Epistemic Institutional Design: The Abstract

My focus in this project is to look at various institutions that try to track the truth about moral value, of which the Roman Catholic Church is only one. The Catholic Church is certainly wrong about consensual adult homosexuality, but what’s interesting is that this error is the result of a method of moral inquiry that otherwise will often yields good results. So the question is: could the Catholic Church improve its normative evaluations without destroying its institutional identity? Like many people, I suspect that much of what enabled the Church to preserve its basic values for so long may also prevent it from adapting. In contrast, democratic states have enacted epistemic procedures that are highly responsive to new information, but seem to allow large, systemically risky errors to emerge quite often.

A couple of caveats to the project: I assume that all institutions have an epistemic component: they enact procedures aimed at “getting the right answer” to some or another question. Even though some institutions seek answers specifically to normative questions, any epistemic institution will do: epistemic procedures themselves have a normative component, insofar as there are better and worse ways of inquiring. I assume that there is a sufficient analogy between matters of fact and matters of value such that the methods of professional epistemologists can supply insights for ordinary moral knowers. That means that I’m assuming that there are distinct matters of value into which we can inquire, and that these matters are not exhausted by some set of physical facts.

My questions: what is it about the design of an epistemic institution that leads to error, and can these features be rooted out or mitigated? Put another way: is some kind of errancy or blindspot inevitable? Must the production of knowledge always coincide with the production of ignorance in more than just the trite sense that our attention cannot be both broad and focused?

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.)