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?

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.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    Same old, same old. Blaming everyone else is normal for the church.

    I agree that the Pope was given an excuse, not a justification.

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    To be clear, I’ve never said that there ARE moral absolutes. I am claiming, and I feel I am justified in doing so, that he is backpedalling on Catholic doctrine by claiming that there is no right and wrong in and of themselves. Having been raised a Catholic, I was always taught there’s an objective good and an objective evil. And I don’t think my few uses of the f-bomb are “unreasonable” by any stretch of the imagination. Unless you’re arguing that one should never cuss, lest one undercut their own argument? Given the number of times I’ve read you using the word “fuck”, I can’t see that as your point… so what WAS it? Am I to be pilloried to make some larger point?

    • Daniel Fincke

      To be clear, I’ve never said that there ARE moral absolutes. I am claiming, and I feel I am justified in doing so, that he is backpedalling on Catholic doctrine by claiming that there is no right and wrong in and of themselves. Having been raised a Catholic, I was always taught there’s an objective good and an objective evil.

      As I explained above, you misconstrued him. He was not saying that there is no right and wrong in and of themselves. He was saying, if you saw the fuller context that other media outlets provided, that non-absolutist ideas had corrupted “even” Catholic theology and made people think pedophilia was hunky dory. Now he’s grosssly misrepresenting history, but he’s not backtracking on his absolutist view of morality.

      So, I pointed out you got that wrong.

      And I don’t think my few uses of the f-bomb are “unreasonable” by any stretch of the imagination. Unless you’re arguing that one should never cuss, lest one undercut their own argument? Given the number of times I’ve read you using the word “fuck”, I can’t see that as your point… so what WAS it? Am I to be pilloried to make some larger point?

      Really? Have I dropped the f-bomb that often? I know I have on occasion here on the blog but I didn’t think it was that often. Oh well, I usually do not string them together unnecessarily. I understand of course you were riffing off the song and making a point (and I understand the song’s point).

      But I still didn’t feel personally that it was the right occasion for me to reproduce that many f-bombs in a row. I didn’t mean it as any hard judgment about using it in general as I, of course, am willing to use whatever language is most appropriate.

      (A quick google search yields 2,900 results for the f word and “camels with hammers”! Holy fuck!)

      Seriously though, I am sorry you feel pilloried, I was just pointing out a misreading. My original intention was to just summarize this post of yours (including noting your interpretation of the pope and correcting that quickly) so that I could get on with analyzing your debate with Greg’s blog. But I wound up having enough to say of my own about the pope’s ridiculous remarks that it became a full fledged post with only an afterward mentioning your remarks.

      And I have not just singled you out at random, George asked for my thoughts on the debate and I figured I would oblige him.

      So, don’t take it personally when I analyze some more of your debate. I do not mean anything acrimoniously and hope some illumination can come out of any dialogue this sparks between us.

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    Fair enough, and I expect you’ll find much to criticize on my side of the argument — I am a computer guy and studied English; I have one first-year university course in metaphysics under my belt but did not take the prereq philosophy courses, so I won’t be as polished as you or your readers. (Even given your f-bombs — give in! They’re fun! They’re just another part of language, anyway.)

    That said, a distinction between the Pope saying “some people used to think pedophilia is fine” and “therefore morality is subjective” is an exceedingly fine one to make. He may have never explicitly backpedalled on the doctrine, but his words, even in context, paint a picture of morality that is subjective and dependent on the zeitgeist of the times. Given the larger trend of the Catholic church of doubling back on their long-standing nonsense when public opinion swings against them hard enough (look at Ratzinger’s recent advocacy of condoms to prevent AIDS in Africa! This despite years of HIM saying exactly the opposite!), I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say he’s all but admitted morals are actually subjective. If I’d said he ADMITTED it, certainly I’d be demonstrably wrong. But saying that people “corrupted” the absolute morals with subjective ones, when he himself has flip-flopped demonstrably on some ostensibly “moral” issues like condoms, pretty much proves that morals change with the times.

    Anyway. My wife just asked me not to “make [myself] into a crazy person” over this. So I won’t. :)

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    Oh, and by the by, it’s not even Greg Bahnsen we debated with. It appears to be his “intellectual heir”, a Canadian theist by the name of Peter, who pressganged Bahnsen’s name into service on his behalf. For whatever that’s worth.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Oh, and by the by, it’s not even Greg Bahnsen we debated with. It appears to be his “intellectual heir”, a Canadian theist by the name of Peter, who pressganged Bahnsen’s name into service on his behalf. For whatever that’s worth.

      Okay, I have not even gotten to read the first reply to your post yet (at least not in full), so I guess I will have to see. Does Peter have his own blog or should I expect this debate to unfold at length in your and George’s comments sections?

  • Daniel Fincke

    The problem though, Jason, is that you’re conflating the mores of the time with normative morality. The difference is between what people happen to be running around calling morality and what they should call morality.

    It is consistent for him (or anyone) to say, “those people over think this or that is moral and act accordingly, but that’s not true morality.” The pope is providing an instance of that and it is totally consistent (at least from a strictly logical point of view) with the view that there actually is an absolute morality.

    Now, it’s a harder thing, I think, for him to explain how God’s Church, specially guided by the Holy Spirit could take so long to figure this out or be corrupted by a bad fad (which didn’t even really exist!) and how the divinely guided Church could be demonstrably behind the broader trends against child abuse in Western culture, etc.

    But if you are trying to put in his mouth the words “morality changes and that’s why it was okay for there to be pedophilia in the church in the ’70s”, you’re not doing any one a service.

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    At that point, it becomes a No True Scotsman on his part, to say that morality is independent from what a particular group of (wholly fictional) Catholics that believed pedophilia was acceptable happened to believe. I’m not trying to put any words into his mouth, and I would retract any statement wherein I argue anything about him without the context of his surrounding words — I hate it when theists pullquote me, and I’ll not do the same to others.

    However, at this point, I strongly suspect that when you look at the Pope’s supposed infallibility (though that’s supposedly only in his encyclicals or some other bit of special pleading — I’m not sure), and you look at the times this Pope has explicitly doubled back on something he’s said himself in the past (e.g. condoms), it’s no large stretch to say that his comportment is more in keeping with morality being subjective than with him just doing the best job he can at correctly interpreting God’s objective moral structure.

    The argument started at my blog, with Peter cross-posting on his blog a few times. Some comments landed at his place that weren’t necessarily part of the larger debate. At an abrupt juncture in the conversation, Peter demanded that I either say he had an objective moral obligation to agree with me, or he could dismiss everything I had to say — I stuck to my “there’s no such thing as objectivity” line of argumentation and he retreated to his place for a victory lap. George was pretty involved at this point, he and I (and a few others) debated him at his place, then our posts stopped showing up. For today’s issues, I suspect Blogspot was to blame, but I know for certain that the commenting policy he claimed was open, had at some point in the debate reverted to moderated-only. A number of rebuttals never showed up, and you will find the majority of them cross-posted at my and George’s blogs in the comments. It’s pretty tangled, unfortunately, because of this. I could probably follow it because I was involved, but I could see that someone else might be hard-pressed to sort what came when.

  • Daniel Fincke

    At that point, it becomes a No True Scotsman on his part, to say that morality is independent from what a particular group of (wholly fictional) Catholics that believed pedophilia was acceptable happened to believe. I’m not trying to put any words into his mouth, and I would retract any statement wherein I argue anything about him without the context of his surrounding words — I hate it when theists pullquote me, and I’ll not do the same to others.

    No, it’s not a No True Scotsman fallacy at all.

    A No True Scotsman fallacy says “no one of group x would do that, therefore so and so is not a true member of group x”. The pope did not say that the priests or the theologians who accepted pedophilia as okay were “not real Catholics”. But he was saying their ideas were not in line with the truth about morality. And the truth about morality can be, as everyone who believes in moral truth recognizes—not just moral absolutists, that some things are morally necessary which no one ever fully lives up to. There’s a total difference between moral norms and actual behavior.

    We can say something like, “no one should ever lose their temper and say something they do not mean, which is meant only to hurt others, which does others more harm than good, and which causes irreparable harm to otherwise healthy relationships”. That’s a pretty good moral rule that one would be hard pressed to find a good exception to. But probably everyone at some point has violated it. Many of us repeatedly. Doesn’t make it any less a moral truth about what we ought not to do.

    Morality is all about what we should do, not a description about what we happen to do. Sometimes we do and think immoral things but it’s not what we should do.

    And I’m pretty sure the Church’s formal position was always anti-pedophilia, regardless of whether some theologians or priests ever argued it was okay. For the pope to say the moral absolute and the Church’s normative position were both always against it is legitimate, regardless of what mores may have ever held among specific priests or been suggested by specific theologians.

    However, at this point, I strongly suspect that when you look at the Pope’s supposed infallibility (though that’s supposedly only in his encyclicals or some other bit of special pleading — I’m not sure), and you look at the times this Pope has explicitly doubled back on something he’s said himself in the past (e.g. condoms), it’s no large stretch to say that his comportment is more in keeping with morality being subjective than with him just doing the best job he can at correctly interpreting God’s objective moral structure.

    Yes, it is true and an argument I make often that the Church’s changes reveal the truth that is obvious, it is a fallible institution like any other. The reason it is always so far behind the rest of us morally is because they never want to go out on a limb with a fad and then have to walk it back. What they always want to do is say, “oh yeah, there’s a way we were saying that all along” or, at least “yeah, that’s totally consistent with what we really meant or what was really important about what we meant”, etc., etc.

    Of course, on some issues they’ve been so unequivocal that changing would be to admit surrender wholesale on a position and real mistake and so they dig in their heels. And the slow process of coming around on scientific and moral advances way after they’ve reached the point of being common sense makes them laughable when they claim to be the true moral guides. They are the organizer of tradition who reactionarily scream over every deviation from tradition until it becomes the new norm and tradition, at which they incorporate it. And go on claiming they are the moral guiders!

    But your remark about infallibility is irrelevant since he is not speaking ex cathedra in any of these cases. I do not know if this pope has ever made a purportedly infallible statement so it is unfair to hold it against him that he’s not always been perfectly consistent.

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    It’s funny that an atheist like yourself would know the nuance behind what the Catholic position on infallibility is, better than my priest or Sunday school teacher, but it doesn’t surprise me. But being told he’s infallible by these authorities (with the implication that he is infallible all the time) is one of the few things I internalized and never shrugged off on my deconversion. I suppose the fact that I dismissed his infallibility is fine, but the fact that I never dismissed this claim to infallibility ALL the time, is a sin of insufficient skepticism on my part. It’s hard to throw out what you’re told by some authoritarian folks in the tradition as being representative of the official positions of the tradition itself, I guess. I’m just sad that Catholics are teaching other Catholics things about their own religion that is evidently wrong.

    As for the No True Scotsman, I meant that if he was saying certain (again, fictional) priests believed other than the Objective Truth, they weren’t following the True Truth — what would have happened if those priests became Pope? Would their subjective truths be asserted as objective truth? If not, then are they then not following the True Objective Truth ™? It might be stretching the No True Scotsman fallacy, but I don’t know of a better fallacy to accuse him of in this — in saying that these fictional examples are “corrupted” and thus not “following the true objective morality”.

    • Daniel Fincke

      It’s funny that an atheist like yourself would know the nuance behind what the Catholic position on infallibility is

      Well, I am by no means anything like an expert on the Roman Catholic Church but I do have a minor in religion and I did earn a PhD from a Catholic university (and presently teach at two others). And I was a devout Evangelical Christian until I was 21. And I am a philosopher by trade. So I am not just an atheist. (Of course, no one is.)

      As to the No True Scotsman issue, that would be true if the pope was running from a doctrine that may have been competitive for supremacy. I doubt an explicit, pro-pedophilia position was ever confused for the Catholic Church’s official position. Thought South Park’s suggestion that it was an unofficial position looks scarily less like satire all the time.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    I feel like this discussion got off on the wrong foot, maybe because Jason is on his toes after the personal attacks he faced at the hands of Peter earlier this week.

    I can see both sides of this argument. What I interpreted when I originally read Jason’s post (remember that I am more than just a regular at his blog) is that he asserts that the Pope attempting to offer any explanation for pedophilia is to subtly admit that there are situations that make it a less culpable offense. The fact remains that there can be no excuses, and in fact there are mitigating factors that make pedophilia by a church official worse. For the Pope to offer anything more than a world-class apology and regret is insulting because it insinuates that the actions can be reasoned to be less severe. I assert that the Popes speech has no more logical merit than saying that in the seventies, there were more box turtles roaming the English countyside, and if we understand pedophilia in this context, it changes something.

    Words are not independent of context, and the subtleties of what is implied are as important as the words themselves. I agree with Dan that Jason didn’t make himself perfectly clear, but I feel I came away from Jason’s article understanding Jason’s point. This may be just because I have a prior relationship with him that I believe helps me to read in a context that extends beyond how he parses his words.
    Is that an internal irony?

  • http://www.lousycanuck.ca Jason Thibeault

    Even still, Dan’s point stands — I was reading more into the quote than was there, due to lack of context. The actions the Pope has taken that makes the case that morality is subjective, are those where he has contradicted past interpretations of morality. The ones where he contradicts his own statements are most damning.

  • Daniel Fincke

    I feel like this discussion got off on the wrong foot, maybe because Jason is on his toes after the personal attacks he faced at the hands of Peter earlier this week.

    I can see both sides of this argument. What I interpreted when I originally read Jason’s post (remember that I am more than just a regular at his blog) is that he asserts that the Pope attempting to offer any explanation for pedophilia is to subtly admit that there are situations that make it a less culpable offense. The fact remains that there can be no excuses, and in fact there are mitigating factors that make pedophilia by a church official worse. For the Pope to offer anything more than a world-class apology and regret is insulting because it insinuates that the actions can be reasoned to be less severe. I assert that the Popes speech has no more logical merit than saying that in the seventies, there were more box turtles roaming the English countyside, and if we understand pedophilia in this context, it changes something.

    Words are not independent of context, and the subtleties of what is implied are as important as the words themselves. I agree with Dan that Jason didn’t make himself perfectly clear, but I feel I came away from Jason’s article understanding Jason’s point. This may be just because I have a prior relationship with him that I believe helps me to read in a context that extends beyond how he parses his words.

    Is that an internal irony?

    You make clear a subtler point here that is worth discussing. There is a difference between the severity of the wrongness of an action itself and the severity of the agent’s culpability. To put it in a clear example: do you not think that a racist today is more culpable for her racism than during the 1830s? Do you not think that if someone enslaved another in contemporary America it would brand that individual enslaver as more especially evil than it would have in the 1800s?

    Slavery is always severely immoral, but the people who engage in it when it is a fact of life and social norm are not as severely immoral people as those who introduce it where it is not already a fact of life.

    Of course pedophilia was not an accepted social norm and fact of life like slavery was. That is where the pope is completely full of it. And the fact that the Church was not ahead of the “world” on this is positive counter-evidence that the Church is either needed for or even provides any special moral guidance. Moral progress usually happens as a fight against entrenched institutional forces and attitudes, and often this especially means the Church.

    Nonetheless, were the analogy to be plausible in a way it is not, it would not undermine his claims about absolute morality to explain different degrees of moral culpability under different cultural contexts. That’s a point which is actually open to the complex realities and nuances of moral life. It’s actually a humane general principle (even though he is employing it in a disgustingly disingenuous, false, and self-serving way here).

    Philosophically/theologically, there’s no contradiction on that point.

  • Daniel Fincke

    By the way, it is that very latitude and nuance in distinguishing between degrees of culpability where there are sincere errors in knowledge that softens the Roman Catholic Church a bit on gays. They judge gays with some latitude in that if gays really are not convinced what they are doing is wrong it is not as bad as if they had thought what they did was wrong.

    Of course, the Church is wrong and there is in fact nothing wrong with gay actions in the first place.

    But the Church gives them moral credit for not intentionally doing evil.

    So, it’s a standard the pope even applies to those he regularly denounces and not just disingenuously to the priests he covers up for and makes excuses for.

    • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

      They judge gays with some latitude in that if gays really are not convinced what they are doing is wrong it is not as bad as if they had thought what they did was wrong.

      So if a gay person does what he/she does with no shame, and isn’t hurting anyone, that’s okay with the Church; but if a gay person is wracked with guilt because he/she’s internalized all their hateful bullshit about how evil his/her harmless desires and actions are, then that person is more evil than the one with no shame? Gotta love their ever-more-twisted victim-bashing logic.

  • Colin M

    The Vatican State has probably the lowest age of consent anywhere in the world. Who in their right mind believes a twelve-year old is mature enough to understand the consequences of sex? The Vatican’s law seems hypocritical, a license to molest children as young as 12, and to cover up the result.

    The Pope’s words ring rather hollow to this ex-Catholic. Actions speak louder than words.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Jason is right about the Pope, albeit for the wrong reasons. This Pope is a worthless sack of shit whose moral judgement is not only impaired, but totally broken, by his self-imposed mandate to place the Church’s power and image at the top of his priority list; and to twist facts and logic to pretend the Church is infallible and always right no matter what it actually does. He’s not a spiritual leader — he hasn’t got a spiritual bone in his body — he’s just a six-covering politician/CEO with more bling and less real-world benefits to brag about. Who in his right mind would expect any sort of leadership from a former Grand Inquitisor?

    Jason is, however, dead wrong about one thing: yes, there ARE moral absolutes, which are based on objective understanding of which actions are beneficial to people, and which are harmful. Let’s not let the religious propagandists lead us astray on this, okay?


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