In this recent publication by Liturgical Press, Angela Senander offers an uneven treatment of scandal in the life of the Catholic Church. Some sections of Senander’s work are nuanced and illuminating—for instance, when she provides an overview of key historical and catechetical treatments of scandal (e.g., in Aquinas, Trent and Vatican II, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church). In other places, Senander’s analysis is far too simplistic to do justice to the subject matter under investigation. Perhaps the most obvious example of this shortcoming is when she engages instances of doctrinal development (see, for example, her treatment of the Church’s approach to religious liberty on pages 54-58). Moreover, the work as a whole lacks focus and its conclusions are often too vague and open-ended to prove helpful.
Despite these weaknesses, Senander does establish a decent foundation for further theological reflection on scandal. Before offering some suggestions as to how Catholics can move “beyond scandal,” Senander carefully distinguishes between different types of scandal—most notably, making the important distinction between scandal that comes about as a result of the sinfulness of Church members and scandal that comes about as a result of faithfulness to the Gospel. Jesus Christ himself was a source of scandal during his lifetime, and we should not be surprised when our faithfulness to his message sometimes scandalizes those who are outside of the Church. In this respect, Catholics should not seek to avoid giving scandal at all costs, since in certain cases scandalizing others constitutes a natural corollary of following Christ.
The strongest section of Senander’s monograph is her treatment of the Church as a “community of disciples,” in which she looks at five individuals who properly scandalized the world through their heroic witness to the reign of God (Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and John Paul II). In lauding the example of these figures, Senander does not intend to baptize every aspect of their lives, but she does say that the lives of these holy persons in their totality represent icons that provide us with a glimpse into the divine life. Some readers might question the inclusion of John Paul II (and, Cardinal Bernardin?) on this list, since his lack of discernment in response to cases of sexual abuse by priests arguably exacerbated the scandal caused by those events (I’m thinking here especially of John Paul II’s refusal to heed warnings regarding illicit activity on the part of Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ).
Senander has here the building blocks for an excellent treatment of scandal, but, unfortunately, I cannot heartily recommend the book in its present form. If Senander comes back to the topic of scandal in her future scholarship, she may want to expand upon the topic of “the Catholic Church in public life and the politics of scandal” (chapt. 5, pp. 85-97). The constellation of concerns surrounding this issue makes up one of the most vigorously debated subject matters in contemporary Catholicism. What is the role of the Catholic Church within the life of the larger society? What specific criteria should the Church employ to determine the level and nature of its involvement in a particular sphere of the social order (e.g., adoption placements, health care, etc.,)? How and to what extent should church leaders take into account the scandalized consciences of certain segments of the Catholic population when making decisions about these matters? Senander circles around these issues, but she fails to provide proposals that are concrete enough to be of benefit to her readers. Hopefully, she will continue to develop her thought in this area, so that her future work can provide a more well-rounded theological reflection on scandal. Lord knows the Church needs it.