule of our own. Hence, in our case, taking scandal is neither more nor less than judging, and we must treat the temptation to it as we would treat any other temptation against charity,—namely, check it, punish it, detest it, resolve against it, and accuse ourselves of it in confession. We must beware also of its artifices. For it has many tricks, and they are often successful. Masters, parents, and directors are quite familiar with a device of those under their care and control, and who criticize, suggestively at least, their government or direction: this trick consists in their accusing themselves of having taken scandal at the conduct of their superiors and directors. It is ingenious, but soon wears out. Directors learn early to stifle their own curiosity, and not allow their self-deluded critics to tell them what has scandalized them, as they cannot even listen to it without compromising their dignity and forfeiting their influence. In a word, we shall find it the truest and the safest conclusion to come to, that we must regard the temptation to take scandal as wholly and unmitigatedly evil, a temptation to which no quarter should be allowed, and to whose eloquent pleadings of delicacy of conscience no audience should be given but that of calm contempt.

Now that we have considered the existing evil which a readiness to take scandal implies in us, we may consider the way in which it hinders us in the attainment of perfection. It hinders us in the acquisition of self-knowledge. Watchfulness over ourselves is nothing short of an actual mortification. We eagerly lay hold of the slightest excuse for turning our attention away from ourselves, and the conduct of others is the readiest object to which we turn. No one is so blind to his own faults as a man who has the habit of detecting the faults of others. It also causes us to stand in our own light. We ourselves actually intercept the sunshine which would fall on our own souls. A man who is apt to take scandal is never a blithe or a genial man. He has never a clear light round about him. He is not made for happiness; and was ever a melancholy man made into a Saint? A downcast man is raw material which can only be manufactured into a very ordinary Christian. Moreover, if we have any sort of earnestness about us, our taking scandal must at last become a source of scruples to us. If it is not quite the same thing as censoriousness, who shall draw the line between them? We know very well that it is not at our best times that we take scandal, and it must dawn upon us by degrees that it is so often contemporary with a state of spiritual malady that the coincidence can hardly be accidental. At the same time, the act is so intrinsically ungenerous in itself that it tends to destroy all generous impulses in ourselves. No one can be generous with God who has not a great, broad love of his neighbor.

Furthermore, it destroys our influence with others. We irritate where we ought to enliven. To be suspected of want of sympathy is to be disabled as an apostle. He who is critical will necessarily be unpersuasive. Even in literature, what department of it is less persuasive, and thus less influential, than that of criticism? Men are amused by it, but they do not form their judgments on it. There are few things in the literary world more striking than the little weight of criticism compared with the amount and the ability of it. We like to find fault ourselves; but we are never attracted to another man who finds fault. It is the last refuge of our good humor that we like to have a monopoly censure. Then, again, this habit entangles us in a hundred self-raised difficulties about fraternal correction, that rock of narrow souls; for a man’s presumption is mostly in proportion to his narrowness. Men awake sometimes, and find that they have almost unconsciously worked themselves into a false position. This is a terrible affair in spirituality. It is harder to work ourselves right than to recover our balance after a sin. Yet the supposed obligation of fraternal correction is always enticing us into false positions. It also calls our attention off from God, and fixes them with a sort of diseased earnestness upon earthly miseries and pusillanimities. It is bad enough to look off from God by looking too much on ourselves; but to look off from God in order to look upon our neighbors, is a greater evil still. It deranges the whole interior world of thought, upon which the exercise of charity so much depends. It hinders us in acquiring the government of the tongue. It prevents our succeeding in good works where zealous and free co-operation with others is needed. It is the cloak which jealousy is forever assuming and calling it by the name of caution. Finally, we think all these things virtues, while they are in reality vices of the most unamiable description.

I do not think I have exaggerated the evil of this quickness to take scandal. I confess it is a fault which vexes me more than many others, and for many reasons. Its victims are good men, men full of promise, and whose souls have been the theaters of no inconsiderable operations of grace. It seizes them for the most part, just at the time when higher attainments seem opening to them. Its peculiarity is, that it is incompatible with the higher graces of the spiritual life, that it defiles that which was now almost cleansed, and vulgarizes that which was on the point of establishing its title to nobility. When we consider how many are called to perfection, and how few are perfect, may we not almost say that we do well to be angry with that evil which so opportunely and so effectually mars the work of grace?

In what does perfection consist? In a childlike, short-sighted charity; charity which believes all things; in a grand supernatural conviction that everyone is better than ourselves; in estimating far too low the amount of evil in the world; in looking far too exclusively on what is good; in the ingenuity of kind constructions; in an inattention, hardly intelligible, to the faults of others; in a graceful perversity of incredulousness about scandals, which sometimes in the Saints runs close upon being a scandal of itself. This is perfection; this is the temper and genius of Saints and saint-like men. It is a life of desire, oblivious of earthly things. It is a radiant, energetic faith that man’s slowness and coldness will not interfere with the success of God’s glory. Yet all the while it is instinctively fighting, by prayer and reparation, against evils, which it will not allow itself consciously to believe. No shadow of moroseness ever falls over the bright mind of a Saint. It is not possible that it should do so. Finally, perfection has the gift of entering into the universal Spirit of God, Who is worshipped in so many different ways, and is content. Now, is not all this just the very opposite of the temper and spirit of a man who is apt to take scandal? The difference is so plain that it is needless to comment on it. He is happy who on his dying bed can say, “No one has ever given me scandal in my life!” He has either not seen his neighbor’s faults, or, when he saw them, the sight had to reach him through so much sunshine of his own that they did not strike him so much as faults to blame, but rather as reasons for a deeper and a tenderer love.

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2 Responses to On Taking Scandal

  1. Patrick L. says:

    I think this post is a bit over my head, but if one of the purposes is make the reader feel like a wicked wretch… mission accomplished.

  2. Janet says:

    It’s beautiful…thank you for this post. Just what was needed!

Comments are closed.