Getting a Handle on Scandal
Now that we are in the penitential season of Lent, our diocese is making an effort to bring fallen-away Catholics back into communion with the Church. Confessions were scheduled simultaneously at all parishes with a resident priest in the diocese on one particular Wednesday evening. Ads were placed in local newspapers offering this opportunity for anyone longing to return to the Church. I hope that many Catholics who continue to attend Mass regularly but do not go to confession, also took this opportunity to return to the Sacrament.
I just reread a blog I wrote ten years ago about the dwindling number of Catholics going to Confession. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. In our small parish where most people know one another, it is hard not to notice certain folks who frequent Holy Communion, yet are never seen at penance services or Saturday confession. I will have more to say about my observation later.
Regular confession, like attendance at Mass, needs to be a family ritual. Children who see mom and dad going to confession are more likely to continue the pattern and later pass it on to their own children. Most adults of childbearing age today never had that experience. How do we get those who never realized the importance of the Sacrament to see the need?
If we were to poll Catholics on why they don’t take frequent advantage of Confession, we would likely get varying answers. A more probing question might be, “how do you justify NOT going to Confession?” Most Catholics, at least those in our parish, certainly have the importance of the Sacrament preached to them on a regular basis. I suspect many would say they don’t commit mortal sins.
For a sin to be mortal, the Church tells us three things are necessary. It must be grave matter, we must know it is grave matter, and we must choose to do it willingly. That second qualification is what many feel gets them off the hook. “If I don’t think it’s a mortal sin, then it’s not a mortal sin, right?” One may think looking at pornography on the Internet is not a sin, or copying movies onto DVDs and distributing them to your friends for free is okay, or voting for the pro-abortion candidate is permitted because the other guy wants to limit entitlements, or eating meat on Friday during Lent is no big deal. We humans have a way of massaging our consciences to justify whatever behavior suits our fancy. Is ignorance truly bliss? No. We have an obligation to form our consciences properly, and as Catholics, that means in accordance with the teachings of the Church.
So much is going on around us everyday that we become numbed by evil. We are bombarded daily by a secular media that tries to normalize sinful behavior, and ostracize those with a religious view. Losing awareness of sin is almost inevitable for those who do not lead God-centered lives. Going to Mass once a week and standing in line for Communion does not automatically mean one is leading a God-centered life. Growing in faith is a life-long process. If we do not continue to nurture our faith, it becomes a routine that can lead to an apathetic attitude toward Church teaching. We can fall into venial sin without giving it much thought, and sometimes more serious sin as a consequence.
One example is the sin of scandal. We might commonly think of scandal being a concerted cover-up of a serious crime, or somebody cheating on a spouse. But some other types of scandal that may seem way less serious, might actually have even more dire consequences. What if something we did or didn’t do, caused another person to drift further from God to the point where salvation was eventually lost?
A meditation booklet I was reading at Eucharistic Adoration yesterday emphasized the importance of our conduct in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. A story attributed to Saint John Climacus told of an incident when an Abbot saw two seminarians exchange conversation during adoration. The Abbot ordered them to stand outside the church for a month to apologize to every person that entered the church for the scandal they had caused. Did the Abbot overreact?
The number one full definition of scandal in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says:
a : discredit brought upon religion by unseemly conduct in a religious person
b : conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in another
By today’s standards, we would think the seminarians punishment was a bit severe, but our conduct at adoration can affect the spiritual temperature of others around us, either positively or negatively. If we seem oblivious to the Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, our behavior can foster similar attitude in others. When we are in a Catholic Church, body language speaks louder than words.
There are many other ways our conduct can cause a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in others. Buying a wedding gift or witnessing a ceremony of a Catholic attempting an invalid marriage outside of the Church is showing approval of a mortal sin. For a Catholic to do so is committing scandal when other Catholics knowing the situation witness that approval. Distributing copyrighted movies or software among your friends to avoid paying royalties is not only stealing, but can also be scandalous when doing so leads others to believe this sin is acceptable. When other parents allow their child to miss Sunday Mass for a Pop Warner football game because you do, you have committed the sin of scandal. Receiving Holy Communion with a mortal sin on our soul is another mortal sin. If another Catholic knows we have a mortal sin and sees us in the Communion line, we have also committed a sin of scandal. When our repeated behaviors cause others to drift away from their faith, the sin of scandal becomes serious.
People often do these things without giving it much thought, not realizing they are sanctioning bad behavior in others. This lack of sin awareness stems from a lack of focus on God and our ultimate goal attaining heaven. I often refer to the analogy I first heard from Father Robert Barron who spoke of a driver going down the road at night not realizing how dirty his windshield is until the lights of an oncoming car illuminate the bugs and grime. Similarly, we do not see the dirt on our own souls until we are oriented toward the light of Christ.
Now, I realize my observation of many parishioners not taking advantage of confession may itself be a bug on my windshield. I should not assume they have grave sins on their souls, or that they do not confess at another parish, or when I am not there. Yet, I think it is safe to assume that many Catholics have avoided the confessional for a very long time, and that neglect can be scandalous when it leads others to do the same.
If you are a well-respected Catholic who is never seen in the confessional line, your conspicuous absence can be scandalous in the sense that it gives affirmation to others who look to you for an example. Conversely, seeing you going to confession regularly could inspire others to do the same. And if you are not a well-respected Catholic, you need to address that issue also!