A person’s main responsibility with respect to the spiritual and moral well-being of others is to give them the example of Christian life and bear witness before them to Jesus’ truth. This responsibility is met by discerning, accepting, and fulfilling one’s personal vocation (see 2.E). Another important responsibility toward others is to help to assure them the full benefits of membership in the Church, by meeting one’s own responsibility as a Church member (see 3.D). Moreover, as has just been explained, one should help others resist temptation and work with them to overcome sin and its effects.
Here it remains to treat only two other important responsibilities for the moral welfare of others: to admonish those who seem to be sinning and to avoid leading others into sin.
Since grave sin is incompatible with abiding in divine love, these responsibilities flow from a person’s fundamental responsibility to love neighbors with that love which constitutes communion in Jesus (see 6.A). For this reason, moral theology traditionally took up admonishing (traditionally called “fraternally correcting”) apparent sinners and avoiding leading others into sin in the treatise on charity (see S.t., 2–2, q. 33 and q. 43). However, these responsibilities are appropriately treated in the present chapter, which deals with overcoming sin and its effects. For Christians should be concerned not only to overcome sin in their own lives but to help others overcome and avoid it.
In individualistic, post-Christian societies lacking both social solidarity and a sense of sin, indifference to others’ true good and ethical subjectivism are so prevalent that the responsibilities to be treated here are generally ignored and sometimes even rejected: “Am I anyone else’s keeper?” Jesus, however, loved his brothers and sisters too much to act as if he could be indifferent to their moral welfare, and every Christian is called to follow him in this matter as in others.
The responsibility to admonish is not the same as the responsibility which authorities as such have to direct and correct others, to maintain law and order. Rather, it is the responsibility everyone has to dissuade others from committing sins and encourage them to repent of sins they have not yet repented. (Admonish is used here to include the moral instruction an admonition sometimes involves and extends to the whole range of constructive moral criticism and advice.)66
Since the ground of the responsibility to admonish is love of neighbor—the will that others abide in God’s love and not be separated from it by sin—authentic admonition is altogether different from reproof and criticism motivated by self-interest, frustration, or impatience with others’ behavior. Love does not judge and condemn anyone, and is not meddlesome; rather, it is supportive and constructive. Thus, Christian admonitions must be directed to others’ real benefit, and must be expressed with sympathy, thoughtfulness, and gentleness.
The New Testament indicates this responsibility in several places (see Lk 17.3, 1 Cor 6.1–6, Gal 6.1, 1 Thes 5.14, 2 Thes 3.14–15, Jas 5.19–20). Most familiar are the rather detailed directions for the specific kind of case in which one Christian considers himself or herself sinned against by another:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Mt 18.15–17)
Any attempt to generalize from this raises many questions. Without judging others, as Christians are forbidden to do, how can one tell that it is appropriate to admonish them? Knowing oneself to be a sinner, can one presume to admonish others? Since the weak need support, is it appropriate to admonish those who seem to be sinning through weakness? Should someone be admonished about something that involves only light matter? Since the responsibility to admonish is affirmative, what are the circumstances in which it does not hold? When it does hold, how should one go about fulfilling it? Should only peers be admonished, or subordinates and superiors as well? Should one admonish nonbelievers as well as fellow Christians?
a) “Judge not” and “Admonish possible sinners” are compatible. Vatican II neatly formulates the prohibition against judging others: “God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts; for that reason he forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone” (GS 28; cf. S.t., 2–2, q. 60, a. 2, ad 1). This norm, however, does not preclude judgments necessary for determining that one should try to dissuade others from committing sins or to encourage them to repent if they have sinned.
For, first, without judging others, one can take their own word for their state of conscience, and so can react to their statement that they are considering committing some sin or are unrepentant for a sin they have committed. People often do testify to their state of conscience, especially to associates and collaborators or those whose cooperation they are seeking. If one does not admonish such a person, he or she is likely to regard this reserve as approval and to be encouraged to commit or remain in the sin.
Second, without judging anyone’s internal guilt, it is possible to judge that what others are doing is wrong. Perhaps, due to invincible ignorance or lack of freedom, they are not internally guilty; perhaps they are. But even if they are not, what they are doing can have moral significance for them and others, for instance, something done guiltlessly now may well become a source of later sin and often is a present injustice to others. So, one can react to what others are in fact doing, not reproaching them for immorality, but calling their attention to the apparent moral significance of their action.
Thus, the responsibility, stated precisely, is not to admonish sinners, but to admonish those who seem to be sinning. To evade this responsibility on the ground that one cannot fulfill it without being judgmental is to rationalize indifference and cowardice, rooted in the inadequacy of love of neighbor.
b) Although one is a sinner, one can and should admonish others. Not even grave sin entirely destroys sound judgment and natural good will toward others. Thus, a miserable but unrepentant grave sinner might humbly and sincerely warn someone else: “Do not ruin your life as I am doing.” Still, a person who knows he or she is guilty of grave sin and is unrepentant is incapable of admonishing others as an act of charity, aimed at communion with them in Jesus. Before admonishing anyone, therefore, one should first examine oneself. If one needs to repent and accepts the grace to do so, then with charity one can admonish others: with the log removed from his or her own eye, a person will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of another’s (see Mt 7.1–5).
Tempted to evade the responsibility to admonish, people often say: “I must not take a holier-than-thou attitude, since I am a sinner myself.” If that truly expresses a salutary humility, however, it will not be used as an excuse for not fulfilling the responsibility. Of course, it could express the worldly prudence that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones; or it could register a refusal to undertake the reformation of life that is a condition for admonishing others charitably.
c) Admonishing the weak is an important part of supporting them. The point of admonition is to dissuade others from sinning and encourage them to repent if necessary. Understood in this way, admonishing someone who seems to be sinning, whether through weakness or not, in no way involves berating or attacking the person. Rather, it is moral support, especially appropriate for sinners through weakness, who often carry on a lonely struggle and welcome others’ concern and help. Naturally, admonition of the weak should be accompanied by other appropriate elements of support, including prayer, especially prayer together, practical help to avoid occasions of sin, and affirmation of any good qualities and tendencies.
In relation to this and the preceding point it should be noted that the responsibility to admonish is incumbent on everyone and the act often should be mutual. St. Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6.2), precisely in stating the responsibility to admonish: “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (Gal 6.1).
d) The responsibility mainly, but not only, concerns grave matter. The responsibility to admonish apparent sinners arises from charity: its point is to preserve or restore their communion in Jesus. Its appropriateness is clearest when someone seems to be sinning in grave matter, since mortal sin always is incompatible with charity, and sins involving grave matter are mortal if done with sufficient reflection and full consent.
Sometimes, though, sins in light matter can have serious implications for a person’s Christian life and service to the kingdom. Venial sins in various ways lead to mortal sins (see CMP, 18.C), and so admonition can be appropriate when someone seems to be sinning dangerously in light matter, for example, when a child appears to be developing a habit of lying or cheating. Again, venial sins that irritate others can significantly reduce a Christian’s apostolic effectiveness, and so can call for admonition, for example, when a priest is discourteous to parishioners.
In admonishing someone concerning a possible sin in light matter, however, it is important to maintain the right perspective. If, other things being equal, one is more ready to admonish when the apparent sin involves certain light matters than certain grave matters, one’s motivation in admonishing is faulty. Again, hypocrisy rather than holiness is encouraged by systematically criticizing the superficial behavior of other people without leading them to consider their state of soul.
e) The responsibility to admonish is limited by various conditions. Admonition is not called for unless it clearly appears that someone either is about to sin or has sinned and not repented, and that the matter is grave or, if light, serious. Nor is intervention required unless likely to be beneficial. Thus, one need not admonish people who are no more likely to repent or avoid sin if admonished than if not—a group which includes both those likely to repent or avoid sin because of self-criticism and also those unlikely to accept admonition. A fortiori, if one judges that an admonition not only will be rejected but might provoke a sinner to become worse, one should not admonish (see S.t., 2–2, q. 33, a. 6). In making such judgments, one’s own limitations and relationship to the apparent sinner should be taken into account insofar as these affect the likelihood of admonishing fruitfully. However, one also must bear in mind that repentance is a fruit of grace, which always is available, and of freedom, which never is predictable.
Admonishing apparent sinners can be difficult, painful, and dangerous. Those admonished may strike back vindictively. In many more or less corrupt social situations, the personal nonconformity of faithful Christians is barely tolerated; if they criticize prevailing standards and call for reform, they are likely to find themselves isolated and excluded. But the responsibility to admonish flows from charity, and so one should be ready to pay the necessary price when there is hope of benefiting others.
Still, other responsibilities can limit this one. Sometimes action more drastic than admonishing is called for, because someone’s seeming sins or crimes threaten to corrupt the innocent or endanger the common good. Then one should at once call the matter to the attention of the relevant authority rather than delay action while trying admonition. Again, one can judge that another affirmative responsibility takes precedence over this one. For example, employees with families to support sometimes rightly judge that they should not admonish their employers about matters that would call for admonition if they were free to risk their jobs.
f) One should admonish subordinates, peers, and superiors. Obviously, authorities should fulfill their responsibilities as such only in respect to subordinates. However, the responsibility under consideration here does not arise from a Christian’s having authority over others but from charity, and it therefore extends to every neighbor, not only subordinates but peers and those in authority as well (see S.t., 2–2, q. 33, a. 4).
All the same, the conditions limiting the responsibility to admonish apply differently to cases involving subordinates, peers, and superiors, and so often result in different judgments of conscience. Also, the right manner of fulfilling the responsibility is likely to vary depending on the relationship between the two parties. For example, in admonishing superiors a person must avoid even appearing to challenge their legitimate authority, for that is likely both to undermine it and to provoke a defensive reaction, which renders admonition ineffective.
g) One should both evangelize and admonish nonbelievers. Christian love should extend to nonbelievers, and so one should do what one can that they too may accept the grace God offers them, and both repent and believe. Sometimes considerations of prudence or the duties of a role impose limits on how a Christian can bear witness to nonbelievers; for example, a Catholic judge in a secularized nation cannot explicitly preach the gospel to nonbelievers appearing in court, but may have occasion to offer moral admonitions. However, if possible, nonbelievers should be asked to abandon their nonbelieving way of life and accept the gospel before they are admonished regarding this or that moral fault.
Of course, those who outwardly are nonbelievers, inwardly may be people who sincerely seek the truth and intend to live in its light, in other words, implicit believers (see LG 16, GS 22). Moreover, particularly in the field of social justice, one often has a responsibility to try to help nonbelievers see that they are wronging others and should not only desist but redress the wrong. But even so, it is preferable first to try to assure their share in the kingdom, and only then to seek the progress of earthly societies, even in goods as important as justice.
Thus, one can fulfill one’s responsibilities to nonbelievers without judging them internally guilty of nonbelief by regarding both their nonbelief and the wrongs they do as apparent sins, and addressing both together. In bearing witness to the gospel before those who seem to be nonbelievers, one also will make it clear that the gospel affirms and undergirds moral norms they might be violating, and will encourage them to live up to such norms. At the same time, someone admonishing those who seem to be nonbelievers about their apparent injustices and other sins should not necessarily stop at ethical argumentation and exhortation; rather, he or she should if possible bear witness to the gospel, which alone can make the fullness of moral truth entirely intelligible, appealing, and existentially relevant to fallen men and women.
h) One should proceed in ways most likely to be beneficial. As a work of love, aimed at the apparent sinner’s moral well-being, admonition must be done lovingly and in all respects in a manner likely to restore or maintain and strengthen communion in Jesus. Someone feeling even justifiable anger should regain his or her composure before offering an admonition, so that it can be given humbly, gently, kindly, and peaceably—in a word, as a true work of mercy.
Admonition need not always be done by words. Gestures, actions, or a manner that goads another’s conscience are sometimes more effective. Even when words are appropriate, questions should come before assertions:
Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it;
Questions incite reflection, and so are more likely than assertions to be effective. They also reflect the reality that in admonishing one always addresses an apparent sinner whose internal guilt one cannot judge.
or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it;
or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it. (Sir 19.13–14)
It also is important to choose the right time and place for an admonition; but this should not become an excuse for evading the responsibility by requiring an ideal situation that will never occur.
i) One usually should proceed in the order the gospel recommends. Generally, the apparent sinner should first be confronted alone, to protect reputation and honor while lessening embarrassment and defensiveness, thus increasing the likelihood of real benefit. An obvious application of this procedural norm is the rule common in almost every organization and society: someone who thinks others are acting wrongly should ordinarily begin by taking the matter up with them directly, and only afterwards, if necessary, call it to the attention of someone in authority; and when it is necessary to seek an authoritative intervention, he or she should ordinarily begin with immediate superiors.
Sometimes, however, a concerned group should act together because that seems more likely to produce good results, for example, a wife and children jointly confronting an alcoholic husband and father. Moreover, when the apparent sin is known to many and the hope of benefit is not lessened by a public admonition, one can start there, hoping to mitigate the scandal caused by the public wrongdoing (see S.t., 2–2, q. 33, a. 7). Again, if there is solid hope of benefit, one should be prepared to go beyond initial, private admonitions and use public opinion to promote the moral well-being of apparent sinners, who sometimes can be shocked or shamed into repenting.
j) The responsibility to admonish apparent sinners can be grave. Sometimes, though judging that an apparent mortal sinner definitely should be admonished, a person fears the consequences, although he or she is morally free to accept them, or else is tempted by some selfish desire not to admonish. As has been explained, this responsibility is limited in several ways and must be carried out prudently. But where someone seems to be committing a mortal sin and the responsibility to admonish does exist, choosing not to do so is grave, inasmuch as it is a deliberate failure to act with love for a neighbor’s salvation. Procrastination can lead to failure by omission without choice; this, of course, will not be a mortal sin.
Leading others into sin usually is called “scandal” by Catholic moralists. The word will be used here, but it requires clarification.
Scandal has some irrelevant senses. In current English, the word often is used to refer to sins people consider especially shameful, whether or not they occasion anyone else’s sin. In this sense, any public disgrace is a scandal. In the New Testament, Jesus, his gospel, and the cross are said to scandalize, inasmuch as they challenge people to faith and repentance, which some unfortunately choose to refuse. Sometimes, too, scandal in Scripture refers to any sort of obstacle presented by one person to another’s doing what is right—in this sense Jesus called Peter a “scandal” (see Mt 16.23).67
Here, however, scandal has a precise sense, concerned with one agent’s responsibility for another’s sin. In this sense, nobody gives scandal to those who are either already fully determined to sin or entirely unlikely to sin.68 Scandal is divided into active and passive. Scandal in the active sense can be defined in general as a sinful or inappropriate act (whether word, deed, or omission) that an agent foresees, or should foresee, is likely to be an occasion of sin for another or others. Passive scandal refers either to the sin occasioned by active scandal or to a sin occasioned by another’s act that is neither sinful nor inappropriate.
The responsibility to be considered here concerns active scandal: one ought to avoid giving scandal to another. Although active scandal frequently overlaps with sinful cooperation, the two kinds of sin differ. Moreover, scandal can be given by sinful bad example without cooperating in any sin which it happens to occasion; and if others initiate sinful acts apart from anything one does, one can sinfully cooperate in their sins without giving scandal. (Cooperation with others’ wrong~doing will be treated in 7.F, below.)
a) One can give scandal in many different ways. Another’s sin can be occasioned by bad example, by advice and encouragement, by emotionally motivating the sin, by removing some impediment, by providing an opportunity, by supplying material or resources, and so on. For moral analysis these differences are not so important as the distinction of the ways in which a person’s will can bear on the scandalizing impact his or her act has on another:
i) One can give scandal (as Satan does) by acting with the precise intention that another sin, that is, that the other incur guilt and/or offend God (although it is not necessary to think of what one is doing in just those terms). For example, a delinquent boy, envying his parents’ approval of his exemplary sister, might encourage the neighborhood Don Juan to seduce her, precisely so that she would lose her moral superiority.
ii) One can give scandal by acting with the precise intention that another do something sinful, not for the sin’s sake but for the sake of some benefit expected in or from the sinful act. For example, a man invites a woman to engage in adultery, a lawyer advises a client to commit perjury, an officer orders his men to take no prisoners, a corporation seeking an unjust tax advantage offers legislators campaign contributions, and so on.
iii) Without intending someone else’s wrongdoing in either of the preceding ways, one can give scandal by committing some sin even though it is foreseen, or should be foreseen, that this is likely to have the side effect of occasioning another’s sin. For example, parents give scandal by committing sins in their child’s presence although they realize (or are negligent in failing to realize) that the child is likely to follow their bad example. Again, political leaders who unjustly start a war give scandal by causing a state of affairs in which they know, or should know, that many combatants and noncombatants on both sides will commit sins they would not commit in a more normal, peacetime situation. Executives who share in perpetrating systematic economic injustices give scandal by reducing the victims of exploitation to a condition of wretched poverty which the executives know occasions sins of theft, prostitution, alcohol and substance abuse, abortion, and so on.
iv) One can give scandal by doing something otherwise morally acceptable, but inappropriate and sinful because one foresees, or should foresee, that it is likely to have the side effect of occasioning another’s sin and one lacks an adequate reason for accepting this side effect instead of avoiding it by forgoing the act. For example, in St. Paul’s day, Christians in Corinth could give scandal by buying meat that had been sacrificed to idols and serving it for dinner to certain fellow Christians; there was nothing inherently wrong in buying or eating such meat, but it was foreseeable that some guests, though believing it wrong to eat it, nevertheless would do so if it were served, and so would sin by acting against a sincere but mistaken conscience (see 1 Cor 8.7–13). A couple on a weekend camping trip can give scandal by engaging in otherwise legitimate marital intercourse without the privacy required to avoid arousing illicit desires in boy scouts camping nearby.
Scandal given in ways (i) and (ii) is called “direct” because the other’s wrongful act itself is intended as an end or chosen as a means; scandal given in ways (iii) and (iv) is called “indirect” because the other’s wrongful act is neither intended as an end nor chosen as a means but only accepted as a side effect.
b) One need not always avoid what will occasion others’ sins. Since love requires dissuading people from sinning and encouraging them to repent, all the more does it require one to avoid leading them into sin. Since ways (i), (ii), and (iii) of giving scandal arise from the will either to scandalize or to commit some other sin that scandalizes, Christian love obviously excludes giving scandal in these ways. Moreover, way (iv) is defined so that it always is a sin: an act that otherwise would be good becomes sinful because, given the awareness that it is likely to occasion another’s sin, one lacks an adequate reason to do it.
However, as that definition indicates, doing something not otherwise sinful but foreseen as likely to occasion another’s sin may be permissible, provided there is an adequate reason for accepting this bad side effect. Then, even if one’s act is the occasion of another’s sin, the scandal is purely on the sinner’s part; it is passive scandal of the second kind distinguished above.
c) One may allow merely passive scandal to occur in two sorts of cases. In two kinds of cases there can be an adequate reason to do something, otherwise morally acceptable, that one foresees is likely to be an occasion of sin for others.
First, when it is foreseen that the others will sin because of their own wicked character, for example, that preaching the gospel will lead those who reject it to commit sins of obduracy and malicious persecution. Their scandal is called “pharisaical”; a good act provokes their sin because they are predisposed to answer good with evil. As Jesus’ example makes clear, nobody need forgo doing good merely to avoid such scandal. Love requires that sinners be encouraged to repent, but trying to avoid everything that occasions sinners’ malice is neither necessary nor sufficient to lead them to repent.
Second, when it is foreseen that the others will sin because of their weakness or ignorance, the problem can be solved without forgoing the good act if something can be done to strengthen them against their weakness or remove their ignorance. If not, however, one might or might not have an adequate reason to accept the bad side effect. That will depend on how likely one’s act would be to occasion others’ sin, how serious their sin would be, how likely they would be to commit the sin apart from one’s act, whether there is a good alternative besides simply doing or forgoing the otherwise good act, and the loss or harm to be suffered by others and/or oneself by forgoing it. In considering the last factor, a person should attend to the kind of loss or harm to be suffered, its extent, and its likelihood. Taking everything into account, he or she must decide whether to accept the bad side effect as the similar question, about material cooperation in another’s sinful act, is decided (see 7.F, below).69
d) Giving scandal can be either grave or light matter. In direct scandal—that is, ways (i) and (ii)—giving scandal always is grave matter if one intends to lead another into mortal sin, but in itself is light matter if only another’s venial sin is intended.70 In way (iii), giving scandal is grave if it is done either in committing a mortal sin or in committing what otherwise would be a venial sin while realizing that another is likely to be led to commit mortal sin. In the latter case, even though one’s sin in itself would be venial, it is contrary to love to care less for a neighbor’s moral welfare than for what motivates one’s venially sinful act. If scandal given in way (iii) is not grave matter, it is, of course, light. In way (iv), if it is foreseen that one’s act might lead another to commit only a venial sin, giving scandal is light matter; but if it is foreseen that another might commit a mortal sin, giving scandal is in itself grave. But it is subject to parvity if, while wishing and trying to avoid giving scandal, one nevertheless falls short of doing all that might rightly be done to avoid it (see S.t., 2–2, q. 43, a. 4).
A mortal sin of scandal, like any other, involves not only grave matter but the choice to commit the sin despite awareness that the matter is grave. Thus, those who thoughtlessly give scandal in way (iv) do not commit a mortal sin. Even those who give scandal in ways (ii) and (iii) often are probably so intent on getting what they want that they do not attend to their responsibility for moral harm to others; they should, but do not, foresee that their acts might lead to others’ sinning, and so are not capable of sufficient reflection.
In many cases, of course, sins of scandal in grave matter that are venial due to lack of sufficient reflection accompany mortal sins or result from previous, unrepented mortal sins which the sinner has rationalized to the point of being insensitive to others’ moral well-being.
e) Sinners through weakness should beware of scandalizing others. People who commit mortal sins of weakness are not so obdurate that they lack conscience about the gravity of what they do and about their responsibility not to corrupt others. In giving in to a temptation to indulge their weakness, however, they also can be tempted to throw aside moral restraints and involve hitherto innocent persons in sin. Thus, teachers and parents sometimes not only give children bad example but even inculcate in them their rationalizations for sinning; various sorts of addicts sometimes initiate people previously uninvolved; and so on.
Jesus uttered a strong word about scandal: “If any of you put a stumbling block [skandalon] before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9.42; cf. Mt 18.6–7, Lk 17.1–2). While this warning is broad enough to apply to every case of scandalizing someone in grave matter, sinners through weakness should pay it special attention. Weakness may somewhat mitigate their own sin, but in no way does it lessen their responsibility for others’ moral well-being.
f) Direct scandal always is a sin of scandal. By definition, all scandal, even indirect, always is a sin. But certain cases of direct scandal require further discussion to exclude confusions and mistakes that would allow exceptions.
As was stated at the outset, it is impossible to scandalize someone who is determined to sin in any case. But it always is a sin of scandal to ask, advise, order, or in any other way lead others actually to commit particular sins they otherwise would not commit, even if they already were prepared to commit them and/or were guilty of similar unrepented sins. For example, not only those who offer themselves in prostitution but those who seek such service commit a sin of scandal, for, even if both parties to such transactions are prepared to sin, their determination to commit a particular sin of adultery or fornication depends on inducing the other party to cooperate.
Direct scandal, however, must be distinguished from asking, advising, ordering, or otherwise leading others to do something in itself right and good while foreseeing that they probably will sin, for example, calling for testimony by those one expects to commit perjury. Here, the other’s sin need not be intended, but only accepted as a side effect of one’s good act, for which there might be an adequate reason.
g) Attempts to entrap wrongdoers should avoid scandal. Scandal always is given if the entrapment is intended to encourage wrongdoers to engage in wrongful acts so that they will be caught, for example, if a bribe is offered to a public official, if someone posing as a prostitute solicits potential customers, and so on.71 So, one should not take part in entrapment of this sort.
However, scandal need not be actively given, and the foreseen occasion of sin may be acceptable, if the trap is intended only to allow, not encourage, wrongful acts, for example, if police officers wear plain clothing or drive unmarked automobiles, if employers who suspect employees of theft covertly mark items likely to be stolen so that they can be identified, and so on. In such cases, the trap consists in not alerting those about to do wrong to the likelihood that they will be caught and punished. Those setting such a trap can consistently will that nobody do wrong, and so they need intend no more than to detect and prove any wrong that is done. Moreover, while such entrapment permits sinful acts which could be forestalled, there can be adequate reasons for permitting them: the hope that wrongdoers who are caught and punished will reform and that others will be deterred.
h) People often give scandal by being too lax or too demanding. Even without directing anyone to do anything evil, parents, teachers, administrators, military officers, and other kinds of superiors can give scandal by neglecting to exercise appropriate oversight and so exposing those under their direction to unnecessary temptation: to neglect their duties, cheat, treat one another unjustly, and so on. Superiors also can give scandal by making unreasonable demands, especially in competitive situations, foreseeing that some will resort to lying, cheating, stealing, taking unreasonable risks, and so on.
i) To counsel the “lesser evil” can be to give scandal. It is always direct scandal to encourage anyone to do any moral evil, however slight, so as to avoid any nonmoral evil, however great. Moreover, to intend that a lesser sin be committed so that a greater sin will not be committed is to intend the lesser sin, and so give scandal. Therefore, counseling someone to do a lesser evil can be permissible only if the counselor, rather than leading the wrongdoer to choose an evil he or she has not yet willed to do, only tries to persuade the wrongdoer to bring about less harm than he or she already has willed to bring about. The counseling must bear on the wrongdoer’s outward performance with the intention of mitigating its harmful effects; and the advice—to do something less harmful—must be given in such a way that the counselor need not intend, but only accept, the wrongdoer’s additional immoral choice to do the lesser rather than the greater evil. For example, a woman whose drunken, brutal husband often beats their son with a leather belt might dissuade him from using a baseball bat by saying: “Don’t hit the boy with that bat! Beating him with your belt as you usually do is bad enough.” A legislator may propose amendments to mitigate the injustice of a bad law which a legislature is about to approve. When Reuben’s brothers were about to kill Joseph, he rightly advised them instead to cast him into a pit, from which Reuben hoped to rescue him (see Gn 37.20–22).72
Even so, counseling a lesser evil can scandalize others. For example, if a social worker counsels a group of promiscuous young men to limit themselves to monogamous relationships, their partners and other young people hearing about the advice are likely to take it as approval of fornication. Moreover, scandal apart, it can be wrong to advise someone to carry out a sinful choice in a less harmful way, for doing that can be unjust to particular people not otherwise at risk. For example, if a hostage, held by terrorists who are planning to destroy an airplane carrying three hundred people, suggests that it would be equally effective to destroy another flight carrying two hundred different people, the hostage does an injustice to the two hundred people put at risk by the advice, even though he or she intends to save one hundred lives.
Advising people whose sexual activities might transmit disease to reduce the risk by using condoms is seldom if ever a case of permissibly counseling the lesser evil. Publishing such advice or offering it indiscriminately gives scandal, for the advice encourages the choice of intercourse with a condom by some who are not already determined to engage in illicit sexual behavior or are determined only to engage in a specifically different immorality. Even if directed only to individuals who have engaged regularly in sodomy, the advice gives scandal if it supports a choice to continue the practice. Moreover, using condoms may not lessen the harmful effects of habitual behaviors which risk transmitting disease, for even if the risk is reduced in particular instances, in the long run it may not be less and may even be greater. Condoms fail; habitually unchaste people are not likely to have the self-discipline needed for consistency in taking precautions; and the illusion of safety negates one motive for discontinuing the dangerous behavior.73
j) To tolerate evildoing can be to give scandal. To tolerate evildoing means refraining from trying to prevent others’ evildoing even though one has some motive and capacity to prevent it. By definition, people cannot tolerate their own sin or any evildoing in which they participate. Also, toleration only permits evil; it must be distinguished from action that, however reluctantly and regretfully, contributes to evil.74
In some cases, toleration is obligatory: though having some motive and capacity to try to prevent others’ evildoing, one has no morally acceptable way of doing so. For example, while able and inclined to suppress the activities of some false religion, public authorities might be obliged by respect for just liberty not to suppress it (see DH 2, 4).
But in other cases, where toleration is not obligatory, does or does not someone with a morally acceptable means of impeding others from doing evil give scandal by not trying to do so?
Since impeding others’ evildoing by means that go beyond admonition and self-defense presupposes some kind of authority, scandal can be given by excessive toleration only when a person has some relevant authority. Plainly, if one fails to exercise authority and tolerates evildoing out of laziness, fear of unpopularity, cupidity, or some other base motive, the failure, which leaves scope for evil, constitutes scandal. Sometimes, too, the requirements of justice preclude toleration, because the evildoing involves harm to the innocent or to the common good.75
However, when toleration is neither obligatory nor precluded by considerations of justice, a good reason sometimes justifies it. For example, parents may be justified in tolerating some wrongdoing by their children so that they will learn by experience to take responsibility for their actions. When either tolerating evil or acting to impede it would be morally acceptable, discernment must determine which to choose.
66. A helpful study (though insensitive to the epistemological problems involved in judging whether to admonish): Joseph A. Costello, S.M., Moral Obligation of Fraternal Correction (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1949).
67. See Alphonse Humbert, C.Ss.R., “Essai d’une théologie du scandale dans les Synoptiques,” Biblica 35 (1954): 1–28.
68. It does not follow that one need not be concerned about giving scandal to those one considers hopeless sinners or paragons of virtue. Not only should one abstain from such judgments but, since sin is a matter of free choice, in practice it cannot be known that others are, in fact, fully determined to sin or entirely unlikely to sin. One’s loving efforts always could be a means of grace leading the former to repentance, and one’s malice or negligence always could occasion the latter to fall from grace.
69. St. Thomas asks whether spiritual and temporal goods ought to be set aside to avoid passive scandal (S.t., 2–2, q. 43, aa. 7–8). These questions bear on one of the relevant factors to be considered: what kind of loss or harm will result from omitting the good act. Part of his answer is undoubtedly correct: that we should not forgo or put off good acts necessary for salvation or for the fulfillment of grave responsibilities of office bearing on the temporal goods of the Church or civil society. However, he also supposes, perhaps too optimistically, that in other cases in which spiritual goods are at stake, the problem always can be solved, given good will on the part of those whose sin might be occasioned, by delaying the action for a time and doing what one can to allay the potential scandal. And he holds, perhaps mistakenly, that if such persons cannot be prevented from taking scandal, one must give up one’s own temporal goods to avoid occasioning their sin.
70. When someone gives scandal in way (i), the malice motivating the act or the intention of some grave ulterior harm can and probably most often does make it grave matter. However, considered precisely in itself, deliberately leading someone to sin venially need not be incompatible with love of God and neighbor.
71. Such entrapment is legal in many places and often is used in law enforcement; following this example, administrators of businesses and other organizations, and even parents, also resort to it. The good end of catching wrongdoers cannot justify the bad means of encouraging them to do wrong, nor is such encouragement justified by the fact that those entrapped were predisposed to do the wrong. The entrapment violates love of neighbor by encouraging a particular sinful free choice; love would instead hope for repentance and try to encourage it.
72. Classical moralists were not of one mind on the permissibility of counseling the lesser of two moral evils. Those who approved of counseling the lesser evil assumed as a condition: “if the other was already determined to carrying out the greater.” See St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Theologia moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia Vaticana, 1905–12), 1:353–54; cf. L. Bender, O.P., “Consulere minus malum,” Ephemerides theologicae Lovaniensis 8 (1931): 592–614; E. T. Hannigan, S.J., “Is It Ever Lawful to Advise the Lesser of Two Evils?” Gregorianum 30 (1949): 104–29.
73. See Germain Grisez, “Is ‘Safe Sex’ a Lesser Evil? What the Bishops Really Said—and Did,” Crisis 6 (Feb. 1988): 10–13. Condoms fail: Susan Harlap, Kathryn Kost, and Jacqueline Darroch Forrest, Preventing Pregnancy, Protecting Health: A New Look at Birth Control Choices in the United States (New York: The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1991), 120, estimate that with average use of condoms, sixteen women per hundred will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use.
74. Pius XII, Address to the Fifth National Convention of the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists, 5, AAS 45 (1953) 798, The Pope Speaks 1 (1954): 67, points out that no authority “can give a positive command or positive authorization to teach or to do that which would be contrary to religious truth or moral good.” This address deals with toleration by public authority of error in religion and morality; in no way does it support the approval of public programs to instruct and/or assist wrongdoers in ways to mitigate the harmful consequences of their wrongdoing. It is worth noticing that people often do things which they know are immoral and disapprove of, and so, a fortiori, they sometimes formally cooperate in things they disapprove of; therefore, the fact that someone disapproves of that to which his or her action contributes does not show that the cooperation is only material.
75. It often is claimed that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas approved public authorities’ toleration of prostitution, but the claim is questionable, because one of Augustine’s texts used to support it was written before he became a Christian and one of the texts attributed to Thomas is not authentic: see Adélard Dugré, S.J., “La tolérance du vice d’après saint Augustin et saint Thomas,” Gregorianum 6 (1925): 442–46. In any case, a strong argument can be made that mere toleration of prostitution violates justice, because it allows the corruption and exploitation of girls and young women and involves grave risks to public health (including the health of the wives of men who use prostitutes), while public licensing and regulation are unjust because they involve the whole community in activity which not only is morally wrong and repugnant to many of its members but a paradigmatic instance of people using others.