Epistemic Institutional Design and the Roman Catholic Church, Part One

The Catholic Church has been having a rough time of it lately. In a series of posts, I want to take up some of the implications of this trouble for epistemic institutional design, that is, for building institutions that ‘get it right.’

First, some background: what has previously been a primarily American problem of sexual abuse and coverups has come home to roost in Europe, including a case that involves the Pope. In 1980, the current Pope, then Archbishop Ratzinger, was involved in the reassignment of a priest who was suspected of forcing an 11 year old boy to have sex with him. The priest, “Father H,” was sent to therapy in Munich, and later reassigned to a small town where his pastoral duties allowed him to again engage in the sexual abuse of children, for which he was finally convicted in 1986. For his second known offense, the priest received a suspended sentence and a 4,000 DM fine. While the Pope denies awareness of the reassignment to pastoral service, he admits that he was aware of the first therapeutic rather than criminal response to Father H ‘s actions. At present, it’s not clear whether the investigating civil authority was aware of the first 1980 case or Father H’s therapy and reassignment.

Obviously, many are troubled by the possibility that the current Pope could be implicated in the sex abuse scandals. I know many older Catholics have been absolutely devastated that the Church hierarchy failed them in this way, and now feel that they’ve been betrayed and feel bereft of legitimate moral and spiritual guidance. Still others seem to glory in the Church’s failures, in part because the hierarchy has been exposed as sanctimonious. It’s worth noting that the US has long had a strong anti-Catholic streak, which erupts at times like these. In this sense, much of the acrimony is merely a pale shadow of the European wars of religion.

But as I said, I’m interested in the epistemic issues here, specifically, the impact of infallibility. In my view, infallibility is the fault line that runs through this entire controversy, and the Roman Catholic Church can’t respond adequately or appropriately to the problem without risking a fundamental doctrine.

There are three issues, which I will try to unpack: first, pedophilia and pathology; second, punishment and sovereignty; third, public relations and liability. In each case, I believe the Roman Catholic Church is committed to a distinct and problematic theory of investigation, inquiry, and institutional design that puts them at odds with the best practices of democratic criminal justice systems. This is due to the accretion of epistemic institutional improvements that the Catholic Church has refused to implement since the Protestant Reformation.

First, what constitutes pedophilia is different for the Catholic Church than for most countries. Children over the age of 11 are not considered victims in the same way that younger children would be, and attraction to adolescents, particularly adolescent boys, is treated as a particular brand of homosexual desire, called ephebophilia rather than pedophilia.

Second, the Catholic Church still thinks of itself as a distinct legal entity, and the Vatican forms a kind of cosmopolitan sovereign state, which reserves the right to deal with its priests according to canon law rather than criminal law. Within the Church, the emphasis on penance and reconciliation sometimes fails to achieve the ends that a more retributive criminal punishment system can manage, especially in the vindication of victims. Most nation states are willing to accept this challenge to their sovereignty in ordinary ‘white collar’ criminal matters, but this doesn’t apply in instances like child sexual abuse where deeply held moral intuitions diverge in outrage.

Third, there is the matter of the civil tort system, which can challenge national branches of the Catholic Church and win large sums of money when the Church bureaucracy is found to have been complicit in hiding crimes, and the threat that these scandals will undermine the Church’s moral authority with its congregants, who are also its funders through tithing.

As I’ve said, each of these specific institutional challenges is ultimately reducible to a Catholic refusal to adopt epistemic institutional reforms that would make it better able to align its theory of autonomy and consent with the common sense, to share criminal investigations with secular nation states, and to publicly investigate corruption and abuse using the full gamut of modern policing techniques. In each case, the Catholic Church is hamstrung by its theory of infallibility, which requires the institutions that constitute Catholicism to remain committed to both clearly doctrinal metaphysical matters (the assumption of Mary, or the nature of Christ, for instance) and a series of values and moral judgments that the rest of the world has continued to deliberate. This puts the Church at odds with both its parishioners and its own understanding of the role of public reason, by which moral judgments are understood as extending from God-given reason. In short, the Catholic Church faces what Jürgen Habermas called a legitimacy crisis, as a part of a series of other crises in its internal governance and external relations. In future posts, I will address the specific formulation of this crisis in its failure to review and amend its theory of autonomy and responsibility to raise the age of consent.

(Crossposted with a new collaborative blog I’m working on with Steve Maloney.)

9 thoughts on “Epistemic Institutional Design and the Roman Catholic Church, Part One”

  1. I'm interested to see where you go with this.

    In re your second point about the Catholic Church seeing itself as a distinct legal entity: there is a strange parallel here with Western debates about Muslim theocracy and Sharia law. I'm curious to see how you tease out the relationship between democracy and infallibility.

    (Related, but aside: I never really understood the anti-Catholic bias as something that made intellectual or emotional sense until I read Wolf Hall, in which the tension between the reformation and Catholicism was viscerally drawn in a way that helped me to see why the prejudices are so persistent.)

    1. Regarding Wolf Hall, I think it's a good resource for understanding. Indeed: many of these conflicts go back to the Protestant Reformation, and that's partly why it's so difficult to dig into the debate. There's a lot of history and chosen trauma stuff to work through.

      I worry about the comparison to anti-Muslim xenophobia, however. Many people, apparently including the Pope, have taken to equating anti-Catholic sentiments with racism or anti-Semitism. On Metafilter, some people have tried to create a case for 'Protestant privilege.' Yet many of the Catholic Church's critics are themselves Catholics or the children of families of Catholics. I am myself from a mixed Irish Catholic/Lithuanian Jewish family, and when I form opinions I am not participating in an ancient enmity against Catholics, but more like trying to adjudicate a kind of family quarrel. The equivalent in discourses about racism is calling an African-American an "Uncle Tom" or calling an anti-Zionist Jew "self-hating."

      There's been a lot of news about Catholicism, in part because, like Toyota, the brand has recently come under fire for supplying below-expectation services. But that's partly because in both cases, the service has historically been high. For one thing, Catholics value reason, debate, and intellectual pursuits, unlike the mainstream Protestant churches. As a result, we've come to expect consistency and moral good sense from the Church, which accepts evolution and has reasonable things to say about social justice.

      So one of the reasons people complain so bitterly about Catholicism's role in child sex abuse is that we're really, honestly disappointed that such a smart institution would fuck up as often as it recently has, as with Catholic Charities in DC, to name a personal example.

      This is the tension between infallibility and faith, which locks in old values based on deprecated judgments like male priests, and the tradition's honest praise for God-given reason. Precisely because there's a tension to be explored, we talk about it more than the obviously stupid success theology of the modern American Mega-Church or the folks who think that Adam and Eve coexisted with the dinosaurs five thousand years ago.

  2. I realized this morning on the way to work that my sentence should really read "I'm curious to see how you tease out the relationship between democracy and divinity".

    I agree, I'm also not interested in comparing the current reactions to the Catholic Church to anti-Muslim xenophobia, and I think the anti-Semitism comparisons are pretty monstrous. (Especially given the institutional history of the Church in re passports for Nazi officers, Edith Stein, etc, as well as the personal history of the current Pope.) I do think there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the relationship between democracy and religious law, especially as it relates to justice for some in the polis who are excluded from equal consideration under that law. I think that debate is germane to both Sharia law and Catholic claims about their jurisdiction here, although it may be outside the scope of what you're interested in exploring. Certainly xenophobia might color such a debate, but I think there are questions there that exceed it.

    I'm surprised to read your interpretation of why people are complaining so bitterly about child sexual abuse and the Catholic church. I would actually color the exasperation differently, although I have spoken with a relatively small number of Catholics about it directly. While the Church may be reasonable about some things, I have the feeling that people are simply fed-up with the Church's entire position on sex and sexuality. In my reading, the feeling of disappointment is colored with a strain of "I-told-you-so"-itis, in which people feel as if these events are not a surprise given the Church's generally retrograde stance on sexuality. There's distasteful shadenfreude at work, that may well be rooted in a reflexive anti-Catholicism in some cases, but I don't think that predominates, or that it obviates the argument that the Church is particularly boneheaded about sexuality in a way that invites, if you'll pardon me, the return of the repressed.

  3. I may be a bit reactionary in this area, and as a married man I can see how my views support my practices, but I've long felt that if the Church removed the prohibition on homosexual and premarital sex, they'd be right in arguing that sex is undervalued in our culture and that it ought to be understood as part of the continuum of friendship and intimacy and not simply an enjoyable activity with no moral implications. It produces and strengthens affective bonds between people, and that kind of unpredictable emotional affiliation can never be purely a "consumption" activity. There may also be something virtuous in a deliberately chaste lifestyle, though I tend to believe such a life could only be supererogatory and never a duty.

    But that's just my take, and I have many friends who argue instead for a kind of pluralism of sexual values that undermines this modified teleological analysis of "what sex is for." The question is whether this 'fact of disagreement' actually forces pluralism or merely points to the corrupting and blinding power of either heteronormativity or jouissance.

  4. But isn't the point that one need not be arguing for polyamory in order to find the Church's positions on sex and sexuality retrograde. That's what makes them unreasonable positions: that they exceed an argument about the value of sex and sexuality to proceed to a set of exclusionary and vicious proclamations that value sex and sex-acts more than human life. (Despite the rhetorical argument that it's all in the service of human life.) And, note, that this exceeds to the particular type of rational argument that you point to the Church reasonably adopting in regard to evolution, that is, the Catholic Church deploys science falsely in order to bolster it's a priori positions about sexuality. This is certainly true in the recent (in the past half-decade) arguments that condoms cannot stop the spread of HIV because the pores in the latex are larger than the HIV virus.

    I'm not interested in harping on this argument, but I do think there's a distinction to be made between a larger conversation about the social value we attach to sex, and the uses to which it is put, and the arguments and positions the Church takes. It's the latter that seem to have caused the type of fatigue and exasperation I was talking about in my second comment.

  5. I'd agree with some of what you've said here: the RCC is badly wrong about sex in some really essential ways, and there are some real stinker arguments out there where Catholics badly defend their views. The point is that they're not FAR wrong about sex, I don't think. I don't agree with the implication that their wrongness about sex is somehow the cause of the priestly sex abuse: I think it's their wrongness about AUTHORITY that drives the abuse and coverups, and I suspect that this mistake about authority is uniquely tied to the mistaken institutional design built into infallibility and its attendant epistemic practices.

    Though I want to save some of this for a later post, I guess I'd just point out that a 1600 year-old institution that's only 50 years behind on sexuality is not actually so very slow in adopting the correct position in the grand scheme of things. They've had to be less responsive to trends in value-shifting in order to survive, and that conservatism has served them well. It's no skin off my nose if some voluntary religious tradition advocates celibacy or polygamy or heterosexuality. That's part of a larger institutional design discovery process that I think is necessary: we can't know the answers to some questions a priori, so we have to have different groups trying things out. I think of it as a sex and spirituality analogue of "charter schooling": we don't know what works until we try lots of things and see.

    It's obviously a problem, however, when that tradition turns from private advocacy for parishioners to public advocacy that affects non-parishioners (Catholic adoption practices and pro-life political advocacy) or involuntary parishioners (i.e. children.) Then failures are really blameworthy and the frustration is justified (so long as it's for the right reasons and not simply anti-Catholicism as a proxy for anti-immigrant xenophobia as it has been historically in the US.)

  6. Just to be clear, when I say "The point is that they’re not FAR wrong about sex" I don't mean they're half right about the holes in latex condoms or something like that. I just mean that they're right to point to the possibility of sex being unhealthy or pathological, and to seek a unification of human goods which includes sexuality. So they're partly right in principle, but mostly wrong in practice. I guess it's not really clear if that makes them "not far wrong" rather than "just a smidge right."

    You might think of this in terms of our conversation about video games a while back.

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