Avoiding bad conversation and scandal.
In the Companion, Don Bosco refers to “bad conversation” and “scandal” almost interchangeably: when he warns against bad conversations, he does so because they are scandalous, and when he warns against scandal, the example he offers is “bad conversations.” He insists, referring to Lk 17:1-2, that causing scandal is the reason that countless souls spend eternity in hell, and lead others to hell with them; he urges the young to save others from scandal by their own good example, insisting that “anyone who saves a soul can basically save his own.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “scandal is a grave offence if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offence,” that is, a soul could spend eternity in hell if it deliberately leads another to commit mortal sin. It also teaches that “scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized,” and that “anyone who uses the power at [their] disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that [they have] directly or indirectly encouraged,” be it through the establishment of demoralising laws, public opinion, fashion, etc.
Clearly, in order to avoid an infinite series of cause and effect where everyone ultimately becomes responsible for another’s grave offence somewhere along the line, the key word here is “deliberately;” thus, the question of how much one can be responsible for the actions of another is ultimately the question of how much one can be responsible for their own actions, which recalls the theological principle of examining one’s conscience. The Catechism explains that, for various reasons, including the bad example given by others, individuals may often make “errors of judgment in moral conduct,” leading them to commit acts which are objectively evil. If “the moral subject is not responsible for [their] erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to [them].” As the Council explains, a person is responsible for their erroneous judgement to the extent that they have neglected the pursuit of truth and goodness, or allowed their conscience to become incapacitated on account of habitually sinful behaviour.
Today, it is popular opinion that people can subscribe to any understanding of truth and goodness, or engage in any behaviour they please, so long as it conforms to the arbitrary standard of “not harming anyone else.” As our reflection has revealed, it is practically impossible to prove that one’s beliefs or actions will never end up harming anyone else eventually, and in fact, the only question a person can hope to answer is whether their beliefs or actions are ultimately harming themselves. In other words, if anyone hopes to escape eternal condemnation, they must look honestly to their own conscience and see whether it is free of all self-condemnation; each person must honestly consider whether they have done everything within their capacity to pursue objective truth and goodness, and to keep their conscience subject to this pursuit (as opposed to becoming self-referential).
If a person is in a position of authority or influence, they must likewise consider whether their beliefs and actions harm their position within their authorising institution, according to the objective standards which the institution has established and the values it represents. For Catholics, they must consider whether their beliefs and actions threaten to deprive them of their exalted status as members the Church, in whom alone they have been guaranteed salvation, according to the objective standards established by its Magisterium. Having done this, one must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience, be that about acts to be performed or already committed.