Catholicism and Accountability


When will we finally clean house?

The Archdiosese of St Paul and Minneapolis is embroiled in a clerical sex abuse scandal. What seems to be particularly worrying here is that, as Rod Dreher relates, one of the bishops involved actually had a reputation for “cleaning house” when it comes to sexual abuse, and there are now credible allegations that the opposite was true.

Regardless of the allegations in this specific case, one has to ask the structural questions.

Damon Linker, the frequently sharp critic of traditional Christianity, argues that in the internet era, organized religions will no longer be able to hush up scandals, try as they might, and that this will rebound particularly to the disfavor of those denominations that believe in a “traditional” sexual ethic, since the (inevitable (?)) sexual scandals will end up making them look like hypocrites. I think he is right.

It’s a commonplace to note the unrelenting phenomenon of institutional corruption throughout history. Institutions become corrupt when its leaders put the institution’s interests above the interests of the institution’s mission. And certainly no one better than Christians know how cancerous and omnipresent corruption has been in the history of the Church. As Francis Spufford has nicely put it (I am paraphrasing), the Gospel says “love like there’s no tomorrow”, but the Church has to think about tomorrow so it can be there tomorrow saying, “love like there’s no tomorrow.” This irresolvable tension, it seems, always ensures schizophrenia and, thence, corruption.

(And one, of course, can never discount the Enemy. I sincerely believe that bishops, being successors of the Apostles, are singled out for particular torment by the Enemy, and that anyone who, upon rising to the purple (so to speak) is not already a saint (and even then) will be swallowed whole by demonic forces. And, given his singular cast of mind, there is nothing he enjoys more than mediocrity. Making Himmlers is fun, but creating Eichmanns, people who still kid themselves that they have a moral compass, that is the real prize. But I digress.)

But I think there might be something more, and that has to do with the notion of accountability.

As a Frenchman with Anglospheric interests, this is something I think about often, because accountability often seems to be as coeval to “Anglo” culture as it is foreign to “Latin” culture. (Obviously, add all the grains of salt: omnipresent human weakness and corruption; overgeneralization is overgeneral…)

In French, there is indeed a word for entrepreneur, but there is no word for accountability. Responsabilité covers it, but only very awkwardly, referring to as well to legal liability and responsibility as virtue (“He’s a responsible person”), and therefore obscuring the important meaning. And it’s not hard to draw a straight line from this semiotic disability (itself a symptom) and, say, the all-too-often correct cliché of the political culture of Latin countries.

My implication is that, because of its Latin roots, Catholicism has not developed a theology, let alone a culture, of accountability. As I have written before, Catholic ecclesiology is essentially monarchical in character, and kings are kings precisely because they are unaccountable–with the added wrinkle that, in the Biblical worldview, secular kings are at least held accountable by God on this side of the Eschaton. But what of ecclesial kings? Quis custodiet indeed.

And much has been written, by countless people, up and down the centuries, Catholic and anti-Catholic, of the peculiar Catholic hypocrisy all-too-often engendered, at every stage in the Church, by the always-necessary gap between what the Church demands of its members and what they are able to do. I am not saying that Catholicism is reducible to this phenomenon, of course, but I don’t think I will be seriously disputed if I note that it exists. There is a reason why the unofficial motto ascribed to a particular prestigious French Catholic girls’ boarding school is, you will pardon me, “collars up, panties down.” (Its academic scores are splendid, though.) The Church has long abandoned its practice of calling public sinners to public repentance (which almost certainly would lead to a different kind of hypocrisy–but let us burn one bridge at a time). And perhaps this kind of Catholic laisser aller is the price to avoid the destructiveness of Protestant-Puritanical repression, although this cannot, I think, be simply asserted without serious soul-searching.

The problem is that there is indeed ample grounds for a Christian critique of the concept of accountability. In the Christian–especially Catholic–worldview, or at least a very important strain of it, the proper response expected to a sinner is not legal punishment but personal conversion, and legal punishment is seen as missing the point, since in itself it will do nothing for the sinner’s soul. After Nathan calls David to account for his sins, David is not thereby deposed. He reaps temporal punishment in Shakesperean fashion, but he is not deposed. Presidents resign over sex scandals, not kings.

The problem with accountability, from a Christian perspective, is that it is a process for punishment of the guiltless. That, in point of fact, is the reason why it works. In a culture of accountability, if you are President or Minister or CEO or whatever and corruption happens X rungs below you on the ladder, and you didn’t know about it, you must still resign. There is profound, unspoken, human, consequentialist wisdom: “I didn’t know”/”What could I do” will always be proffered as an excuse by the guilty and the guiltless alike, and it is wholly appropriate that it be heavily discounted. A culture of accountability is a culture of results; if I am held accountable for getting X done, my obligation is to get X done, not to do everything I can to get X done. Conversely, a culture of means will be come an unaccountable culture, as excuses will always, sooner or later, become smokescreens for incompetence and villainy. This is the key distinction that the French umbrella-term responsabilité obscures: conceptually at least, if I am liable for a tort, it means that I must repay you to the extent that I have wronged you; if I am accountable for a tort, it means that I must repay you for the tort regardless of my wrongs.

After the French infected blood scandal, the Social Affairs Minister involved, who would be exonerated by the courts of intentional wrongdoing, said that she was “responsable mais pas coupable“, a quote that has become infamous in France. What she meant was to accept her political accountability as a Minister while protesting of her personal innocence of wrongdoing. What everyone in France heard was that she said she was guilty but still should get off in court. What was meant as the eminently honorable response–accepting one’s accountability despite one’s guiltlessness–was understood as a species of villainy. Language plays tricks on us. France does not have a culture of accountability. The language is only a consequence of the culture, but it now makes it harder to change the culture.

One cannot think of accountability without thinking of the Profumo Affair, which was an Anglo affair to the bones. Although in one sense Profumo was certainly guilty, in another sense he was guilty of not much at all: while he had an adulterous liaison, the main issue turned on whether Profumo had been loose with state secrets, of which he was totally innocent. And yet Profumo held himself totally–supererogatorily–accountable, to his everlasting credit. And here we touch upon the paradox of accountability: it can certainly be argued that the loss of this, yes, flawed, but ultimately highly honorable man, in the halls of power, was a loss for the British Crown (Profumo was replaced in his important post by a mediocrity). But the true wisdom is that the British Crown gained a reinforcing of its culture of accountability, precisely by associating accountability with honor.

To contrast a culture of accountability with a culture of unaccountability, let it be noted that the great French journalist Pierre Haski willingly covered up the liaison between Roland Dumas, then French foreign affairs minister, with the daughter of Syria’s defense minister, on grounds of privacy. To his credit, Haski was able in hindsight to draw the line between such actions and the culture that allowed the leading contender for the highest office of state to routinely sexually assault women in full knowledge of the Paris chattering classes and suffer no consequences for it–until, that is, he tried to do it in a country with a culture of accountability.

A culture without Profumos will end up a culture of Strauss-Kahns. I do not think I have strayed far from my subject matter.

But accountability never exists apart from scapegoating. Accountability says, when something wrong happens, someone–ultimately, anyone–must be held responsible. Someone has to take the fall, as the saying goes. Accountability is the most civilized, the most necessary, the most useful, form of scapegoating–but it is still scapegoating, the antithesis of the Gospel. On consequentialist grounds, accountability is great. But Christianity’s essence stubbornly spits at consequences.

The Church does need accountability. It needs a heavy, heavy dose of accountability, as are all agreed, but more than that, it needs a culture of accountability. And that is more harder. And probably that requires a theology of accountability.

After the Christian critique of accountability, perhaps I can point to a couple ways forward.

The first is that to demand accountability is to demand more. To demand accountability is to view sin not as a fact of life to be managed but as, in fact, an injustice to be defeated, and expunged. To demand accountability is to view holiness as the norm. To demand accountability is to part decisively with what I will call a kind of self-defeated anti-Donatism, which says that anyway clerics will always be sinners, and the sacraments will always nevertheless be valid ex opere operato, and the Holy Spirit will always keep the Church around and, therefore, the Enemy’s volleys are only to be endured and dodged and not combatted. To demand accountability is, in the end, to refuse to be cow-like; it is an affirmation of humanity; it is a stubborn insistence against all evidence to the contrary that there are higher standards and that they should be met and that when these are not met it is a disruptive anomaly and not normalcy. The demands of holiness are, in fact, to be met, particularly by our leaders, not as some ideal but as a concrete reality.

The second one is the one that Profumo points us to: for the one being held accountable, accountability has a supererogatory character. The one being held accountable is invited to unite with the Cross of Jesus, and thereby be a public example. What we need is more Profumos, not less.

But these are only pointers, at the end of a meandering and perhaps useless reflection. The central points, I hope, should be clear: Catholicism, particularly the institutional Church, needs not just discrete examples of accountability, but a broader culture of accountability. And obstacles on this road, including possible theological ones, must be cleared away.


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  • Petey

    having an adulterous liaison is a lot to be guilty of.

    • gimpi1

      How about covering up multiple counts of child-molestation and protecting the molesters at the expense of the victims? I find that much more worrying. Do you?

      • Petey

        are acts of adultery to be elided in the face of other evils?

        • gimpi1

          I simply don’t put consensual adultery in the same category. It’s consent that matters to me, consent that turns some acts into crimes.

          Adultery is bad, breaking your word, betraying your spouse, all that’s bad, but it isn’t a crime. Rape is a violent crime. Covering up a violent crime is engaging in a criminal conspiracy. It’s orders of magnitude worse.

          Your church can counsel you and your spouse if you’ve committed adultery. That’s a reasonable course of action. If you’ve committed the rape of a child, you need to go to prison. If you’ve engaged in a cover-up of that crime, you need to go to prison as well.

  • DanC


    I am amazed that criticism of the Church from the general public and laity almost always revolves around faith and morals.

    Meanwhile, such important issues as budget priorities, personnel decisions, and lack of accountability go ignored.

    We need not just a culture of accountability, but formal checks and balances on bishops’ power and more democracy. We need to outgrow the childish monarchical mindset that “we are called to be obedient” no matter what.