“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”Anne of Green Gables
Why am I starting a Catholic spirituality post by quoting Anne Shirley? Anne understood something that our culture does not: the importance of words.
Writing and teaching about how to grow in intimacy with Christ, I regularly encounter certain words that are bandied about in a manner that can lead to scandal. What is scandal? We have mislaid the classic definition of this word itself.
The meaning of “scandal”
Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary, found online at CatholicCulture.org, defines scandal in this way:
“Any action or its omission, not necessarily sinful in itself, that is likely to induce another to do something morally wrong. Direct scandal, also called diabolical, has the deliberate intention to induce another to sin. In indirect scandal a person does something that he or she forsees will at least likely lead another to commit sin, but this is rather tolerated than positively desired. (Etym. Latin scandalum, stumbling block.)”
Here are some current examples of scandal:
- admitting pro-abortion politicians to Communion
- putting a rainbow on your social media profile to celebrate “Pride Month”
In and of itself, there is no sin in giving Holy Communion to a baptized Catholic who has made his First Communion. However, if that person promotes the grave evil of abortion, and he is allowed to receive Communion, others seeing this may think that it is permissible for a Catholic to support abortion.Such people may then be emboldened to sin gravely. This is scandal. It is likely to lead to such a result, but the result is not intended, so it is indirect scandal.
Celebrating Pride Month may be direct scandal, which is more serious. Celebrating another’s grave sin tells him that his sin is a good, rather than an evil. It actively encourages him to sin. Don’t forget that direct scandal is also called “diabolical.”
The sin of scandal
When is scandal a sin?
“As a general rule the sin of scandal exists when one directly induces another to do a thing which he cannot do without sin, either formal or material, e.g. by soliciting a person to perjury, drunkenness, sins of the flesh, etc., even though the person induced to this act is habitually or at the time disposed to commit it. It is otherwise when the thing we ask is good or indifferent; this may be done without scandal and without sin, when there is a just cause or serious reason for asking it; even though one foresees that the other will probably sin in granting it …”The 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia at NewAdvent.org
So, celebrating Pride Month is a sin of scandal, since it entices people to sin. Whether my first example is an instance of the sin of scandal under this rule, I leave to the theologians. But there is another sin of scandal involved when a pro-abortion politician receives Holy Communion.
“He is guilty of the sin of scandal who without positively pledging or inducing to sin nevertheless performs an act evil in itself which will be an occasion of sin to another. The same must be said when the act is evil only in appearance, unless there be sufficient reason to act and to permit the fault of another …”Ibid.
To recieve the Most Blessed Sacrament in a state of mortal sin is an act evil in itself. Doing so emboldens others in a state of mortal sin to receive, without repenting and confessing their sin. So the pro-abortion politician himself is guilty of the sin of scandal when he receives (besides the sin of sacrilege).
Now, I’m not going to get into subjective guilt, because I am using these examples to illustrate what scandal is. This blog post is not really about them. It is about another kind of scandal that can unintentionally lead people to fall away from the Faith. It’s a scandal that Anne Shirley probably would have recognized, but even some prominent Catholic priests do not.
I’m talking about the scandal of misused words.
Misusing words in a way which leads others to sin falls under a third instance of sinful — yes, sinful — scandal that I see happening routinely, even among devout Catholics.
” To prevent another’s sin one may even be bound to forego an act which is sinful neither in itself nor in appearance, but which is nevertheless the occasion of sin to another, unless there be sufficient reason to act otherwise. … we must avoid scandalizing the weak if we can do so easily.”Ibid. (emphasis mine)
According to the Catholic Enclycopedia, “We should, to avoid scandal, forego good or indifferent works which are not of precept, if we can do so without great inconvenience.” And even some precepts should be avoided in limited situations, if fulfilling them will lead others to sin.
The scandal caused by words
What if your wrote your spouse a love letter and compared your love to a skunk cabbage? Would it matter to him or her that what you were calling a skunk cabbage was what other people call a rose? If you want to make your spouse happy, rather than angry or hurt, you should stick to calling a rose a rose.
What if your spouse gave you a bouquet of thistles and claimed that thistles and roses are more or less the same? Would you feel honored?
In Catholic theology, being precise about words has always been important. The Nicene Council taught that the Son was “consubstantial” with the Father. The Council of Constantinople was convened to rule on the phrase “mother of God.” Words have a precise meaning in our Faith.
So why are so many Catholics sloppy or outright scandalous in their use of words today?
Let me give you several examples that I encounter regularly.
In the 17th century, a Carmelite friar who copied and dispersed the works of St. John of the Cross coined the term “acquired contemplation.” John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, doctors of the Church regarding prayer and the mystical life, had narrowed the definition of contemplation to exclusively refer to an infused, supernatural gift. Ven. Tomas of Jesus, OCD, had good intentions when he coined this new term, but it led to the following bad results:
- theologians began to speak of two paths to holiness: the normal path, culminating in “acquired contemplation,” and the extraordinary path of the saints, culminating in infused contemplation.
- a misinterpretation of John of the Cross’s teaching on when one should abandon meditation on Scripture.
The first point discourages lay people from aspiring to infused contemplation. It unnaturally divides the Body of Christ between saints and the rest of us. The truth is, as Lumen Gentium teaches, we are all called to holiness. We cannot normally attain holiness without the infused graces given in contemplation.
It also paved the way for further errors such as Centering Prayer, by falsely equating contemplation with an active prayer that we can practice.
The second point continues to be a problem among today’s Carmelites. Just the other day, I read a passage in Peter Thomas Rohrbach’s book, Conversation with Christ, that illustrates the misinterpretation. In the past, I have recommended the book, because it was where I first learned to meditate on Scripture. But I had not read it in full for years. Reading the chapter “Advanced Mental Prayer,” I found that Rohrbach quotes passages in which St. John is clearly in context speaking of infused prayer, and then says that John is speaking of “acquired contemplation.” Thus, even though John says one may regress spiritually by giving up meditation “before the proper time,” Rohrbach advises people to give up meditation when they reach the prayer Teresa calls (not-yet-supernatural) “recollection.” This advice can be disastrous for one’s spiritual life. I followed Rohrbach’s advice myself, and I regressed spiritually, just as John predicted.
All these problems are the result of using words in a way that conflicts with the terminology of the doctors of the Church.
This term is used almost ubiquitously among Catholics in a scandalous manner. Here is a comment from a prominent priest in a conversation about mindfulness earlier this year in my Facebook group Authentic Contemplative Prayer:
I agree with Father that we must be “mindful of Christ,” and that in the abstract, “Buddhists don’t own the word mindfulness.” But no one lives in the abstract. In the concrete, a Buddhist worldview often lies behind the use of this word today.
Here is my answer:
Here is more of our conversation:
When we muddy the waters by trying to apply words from foreign religions, or “secularized” versions of a practice from a foreign religion, we confuse the faithful. The “little ones” whom Christ loves so dearly can seldom make the proper distinctions to discern that one type of mindfulness is okay and another may lead to serious psychological and spiritual problems.
Remember, “we must avoid scandalizing the weak if we can do so easily.” It is very easy to speak of “the practice of the presence of God” or “recollection” or “the sacrament of the present moment,” without using the word “mindfulness” and causing scandal. Let us not lead people into confusion or worse just in order to attract people by the use of the latest faddish term.
You might think that the definition of Centering Prayer was straight-forward. Fr. Thomas Keating coined the term (basing it on something Thomas Merton said) to describe a method of Eastern-style meditation, in which “the goal is a state of no-thought.” Despite the use of Christian terms in Centering Prayer circles, the practice is decidedly not Christian prayer. (You can read more about the problems with the practice in my book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? or my website of the same name.)
Yet I sometimes encounter people who are practicing St. Teresa’s acquired recollection, or even discursive meditation, and they call their practice “Centering Prayer.”
I also regulalry have people tell me, “I only practice Christian Centering Prayer.” I don’t even know what that means! There is no “Buddhist Centering Prayer.” Buddhist do not generally even pray. They meditate. Centering Prayer was created to be a Christian answer to the interest in Buddhist, Hindu, and New Age meditation. It ended up being nothing more than syncretism, as the numerous theological errors taught by Fr. Keating and his associates show.
Centering Prayer is one thing and Christian prayer is another, and never the twain should meet. Unless one enjoys “scandalizing the weak.”
In my Facebook group Authentic Contemplative Prayer, we do not allow any positive posts about yoga. Just a few days ago, this policy became an issue.
A member asked if Pietra Fitness was okay, or if it was really a kind of yoga. (Yes to the first, no to the second.) Another member defended the idea of going to one’s local gym for a yoga class, insisting that there was nothing Hindu about such a class. I and other admins deleted a number of her comments, because they could lead others to take up yoga. I wrote, “Neither you nor I have anyway of knowing whether the yoga class at someone else’s local gym is problematic or not.”
The member could not understand why we do not allow comments promoting yoga “purely as exercerise.” The answer is simple: scandal. In order to avoid being a venue from which God’s “little ones” are led astray, we allow no promotion of any kind of yoga, ever. There is simply no compelling reason to do so.
And finally, here is a term I don’t come across nearly as often: “Christian Zen.” There was, however, a book of that title by Fr. William Johnston, SJ, published in 1997. Here is part of an editorial review posted on the book’s Amazon sales page:
“This intense study of Zen meditation in the light of Christian mysticism demonstrates how Christian contemplation and Zen meditation have flowered into one graceful tree. . . “
Say what? No, Zen and Christian contemplation are as different as East and West. One leads toward “nothing,” the other leads toward the “All.” One to de-personalization, the other to a face-to-face encounter with the three Divine Persons.
As Spain’s bishops noted a few years ago, the term can lead to confusion and worse.
Please avoid scandal
Scandalizing the weak by misusing words, without a compelling reason, can be a sin. This practice has led many way from the Faith. It really needs to stop.
The weak can easily be confused or led into error. I know. I am one of them. Will you please consider this, before using one of the terms above?
Oh, and by the way, anyone know a good rhyme for “skunk cabbage?”
2 thoughts on “On Words and Scandal”
In regards to the Carmelite book “Conversation with Christ,” can you still recommend the rest of it, perhaps just skipping that chapter?
Tashlan indeed. At this point, I am recommending other books on mental prayer — those by Dan Burke and Fr. Gallagher, etc. I am also writing one myself now for Sophia Institute Press that will detail how to practice Lectio Divna, Ignatian Meditation, and the traditional Carmelite meditation that is found in Rohrbach and elsewhere. Look for it next year.