The Pope’s Weaselly Excuses For Church Child Abuse In The ’70s

On Christmas, the Pope Benedict XVI tried, pathetically, to minimize the Church’s responsibility for the pedophilia scandals:

Victims of clerical sex abuse have reacted furiously to Pope Benedict’s claim yesterday that paedophilia wasn’t considered an “absolute evil” as recently as the 1970s.

In his traditional Christmas address yesterday to cardinals and officials working in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI also claimed that child pornography was increasingly considered “normal” by society.

“In the 1970s, pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children,” the Pope said.

“It was maintained — even within the realm of Catholic theology — that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a ‘better than’ and a ‘worse than’. Nothing is good or bad in itself.”

To be clear, since the last phrase is incomplete and ambiguous as here presented, the pope was not saying that it is his position that pedophilia was ever not really a big deal.  Of course, his behavior from that era and since seems to imply that indeed for him pedophilia is less of a problem than embarrassment, demystification, and delegitimization of the Church would be.

But in the quote above he was trying to accuse the broader culture of corrupting both the mores which influenced priests and even the formal theology of the Church during that era.

And his position is disingenuous for more than one reason.

For the first thing, some philosophical speculation and norms of silence aside, pedophilia was never openly and widely endorsed as an actual social norm.

Secondly, the Church presumes to be a source of special divine guidance in moral matters.  It cannot make any “everybody was doing it” excuses and still claim that it is an especially insightful and indispensable institution.  It should have had God’s guidance and not needed secular awakenings in the value of protecting children for them to have woken up.

Thirdly, and most importantly, pedophilia has been a problem within the Catholic Church since long before any ’60s sexual revolution and it was, as far as I can guess, much more likely that the sexual revolution and women’s rights movements which broke the norms of patriarchy which had kept vulnerable people, like women, children, and gays silenced and shamed out of standing up for themselves.

It was the values upheaval that broke the power of traditional institutions and people in traditional positions of authority to operate with impunity and the assumption of impeachable moral authority.  Both the father in the house and the one in the Church was now open to scrutiny.  So if anything, it appears to me much more likely (though without specific sociological and historical research, so take this with a bit of salt) that secular moral developments driven by feminism and egalitarianism led to our current, drastically increased sensitivity to child abuse.  The authoritarianism of the Catholic Church was not and still is not the secular world’s teacher on this issue.  The situation rather seems to be quite the reverse in fact.

Conservative adults raised in the Catholic schools in the ’40s and ’50s often say that if they came home from school with bruises from their teachers, their parents gave them some more since they must have done something wrong.  They often say this pridefully as a way of saying they have earned the right to impose such an excessively strict and pitiless which would, presumably, fix all the supposed increased problems with today’s children.  Having internalized their very Catholic upbringings, they are nostalgic for a time when there was minimal institutional protection of the children from brutish treatment by authoritarian nuns, priests, mothers, or fathers.

The Roman Catholic Church was part of an authoritarian moral order in which the vulnerable were suspected of deserving the abuses they got, it was not the force for moral enlightenment that feminism and its egalitarian ideals were.  While feminism was making it possible for women to extricate themselves and their children from abusive relationships, the Church was threatening excommunication for divorce.

Nonetheless, the pope in this Christmas address did not mean to actually endorse pedophilia but rather to pin it on the cultural challenges to existing moral paradigms that occurred during the period.  But Jason Thibeault misunderstood this and thought the pope was himself saying there were no moral absolutes and that this somehow justified morally (rather than just explained causally) the pedophilia in the priesthood which occurred in that era:

the Pope has all but admitted that morality is subjective. I disagree with him on the salient point about whether pedophilia was acceptable or accepted in the 70s, and consider it tangential at best to the point that these priests were in positions of power over children, and they abused that position in order to put the kids into other positions. Is that abuse of privilege not sufficient, when coupled with the fact that these priests have vowed celibacy, to prove the whole practice immoral and counter to the foundation of his religion? Why equivocate, or obfuscate, or outright lie, about these acts, if they are so subjective, and were subjectively moral at the time they were committed?

Then, with an unreasonable torrent of expletives, Thibeault argues that the pope’s moral judgment is so bad that not only is he not a special moral authority as he claims but is actually someone with especially poor moral judgment.  His conclusions about the pope’s moral judgment and lack of special authority are both correct in my judgment, but he argues from a mistaken premise that the pope was endorsing a subjective account of morality.  The pope was claiming only that morality was being treated as subjective, not that it truly was.

But why do I bring up Jason Thibeault’s mistaken reading of the pope’s point?  Because it was the launching point for a blogosphere debate that I intend to comment upon and I wanted to lay the background for that.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.