About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How to evade the issue of sexual abuse of children

The pope has stated "that 'all other institutions' in society should be held to the same 'exacting standards' as the Roman Catholic Church in preventing and reporting sex abuse."

Well, yay for him. Well ... except, actually, it's not a question of the same exacting standards being applied. It would have been nice if the Catholic Church had a good record in applying even rather basic standards for protecting children from sexual abuse. You've got to wonder whether the pope really gets it, if he thinks that what is being required of the Church is especially "exacting"; in fact, the hint that the Church has merely failed to meet high, difficult, challenging standards sounds awfully like someone trying to make excuses.

Yes, it would be very good if basic standards for protecting children from abuse were applied to all organisations whose employees and officers exercise authority over children. No doubt of that. But the Catholic Church is not excused if there are other organisations which also turn out to be morally obtuse, self-serving, and managerially incompetent when it comes to these issues.

If I murder a rival, for example, I am not less culpable merely because other people have sometimes done the same thing. This kind of behaviour is either tolerable or it isn't. If it's not, then I shouldn't be going around complaining that I am being held to some "exacting" standard, and trying to deflect the discussion to whether others are being held to the same standard. If I do so, I don't have much credibility.

There's a further aspect. The Catholic Church claims a special moral authority; it claims to have been guided, historically, by God (and founded by Jesus during the Son of God's incarnation on earth); and it claims, moreover, that its priests and bishops are spiritually transformed individuals.

If these claims entail that the Church and its hierarchs have some special moral wisdom and authority, then why have we seen so much egregious obtuseness, cruelty, incompetence, blame-shifting, etc.? If we are told, as a matter of theological analysis, that, notwithstanding the truth of its grandiose claims, the Church does not have any special moral wisdom and authority ... well let us be told that clearly. The Church can't have it both ways.

If it claims special moral wisdom and authority, that claim is pretty much unbelievable by now.

But if it does not claim that sort of authority, why should we bother listening to it? Why should politicians - and others who exert social and political power - be at all deferential to what the Church has to say?

The Catholic Church goes on trying to have things both ways. We need to keep calling it out.


Lev Lafayette said...

One "exacting standard" that is interesting is confidentiality of all statements during the course of confession, the Seal of the Confessional.

"The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason."

Code of Canon Law, 983 §1,

That includes criminal matters of course.

A priest who breaks that confidentiality incurs latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication.

Bernard Hurley said...

The Seal of the Confessional together with the tradition that Canon Law takes precedence over secular law need to be abandoned if the Catholic Church is to have any credibility.

Note that although the code of Canon Law does not explicitly say so, the Seal of the Confessional is often interpreted as implying the the person making the confession has to keep confidentiality. Thus when a child who has been raped tells another priest what has happened this can be interpreted as the child confessing their part in the incident. The child is then told they cannot inform the authorities about it.

March Hare said...

I wonder if a priest who is raping little children is able to channel God in the confessional to forgive sins, or to transubstantiate bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Are these not issues the Church should also be dealing with?

If a child-raping priest is given God-like powers to forgive sins which an average person does not (I know it's God that does the forgiving, but priests have a magical connection to Him through Last Rites, Communion, Confession etc.) then is it possible that a believer could have been given Last Rites and NOT forgiven? And if a child-raper can give Last Rites why can't just anyone? If anyone then why have priests, and if only priests then what does that say of their God if he grants such special powers to specially trained (in priesthood) child-rapists but not the rest of the faithful? After all, God knows what the priest is doing, doesn't He?

SeanP said...

Well said Russell. This post reminds me of what Steven Fry said in an IQ squared debate, where he asked if the church doesn't really know any better, and is susceptible to the same moral shortcomings of everyone else, then what's the point of the establishment anyway?! They can't have it both ways

Anonymous said...

March Hare, I love the way you think!

Russell: "The Catholic Church claims a special moral authority; it claims to have been guided, historically, by God (and founded by Jesus during the Son of God's incarnation on earth); and it claims, moreover, that its priests and bishops are spiritually transformed individuals."

Can you provide a link or two to where they've said this?

Tim Martin

Russell Blackford said...

Tim, I'm not sure where you're coming from. Do really think it's controversial that the Catholic Church claims that it has a special moral authority, that it was founded by Jesus (who gave authority to Peter ... there is supposed to be an apostolic succession), and that its priests and bishops, and indeed its believers, have undergone spiritual transformation? Spiritual transformation is right at the heart of Christian doctrine, and specifically Catholic doctrine.

If you're just looking for a single quote from a theologian that says the above things neatly in one place, I'm afraid I can't give you one. I'd have to send you off to read the works of Charles Taylor, John Haught and other theologians, etc., and various papal encyclicals, etc., that talk about the divinely-given authority of the Church.

But again, this is not theologically controversial.

Now, what if Catholic theology were reinterpreted so that the Church no longer claims any particular moral authority ... well, the next question would be why anyone would listen to it, except perhaps in the crude sense that it can coordinate a voting block.

steve oberski said...

As one commentor at the WP put it, it's about time the RCC was held to the same high standards as other organizations.

Anonymous said...

Russell: I don't know whether it's controversial or not. It seems that religious people will suddenly argue a lot of previously uncontroversial points when they are behind the rhetorical eight ball. For a recent example, you have Andrew Sullivan claiming that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative. It should be completely uncontroversial to say that this is false, but that doesn't stop people from speading ignorance anyway.

That's mainly why I asked for some source. I don't know RCC theology as well as I could, so I was actually hoping for something simple you could show me that would illustrate the claim - perhaps a section from the Catechism, or part of a speech given by one of the popes. I always like to read a bit of primary source material on these things when I can, and as I said in my first paragraph, I know there are people who will challenge me if I make such claims about the church - even if such claims are "generally known" to be true.

In sum, I was indeed looking for something easy! But I understand if you don't have one thing you could point me to. Thanks for responding, nonetheless.

Tim Martin

Russell Blackford said...

No worries, Tim. No, I don't think there's, for example, a single encyclical (for example) that neatly catches these points. I doubt that the pope would deny any of them, but you never know! As you say, theologians will sometimes talk in one way until they find it expedient to talk in a milder way and put weaker claims.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Did the pope just say that it's difficult to not fuck the choir boys?

Russell Blackford said...

I suppose he means that it's difficult to report it to the police, or to get rid of priests who do it. Go figure.