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.)

Sex and Judgment

So in the last post, I showed how the initial versions of Christian judgment were remarkably modest and fallibilist with regard to other people. This makes a certain amount of sense, since Augustine was attached to a fairly rationalist theology, and always gave both doctrinal and basically ethical reasons for his judgments. (For instance, with the Donatists.)

In On The Trinity, things become more complicated. Augustine begins by supplying a hierarchy that places the contemplative faculty above the will, and argues that the faculty “to judge of these corporeal things according to incorporeal and eternal reasons” such as ratio and shape, is “part of the higher reason.” Judgment, subsumed under contemplation, nonetheless provides the bridge by which contemplation accesses the corporeal. Augustine takes up this bridging through a sexual metaphor, identifying men and women with the faculties of contemplation and will, and noting that they “embrace” and become “one flesh” in the fashion of marriage and intercourse. Yet this sexing of the spirit’s relationship to the corporeal and the problem of action raises the problem of evil and temptation. Sex is supposed to be bad, right?

Augustine embraces this problem, and supplies a typology whereby all temptation can be read allegorically in the story of Eve’s temptation of Adam with the fruit of knowledge. While earlier in the text he appeared to assign the will the role of fulfilling contemplation’s commands, in order to mirror patriarchal dominance, this story forces him to rearticulate the relationship. So while it seems to his fellow Christians that contemplation and judgment are uniquely or archetypically masculine, he refuses to relegate men to passivity when their role in society shows that they should be assigned to an active principle.

This results in a then-progressive assignment of rational capacity to women. Augustine denies that contemplation and prayer are impossible for women, which will trouble the Catholic Church for centuries before it decides on the priest/nun distinction. In order to supply the requisite inadequacy in women, (for no progressive egalitarian can really stomach a loss of his own cherished superiority) Augustine charges them with a lack of moral turpitude. Females, he suggests, lack sufficient willfulness to resist temptation.

Yet what women might lack in will and power is offset by a corresponding lack of judgment and reasonableness in men. The will may command as a man would have commanded a woman, but the will can only command actions based on the options supplied by contemplation. In the household metaphor, the man stays comfortably ensconced within the home, while the woman goes out into the world and gathers provisions (sense data and perceptions). After her return, the feminine contemplation supplies a choice to the masculine will. However, this choice is something like a menu of options: “Potato chips or a salad?” Yet there remains the problem that some part of the mind must correctly discern that this is a decision that has a correct answer. The question is really: “Junk food or a healthy meal?” But is this capacity for discernment a feminine or a masculine trait? Who best understands the choice: “Sin or virtue?”

In responding to the claim that it is the senses that tempt the mind, and that therefore women are wholly corporeal and spiritually inadequate to salvation, Augustine invokes a trinity, assigning the senses the role of the serpent that tempted Eve. Here, the woman (reason) receives a tempting offer for an extra-marital affair (pleasure), and must decide to stay true to her husband (the will) or to revel in temptation (the senses). Every sin and every act of faith follows this model. In this formulation, again, the contemplative faculty is cast as Eve, in that the received sensory impressions that provide the serpent’s temptations are mediated by contemplation (in the form of judgment) before they proceed to tempt the will to act or remain chaste.

Augustine reaches the conclusion that there is and must be a “rational wedlock of contemplation and action,” which opposes the “hidden wedlock” (adultery) of sin. (OT, XII, 12) But how is the woman to decide between her secret lover and her lawful partner? Augustine calls the answer knowledge, “scientia,” which for Augustine is the practical side of wisdom, “sapientia.” If wisdom discerns the eternal law, than knowledge tells us what it means. Sapience gives us access to the rule, while science is the application of those rules to cases. This will come to be called judgment.

The result is a series of trinities, wherein the second term mediates between the first and third, and seems always to be feminine: perception-reason-will becomes reason-judgment-will. In the first case, the sexual binary makes woman the mediator: the judge who tempts the will. But in the second case, it is still the woman who chooses the lover over the husband or vice versa. Augustine gives up on the sexuation of the mind at this point, refusing to sex knowledge and wisdom, though he might easily have assigned men a superior cacacity for intellection of the divine here by supplying women with mere cleverness for worldly matters.

As the sexual metaphors breaks down, Augustine also points up the inevitable problem of subsuming judgment wholly under the mind’s other faculties. He had begun with identifying judgment with contemplation as such, but he runs into the problem of expansion: contemplation must contemplate itself at times. We must occasionally take our thoughts and think about them. Without a separate capacity, this seems likely to result in a sort of infinite undecidability. Judgment and contemplation cannot be simply utilized by the will, nor discerned by reason, but must actually act distinct from them, based both on experience and the courage of character or moral luck that allows a person to found her judgments of those experiences correctly.