January 05, 2009

When Did Scandal Become (Especially) Scandalous?

After researching when Santa Claus became controversial, I now try to figure out when scandal became scandalous. Not scandal in the sense of New Testament Greek which is meant in the very broadest sesne as any kind of hindrance, but as specifically a cause of the weakening in the faith of others.

No one in the gospels (that I'm aware of) is reported to have lost his faith over Judas or from Peter's denial of Christ (although of course you can't prove anything from an absence of scriptural data). Yet common sense suggests that human nature doesn't change and that scandal has always been around even if not explicitly defined.

The OED defines scandal as:
Discredit to religion occasioned by the conduct of a religious person; conduct, on the part of a religious person, which brings discredit on religion. Also, perplexity of conscience occasioned by the conduct of one who is looked up to as an example.
Scandal is omnipresent in today's world; Fr. Neuhaus writes about a victim of it, Rod Dreher:
Here’s an interesting statement by Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, who also runs the “Crunchy Con” blog on beliefnet.com. Some years ago he was giving major attention to the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and a priest warned him that “I was going to find places darker than I realized existed.” He did, and he left the Catholic Church. “After I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity,” he writes, “I made a deliberate decision not to investigate the scandals in my own church. And there are scandals there. My family needs me to be spiritually healthy. My family needs to have a church. And there’s nowhere left to go. So I can stand on the sidelines and watch journalists commenting about scandals in the Orthodox Church, and I can cheer them on to see justice done, but I cannot be involved in that. If that makes me less of a journalist, then that’s something I have to live with, but at least now I know my weakness.” He is not less of a journalist, and his decision does not reflect a weakness. He is simply a journalist who has decided that, for compelling personal reasons, his beat is not the Orthodox Church.
From the New Oxford American Dictionary, there seems to be a morphing of the meaning of the word over time and it's that morphing that interests me. What changed scandal from merely a stumbling block (i.e. such as the 'scandal of the cross') to the point where it meant a discredit to religion by poor behavior of religious people? The etymology from New Oxford American says:
Middle English (in the sense 'discredit to religion (by the reprehensible behavior of a religions poerson)'): from Old French scandale, from ecclesiastical Latin scandalum 'cause of offense,' from Greek skandalon 'snare, stumbling block.'
According to "The Secret Life of Words" by Henry Hitchings, scandal was imported from the French during the Middle Ages during a time of heightened moral acuity:
French terms suggested the changing contours of day-to-day morality. There were new ideals of behavior. The language of status became the language of moral excellence, while low status was equated with low moral standards...We see something of the new moral color in the Ancren Riwle, a manual for aspiring female hermits dating from around 1230, which introduces a host of new words: apocalypse, comfort, discipline, guile, purgatory, virtue and hypocrite, plus an early, isolated, sighting of scandal.
From the OED quoting the Ancren Riwle:
a1225 Ancr. R. 12 Auh hwarse wummon liue oer mon bi him one, eremite oer ancre, of incges wiuten hwarof scandle ne kume: nis nout muche strence. Ibid. 108 Auh er en et biddunge arere eni schaundle, er heo ouh for to deien martir in hire meseise. Ibid. 380 e nowen nout unnen et eni vuel word kome of ou: uor schandle is heaued sunne.
I don't know what that means so I'll leave it to you linguists. (I would insert a risque joke here, but it would cause scandal.) In 1581 comes the next reference: "A punishment of her lightnesse and vanitie, by meanes whereof she hath giuen occasion of scandale and offence."

OED says:
Before the 16th c. the word occurs only in the Ancren Riwle, exc. in the forms treated s.v. SLANDER n. (from the OF. variants escandre, esclandre). In the 16th c. it was re-adopted from the Latin in the form scandal, possibly after the Fr. learned form scandale, which had been introduced to represent the strict sense of eccl. L. scandalum, as distinguished from the senses that had been developed by F. esclandre.
I wonder if when Christendom began to fracture there was more sense of the impact of scandal. The early Christian community had "unity issues" causing St. Paul to write at the start of Romans 14:
Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One person believes that one may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats must not despise the one who abstains, and the one who abstains must not pass judgment on the one who eats; for God has welcomed him.
But that doesn't precisely get at the notion of losing one's faith because of another's behavior. That seems more along the lines of division over differences.

Yet even at the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, apparently the notion of scandal was already quite familiar (if not yet the English word), and he also sees in Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:22) an implicit reference to scandal. Aquinas defines scandal this way:
Article 1. Whether scandal is fittingly defined as being something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall?

On the contrary, Jerome in expounding Matthew 15:12, "Dost thou know that the Pharisees, when they heard this word," etc. says: "When we read 'Whosoever shall scandalize,' the sense is 'Whosoever shall, by deed or word, occasion another's spiritual downfall.'"

I answer that, As Jerome observes the Greek skandalon may be rendered offense, downfall, or a stumbling against something. For when a body, while moving along a path, meets with an obstacle, it may happen to stumble against it, and be disposed to fall down: such an obstacle is a skandalon.

In like manner, while going along the spiritual way, a man may be disposed to a spiritual downfall by another's word or deed, in so far, to wit, as one man by his injunction, inducement or example, moves another to sin; and this is scandal properly so called.

Now nothing by its very nature disposes a man to spiritual downfall, except that which has some lack of rectitude, since what is perfectly right, secures man against a fall, instead of conducing to his downfall. Scandal is, therefore, fittingly defined as "something less rightly done or said, that occasions another's spiritual downfall."
More from St. Thomas:
...if a man were to "sit at meat in the idol's temple" (1 Corinthians 8:10), though this is not sinful in itself, provided it be done with no evil intention, yet, since it has a certain appearance of evil, and a semblance of worshipping the idol, it might occasion another man's spiritual downfall. Hence the Apostle says (1 Thessalonians 5:22): "From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves." ...

As stated above (I-II, 75, 2,3; I-II, 80, 1), nothing can be a sufficient cause of a man's spiritual downfall, which is sin, save his own will. Wherefore another man's words or deeds can only be an imperfect cause, conducing somewhat to that downfall. For this reason scandal is said to afford not a cause, but an occasion, which is an imperfect, and not always an accidental cause.


William Luse said...

Neuhaus lets Dreher off the hook. He is not less of a journalist, and his decision does not reflect a weakness. So it's okay if you try to destroy the credibility of a church's hierarchy and it's okay if you don't. How pathetic. I guess it's more important to remain pundit-pals than to tell the truth.

Appreciate your digging up the history of a word, though. It's the kind of curiosity most people simply don't possess. Including me.

TS said...

Yeah I thought Neuhaus was awfully gentle with Dreher but does get a bit firmer as he continues:

He and his family need a church and “there’s nowhere left to go.” Many Catholics feel the same way and, for sound reasons, believe Orthodoxy is not a place to go. As with Dreher and Orthodoxy, there are things these Catholics really don’t want to know about their Church. They know that it is a community of sinners—and of sinners forgiven, called to be saints, and usually failing to respond to the call as they should—and that is enough. A while back we were sharply criticized for refusing to accept advertising for a book on the Catholic abuse crisis that, among other things, went into salacious detail about what some bad priests did to young boys. That was not the only reason for rejecting the advertising, but it was a major reason. We thought there were some things people didn’t need to know and didn’t want to know, and for good reasons. As I trust is obvious, that does not prevent this magazine from dealing candidly with continuing patterns of corruption in the Church. So I have considerable sympathy for Rod Dreher’s decision not to try to win journalistic kudos for investigating what’s wrong with Orthodoxy. At the same time, if he had made the same decision for the same reasons some years ago, I suppose he would still be a Catholic.