Catechism III: What is 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.”

                                       Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2284


The section on Scandal is in the Catechism, Part III (“Life in Christ”), Section II., “Respect for the Dignity of Persons”. The lead line into the topic is this: “Respect for the souls of others: scandal.”

The Catechism goes on,

Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it … Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate…Anyone who used 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 he has directly or indirectly encouraged…” 

                        CCC, 2285-87 (my emphasis)

“Grave offense,” or, sometimes, “grave matter” is a term with specific meaning: 

Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments … The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft…”

                        CCC, 1858


…Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

                        CCC, 1857


The full discussion in the Catechism on sins mortal and venial is found in paragraphs 1854-1864. 

We now have under our belts an introduction into the topic of scandal. Any of us can cause scandal, but the scandal is all the more serious if perpetrated by one with power and authority: bishop, priest, teacher, politician. We will look at a recent example of scandal. But first, a little background.

Abortion, according to the catechism, is the “deliberate termination of pregnancy by killing the unborn child. Such direct abortion, either as a means or as an end, is gravely contrary to moral law…” (CCC, Glossary). 

Where does abortion data come from? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have reported data on abortion since 1969; the most recent data (2014) was published here in November, 2017. The CDC tends to underestimate numbers (see “Limitations” section) because reporting is voluntary, there are variations in how states report, and because not every state reports every year. In 2014, for example, California, Maryland and New Hampshire did not report at all. The CDC’s numbers, by their own estimates, are consistently about 71% of the numbers reported by Guttmacher Institute, a large, very powerful and very well funded pro-abortion think tank with a robust research and data collection arm. That said, the CDC is a good starting point to frame the numbers for any abortion discussion, recognizing that their numbers may be somewhat lower (but probably not a lot lower) than reality.

So, in 2014 there were 652,639 abortions nationwide reported to the CDC. Guttmacher reports 926,200 for 2014. This includes medical abortions. Of these, 91.5% were performed before 13 weeks’ gestation; 7.2% at 14-20 weeks, and 1.3% at over 21 weeks gestation. (CDC and Guttmacher report the same percentage breakdowns). 1.3% of 653,000 is 8500, 1.3% of 926,000 is 12,000. Thus, the absolute numbers of post 20 week abortions in 2014 were 8500-12,000. The term “late term” abortion is a little fuzzy, some consider 16+ weeks as late term, others 20+, others consider 24+ weeks late term, some only use the term with respect to “partial birth abortions”. I just stick to the gestational ages in looking at abortion statistics.

Maine, by the way, reported 2,021 abortions in 2014, of which 0.6%, or 13, were >21 weeks. That is an abortion rate not too far from national rates. (The summary table from the CDC report is here.)  

So. There is no Federal gestational age limit on abortion, making the United States one of seven countries in the world which permit elective abortion (meaning no medical resaon necessary) after 20 weeks’ gestation. (Some states place gestational age restrictions on abortions, data sheet here, Maine is not one of those states). Thus, the US is an outlier among nations, being numbered among those nations with the most permissive abortion laws on the planet. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, introduced last year, was intended to restrict abortions after 20 weeks. Although passed by the House in the fall of 2017, on 29 January 2017 the Senate failed to pass the Act by a vote of 51-46. Our own senators, Angus King and Susan Collins (no relation), voted with the Democratic majority to oppose the bill. I know nothing regarding the religious proclivities, if any, of Angus King. However, I do know that Susan Collins is routinely identified as Catholic.

In the Light of the Law is an excellent blog by Dr. Edward Peters. Dr. Peters is a lawyer (JD) and canon lawyer (JCD) at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and, among his many other projects, runs the website (“the internet’s largest canon law resource”) as well as the above mentioned blog, and reading Dr. Peters can really help guide you through some of the messes out there in the Church today. Which bring us to the “Bloody 14”, the 14 Catholic Senators (including our own Sen. Collins) who voted to support the gruesome business of post 20 week abortions (and it is a gruesome business). Make no mistake, voting to oppose a law banning a procedure is supporting the procedure. The upshot of Dr. Peter’s post is that (1) voting in favor of abortion “rights” (of any flavor) is not the same as procuring an abortion, “so no excommunication for procuring abortion applies in response to voting for it.” This is not to lessen the gravity of the sin in the vote – for such a vote is gravely sinful – but to parse the correct applications of Canon law regarding the crime of actually doing an abortion (my sincere apologies to Dr. Peters if I am presenting this incorrectly, but I don’t think I am). However, “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin” may legitimately invoke the duty of Catholic ministers to withhold Holy Communion (the famous “Canon 915”). There are many elements here, and I am not going to pretend to be able to unpack it properly; I leave that to Dr. Peters and I urge you to read him and his many references on this. Further, I have no idea as to whether this is a one-time event for Senator Collins, or if it is one of a string of similar votes. My point is this:

Susan Collins is a United States Senator with enormous wealth, power and authority both in this State and in the Senate. Senator Collins is also publicly (and, presumably, willingly) identified as  Catholic. Senator Collins voted to kill a bill which would put restrictions on abortions. The bill was killed, with her help. This next point is important: THE LAW TEACHES. When Senator Collins votes in favor of laws that permit or uphold abortion (or, as in the case here, vote against laws that would restrict abortions), she is using her power and influence to teach a moral lesson to her constituents here in Maine, as well as to the nation. The lesson is that abortion is OK. Thus, to my mind, Senator Collins has fulfilled all the elements of scandal laid out in CCC 2284-2287.

Senator Collins is a public figure, and is publicly teaching, by her voting record, that the grave evil of abortion is acceptable. She is, to repeat, a source of scandal as defined by the Catechism. Does an individual Catholic have any obligation regarding this? In my opinion, yes. Catholics vote. Although a discussion on degrees of participation is evil is well beyond the confines of this little post, suffice it to say that when one votes for one who is acting contrary to settled Catholic moral principles, one is - to at least some degree - participating in the evil. 

Do the clergy, does the Diocese, have any obligation to address this? Many clergy, and most Diocese, argue that they do not have any obligation to confront such teaching by powerful and wealthy Catholics in their Diocese. They either argue this explicitly (rare) or, far more commonly, argue it by their silence. And yet, clergy are bound to teach. Indeed, it is arguably one of their primary functions. And when the episcopacy ignores teaching from prominent Catholics that is floridly contrary to simple and defined teaching of the Church, such as the case here with abortion, the episcopacy is teaching that difficult issues, such as abortion, are best left alone, especially when dealing with powerful and wealthy Senators or the media. 

What should the Diocese of Portland, Maine do? Well, I refer you back to Dr. Peters for more discussion on this. It depends on several factors and to me there is a broad range of appropriate responses. I cannot prescribe exactly what the Diocese should do. It is clear to me, however, that the Diocese should not simply let this go by unchallenged, for the sake of the souls involved: Senator Collins’, as well as those who would be influenced by her behavior. As Dr. Peters ended his post on this topic,

“The repeated, though for now misguided, calls for excommunication in these cases, and the repeated, but worth-considering, calls for withholding holy Communion in these cases share this: they spring almost completely from Catholic laity and are almost completely ignored by ecclesiastical leadership. This almost total, multi-decade disconnect between people and pastors is a source of serious tension in the Church. (My emphasis.) Pray that such tension is relieved before it erupts into even more serious problems.”

Curate, ut valeatis!

PS: Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s list of the 14 Catholic Senators who voted against the post 20 week abortion ban is here.

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