So there was this big Catholic news story a couple of weeks ago about the Vatican (the CDF) and the nuns (the LCWR). You might have been wondering why I haven’t said anything about it here.
I’ve been thinking.
Well, I’ve also been pretty intensely trying to finish up the research paper for my spring semester. Which has been very helpful, actually, as I’ve been immersed in a mimetic approach to theology — I’ve been reading this stuff for years, but this is the first time I’ve really wrestled with it on an academic level. Mimetic theory offers both an anthropological and a theological reading of human desires, relationships, and dynamics, including those involving conflict, scapegoating, envy, accusations, discord, coercion, victimization, sin, innocence… you see how this is relevant, right? So that’s been informing my reflections.
Mimetic theory also has a lot to say about scandal, and being scandalized, which I think is extremely relevant to this situation. So let’s start with that.
In Catholic-speak, and especially in Catholic church hierarchy-speak, “scandal” usually doesn’t have the ordinary colloquial meaning that it has in the newspapers. Scandal has a technical meaning, derived from the Greek term skandalon used in the New Testament, which means “stumbling block”, or “obstacle”. The general idea is that you don’t want to cause scandal especially to those who might be weaker in the faith, because that would be putting an obstacle, a stumbling block, in the way of their relationship with God. This is obviously a very serious issue for those who are sincerely concerned for their sisters and brothers in Christ.
Unfortunately, the most familiar example of this idea nowadays is probably the sex abuse scandal (where I use the word here in both the colloquial and technical terms). The justification offered by the bishops for covering up cases of sexual abuse by priests is that it would cause scandal among the faithful: priests are supposed to be holy, they represent both Christ and the church. If it became known among the faithful that a priest was sexually molesting children and teens, then people might be so scandalized (technical usage) that they would lose faith in the Church and turn away from the sacraments and the Church, both of which are instruments of grace that nurture our relationship with God.
(Of course, the tragic irony, the ironic tragedy, is that the coverup by the bishops has caused at least as much scandal (technical usage), and I strongly suspect more scandal, than the truth about the molesting priests would have caused.)
But mimetic theory offers a deeper and more particular reading of scandal. It’s not just any old thing that might harm someone’s faith. The skandalon is someone, or the words or actions of someone, that first of all provokes moral or religious outrage.
What makes that a stumbling block?
This cartoon is a perfect illustration of the skandalon! You’re reading this on the internet — you get this cartoon, you’ve been this guy, right? Somebody is wrong! You have to tell them they’re wrong! (If you haven’t yet, hover your mouse over the image and read the text that pops up.) You just have to. There’s something compulsive about it. Intense. Almost exhilarating, though you wouldn’t want to use such a positive word for it: but there sure is _something_ that keeps you there at the computer, hitting “reload” or “get mail”, checking to see if that jerk you were telling off has been thoroughly demolished by your brilliance yet, or has come back with some further moronic comment that you just *have* to reply to. (Wow, I can feel the adrenalin rush just typing this description.)
My sisters and my brothers, the Internet flamewar is the quintessential manifestation of the skandalon.
So what I’m talking about here, the thing I find powerful in this analysis, is not so much causing scandal, but being scandalized by others. It’s that compulsion, that fascination, that is the problem. Why? Because it sucks you in. It causes you to neglect the people around you because your attention is on the scandal. It entices you into worse and worse behavior. Every interaction escalates: your language gets less loving and more hateful. You entirely lose sight of the fact that there’s another human being at the other end of the internet who is a child of God, a sister, a brother, a neighbor that you are to love as you love yourself. You become more and more self-righteous, more and more convinced that you are RIGHT and they are WRONG and that it is TREMENDOUSLY IMPORTANT FOR THEM TO REALIZE THIS.
Is that any way for a Christian to behave?
Is that any way for Christians to behave to each other?
This compulsion, this fascination, this mesmerizing effect exerted by the skandalon is the glamour of evil that we promise to reject when we are baptized.
The church is so very polarized these days. Not just the Catholic church — many churches find that internal polarization has become a much more difficult and challenging conflict than inter-denominational disagreements. In part, this is because the ecumenical movement has been active for a century now, thoughtfully and faithfully and earnestly dialoguing across those denominational boundaries, and making real progress, thanks be to God.
And in part, this is because, let’s face it: there’s no fight like a family fight.
In the presence of such polarization, in the presence of so many difficult issues that create tension and pain and fear among the church, it is more important than ever that we should simply, resolutely, faithfully, refuse to be scandalized. If we are committed to the gospel, if we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, if we are imitators of Christ, then we must refuse to be scandalized.
If we are to engage in theological reflection, then we must refuse to be scandalized. Reflection of any kind requires time, it requires attention, and it requires a certain degree of internal stillness, none of which will have if we are scandalized; and theological reflection requires an attitude, an orientation towards God that we will not have if the skandalon, the stumbling block, trips up our feet.
Yes, but how?
For this specific situation involving the CDF and the LCWR, I can offer this piece of advice:
…the Ignatian principle that one should read all Church documents in the best possible light – seeking to imagine a benevolent intention even where there may not be one. And this is not only for reasons of mental hygiene. It is because imagining and interpreting something positively is actually a creative act which tends to make it more likely that things develop that way.
And in general,
One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The disorder of the skandalon is a disorder of desire. The remedy is to fix our desire on God — with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. And to love our neighbor — our neighbor who is at the other end of the keyboard, at the other end of the church, at the CDF, at the LCWR — to love that neighbor and desire good for that neighbor in the same way and with the same attachment that we desire our own good.
Refuse to be scandalized.
This is the work that has to be done before theological reflection can begin.
 James Alison
 Mk 12:28-31
 And a tip of the hat to Bruce Schneier, who has been exhorting people to refuse to be terrorized for years now, which inspired the title of this post.