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Explanation: What does the church mean when it says that a pro-choice Catholic politician causes a scandal?

“Scandal” is a word often used in recent months by American bishops regarding the best means of providing pastoral care and communicating authentic Church teaching to pro-choice politicians who identify as Catholics. But the word does not necessarily always mean what it does in everyday language. What does the Catholic Church teach on this issue?

Recent statements by Catholic prelates, including Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Father Louis Cameli of Chicago (as well as numerous public comments by Catholic priests and theologians) all mentioned the scandal as an issue that touches any discussion of giving Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. The Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church’s Code of Canon Law, and recent Vatican letters also suggest the complexity of a problem that the hierarchy has not yet solved publicly and which may not have a successful pastoral way to address.

What does the Catechism to say?

Under the title of respect for the dignity of persons in the fifth commandment, the Catechism of Catholics Church addresses the scandal in Nos 2284-2287. Defining scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads others to do evil”, the Catechism says that scandal acquires gravity “because of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized”. In other words, the term has a nuance in church teaching that is lacking in our daily use of the term as something shocking or disingenuous: another danger of scandal is that it can lead others people to sin.

the Catechism of Catholics Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads others to do evil”.

Speaking directly to political leaders, the Catechism adds that “they are guilty of scandal which establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of mores and the corruption of religious practice” or which establish “social conditions” which make it more difficult to respect Christian morals and commandments. Whoever uses his power to cause scandal “becomes guilty of the scandal and responsible for the evil” which he encourages.

What does the Bible say?

The idea that a Christian’s public behavior can scandalize fellow believers in this way dates back to the Bible. The early Christian community Paul addressed in his letters to the Corinthians appears to have struggled with several cases of scandal, including a man committing incest with his mother-in-law (1 Cor 5: 1) and men associating with prostitutes in temples pagans of Aphrodite (1 Cor 6-7). But another case is even closer to the scandal issue in the case of politicians.

The idea that a Christian’s public behavior can scandalize other believers dates back to the Bible.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Saint Paul responds to the case of believers eating meat sacrificed to idols in a way that bothered those who refused to do so. Establishing a nuanced but firm position, Paul writes to the Corinthians:

There are some who have been so used to idolatry until now that when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, their conscience, which is weak, is defiled. Now, food will not bring us closer to God. We’re not worse off if we don’t eat, and we’re not better off if we do. But make sure that your freedom does not become a stumbling block for the weak in any way. If someone sees you, with your knowledge, at table in the temple of an idol, his conscience, however weak, could it not also be “edified” to eat the meat sacrificed to the idols? So by your knowledge the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died. When you sin against your brothers in this way and injure their conscience, however weak it may be, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so as not to cause my brother to sin. (1 Cor 8: 7-13, NABER translation)

Here Paul is doing two things. First, he notes that his new Christians have the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because the food in itself will not hurt them morally and they know it. But second, he notes the danger of doing it in front of other believers with weaker consciousnesses, making them feel OK to participate in practices antithetical to their faith.

Adapting a community view of the scandal, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the values ​​and needs of others within the Christian community, urging them to remember their mutual responsibility to safeguard church unity. Ultimately, Paul states that Christians who publicly do something they know to be scandalous to other Christians are acting on a disorderly freedom that elevates their opinions above the good of the community. Therefore, as the Catechism said, they commit a sin against Christ even though they did not do the action (eg, sacrifice the meat) themselves.

Paul states that Christians who publicly do something they know to be scandalous are acting on a disorderly freedom that elevates their opinions above the good of the community.

While it was a grave sin for a Christian in Corinth to sacrifice meat to idols in pagan temples, eating meat was not necessarily a sin in and of itself for Paul. Sin arose from eating it in front of others, knowing that it would cause them pain and confusion.

What does canon law say?

Like Saint Paul in the passage above, the 1983 Code of Canon Law understands scandal as any action that incites others to do wrongdoing. Regarding this cooperation, canon 1329 speaks of collaboration in a bad deed (or a “misdemeanor” in the legal language of the code) as deserving of sanctions for the principal perpetrator and those who conspire together to commit a sinful act. But Canon 1314 says that generally a penalty for such collaboration is ferendae sententiae, that is to say, it only binds the culprit after having been imposed. This has traditionally been interpreted to mean that a bishop must speak with a Catholic accused of scandal and verify certain things before imposing a penalty of excommunication or restricting his right to the sacraments.

Pope Francis: “All discussions on doctrinal, moral or pastoral questions do not need to be settled by interventions from the magisterium. “

Recent developments

On May 7, the current CDF prefect, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, sent a letter to Mgr José H. Gomez, president of the USCCB, responding to a letter on March 30 from Mgr Gomez. In that letter to the CDF, Archbishop Gomez wrote that the USCCB was preparing to draft a document at its June meeting on “the dignity of receiving communion” of Catholic politicians who support legislation allowing abortion, l euthanasia or other moral ailments.

Cardinal Ladaria demanded that his response be shared with all American bishops and warned that the proposed discussion at the bishops meeting on a national policy regarding pro-choice politicians receiving Communion could “become a source of contention rather than unit ”. It was only after a two-stage “extended and peaceful” dialogue, first between the bishops themselves and then with pro-choice politicians, he said, that the formal discussion of a such policy should begin.

This intervention appears significant in the context of the present papacy. Pope Francis generally applies the principle of subsidiarity more drastically to the Catholic hierarchy itself than did his predecessors, entrusting decisions of pastoral application of canon law to the more localized levels of Church governance. When Catholics around the world press him with controversial issues of pastoral discipline, as opposed to questions of changing church teaching, he often encourages them to make their own decisions rather than wait for CDF instruction.

Following his apostolic exhortation of 2016 “”Amoris Laetitia“Francis refused to impose a centralized interpretation of a footnote that seemed to create a loophole for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion. In paragraph three of that document he writes that” all discussions on doctrinal, moral or pastoral questions do not need to be settled by intervention of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not exclude various ways to interpret certain aspects of this teaching or to draw certain conclusions from it.

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