Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Word studies: scandal and secrecy
Jonal entry 898 | Wednesday, August 3, 2005
"Scandal" has had two embodiments in my lifetime, two parallel tracks of meaning. As a journalist I've always heard and in my early years talked about "scandal sheets" that majored in star talk and gossip, and when we were in high school, Hollywood was the scandal capital of the world. Entertainment world scandals were gossiped about in hushed tones and usually involved affairs between movie stars being seen together, head to head, in the wee hours at nightclubs in the city where they were filming, while their spouses were left behind in New York or California with the children and the disgrace of being cheated on. Entertainment world scandals were always just a stone's throw away from political scandals, which were discussed in even more whispered voices because they were usually harder to substantiate and their propagation could (so we thought, at least) lead to repercussions from government agencies. Star power may be elusive, but political power was, in those days, something to be reckoned with.
But the other embodiment of the word "scandal" that has fascinated me since my youth is the way it's used in the Catholic Church. Certain sins (overlapping, not ironically, with the sins movie stars and political players have long been associated with) were often described as grave personal shortcomings that could rob a Catholic of his or her place in Heaven, but even worse, could bring great scandal to the church. I never heard Protestants refer to "scandal" in that way; "we"back when I was part of that "we"could flit in and out of our respective churches at will; "get" religion; lose our religion, but we lay members of our churches weren't considered capable bringing scandal to the church. The church would never fear that, or us. Clergy members could get into scandals and occasionally diddalliances with the choir director or church secretary, or getting too touchy-feely with members of the youth group. But our sense of sin and salvation, being almost entirely personal matters, were even then not thought of as a blight on the church itself but rather "just" a shortcoming of a sinning individual. A disgraced minister left the church; some people would fall away as every minister had his "personal" following more loyal to him than the church or its Head...but it would blow over by the Christmas program, or at least Easter, and the Protestant church would rebuild.
The reformed church (which I'm using here as synonmous with Protestant, but choose that word for its historic connotations) has always been more individualistic than the ancient church, divided for the second millenium between the Western, Roman or Catholic, communion and the Eastern, Greek or Orthodox communion. The ancient church has always had a greater awareness and pursuit of unity in the sense the what hurts one member hurts all, and I think that's where the Catholic use of the word "scandal" is derived. A priestor even a lay person who becomes known publically as a grave sinnersins against every member of the parish and even of the diocese and the larger communion. And in this sense I think "scandal" is an appropriate word and I consider it positive.
But my "naive" or "intuitive" understanding of the word "scandal" makes me suspicious of it. It always strikes me as carrying in it the connotation that, "if we can just keep this secret, our sins won't be nearly as serious and we can go on our merry way hoping we're never found out." "Scandal" in my mind, and I suspect in the mind or our whole generation, carries the idea of a secret getting out. Keeping a secret can be okay...the whole structure of the Catholic sacrament of confession is built around secrecy. And we know from all the buzz that's just "out there" in the culture, so to speak, that the priest hears "scandals" every week that could blow the lid off the church and the whole town...or at least they did back in the times when most Catholics confessed to their priests weekly or at least before every instance of taking communion. Now, I gather, most Catholics go to confession no more often than once yearly and they are encouraged to take communion every week regardless. But I digress. It's not about confession and communion...though "scandal" and "confession" do go together.
I guess what I'm saying is that I suspect the Catholic definition of "scandal" misses the general public's understanding of the word, and the church would be well served to come up with another word, or phrase, that speaks to the grief that grave sins brings to the whole body of the congregation, without suggesting that keeping secrets well enough that the scandals never erupt will keep us safe.
And because some may wonder where I think the Orthodox fit here, I'll just say that as in many things, Orthodox represent (in my humble opinion) the best of the reformed and the Roman traditions. The church is much more central in Orthodoxy than it is generally in Protestantism, much more a unified entity, but salvation and dealing with one's sins is a much more personalinternalstruggle to the Orthodox than it is to the Catholics. And so it follows that Orthodox confession usually as practiced is between the "whole congregational" confessions of various Protestant denominations and the private-booth confessions of Catholicism. The Orthodox confessor stands before the priest, in the presence of the people in the nave, and confesses in a voice too low to be overheard, but where everyone can observe. But, as in Catholicism, most Orthodox also confess before a priest far less frequently now than they used to.
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