Of Pedo Priests and True Religion

Of Pedo Priests and True Religion September 28, 2018
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Last week, I engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue on Unbelievable? radio about Jordan Peterson, the Intellectual Dark Web, the alt-right, and religion with secular humanist chaplain James Croft. James blogs at Temple of the Future on Patheos Non-Religious, and among many other things we discussed his post “The Atheist Alt-Right Connection,” which was how I was first introduced to his work when Justin Brierley sent it to me. Unbelievable? is the world’s premier Christian radio network and the only Christian network I know of that regularly hosts inter-faith dialogues. My thanks to Justin for being a gracious and capable host, and to James for the cordial, if at moments sharp exchange. I happen to know James had to do a lot of cramming on very short notice about this topic, so I commend his patience in working with me and Justin to pull this off. He is a very skilled speaker who doesn’t shy from heated disagreement, and I appreciated the opportunity to disagree with him. Hopefully, the feeling was mutual. This was my first debate, and James kindly encouraged me that I should do more of this sort of thing. Perhaps I will.

It would be impossible to summarize our entire conversation, but one guiding thread was the question that loomed over Jordan Peterson’s recent debates with Sam Harris: Can civilization survive without religion? Apropos of this question, we also spent some time discussing a 2014 article by my favorite atheist, British journalist Douglas Murray. It is called “Would Human Life Be Sacred in an Atheist World?” and I’m now losing count of the number of times that I have cited it. Murray has recently re-echoed some of the concerns he raised in that article, particularly his fear that we are losing the concept of the sanctity of life in a post-Judeo-Christian landscape. When he moderated the UK debates between Peterson and Harris, Murray said history books will remember our era as the “post-Holocaust” era, in which we all sat around asking “What the literal hell happened in the 20th century?” The totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are often categorized as experiments in atheism gone horribly wrong, which naturally offends the Sam Harrises of the world. While Murray granted it would be simplistic to ascribe all the bad things of the 20th century to atheistic philosophy, he was impressed by David Berlinski’s assessment: that the one thing we can agree all the perpetrators had in common was they didn’t think God was watching them.

At this point, my conversation with James took an unexpected turn, as James said he had smiled ruefully when thinking about the title of Murray’s piece in conjunction with the breaking revelations about the Catholic Church scandals. Clearly, it seemed to him, this implicitly held the answer to Murray’s question—or rather, it posed a different question: “How can we legitimately claim human life is sacred in a Christian world?” Clearly, some men who wear the mantle of Christianity are not good. They are, in fact, very bad indeed. Where Murray writes that “Religion holds religious people back (even if not always stopping them),” James begs to differ:

I think that the existence of such church-sanctioned horror certainly doesn’t undermine the value of all religion, everywhere, for all time, but it makes a mockery of the idea that God holds people back from doing terrible things. Clearly, as a simple psychological fact about humanity, that is false. People can do terrible things while occupying the highest positions in the hierarchy of a religious organization. And I’m certain that’s true of secular organizations. I’m not saying secular organizations are better, I’m merely saying that the claim that religious organizations and ways of thinking prevent people from doing bad things is obviously false and offensive, and doesn’t take into account the capacity for evil which is in every human person, whether they’re religious or not.

Well, as I told James in response, I certainly couldn’t agree more on that last point! Indeed, as a Christian I believe human nature is basically evil, though I also believe all humans are also capable of doing good, contrary to the popular atheist straw-man that Christians believe atheists can’t do moral things. (There’s a “So what you’re saying” meme in there, but I digress.) A separate but legitimate conversation could also be had about how certain aspects of Catholic church structure might have enabled abusers—the seal of the confessional, for example, or the fact that parishioners will keep attending church to receive the Sacrament even if they suspect something is up with the priest, because Catholic teaching says they can’t get the Sacrament anywhere else.

However, James skipped over Murray’s own immediate qualification of the statement that religion holds religious men back, namely that it does not always do so. Clearly, occupying a high position in the Church is not a sufficient condition for ethical behavior, and never has been. The apostate clergy we have with us always.

But it is just there at the word “apostate” that James objected, which led to a surprising back-and-forth. When I referred back to Berlinski’s quote and said it seemed evident that these priests also did not believe God was watching them, James was astonished. He asked, “What evidence do you have of that? They’re priests, for goodness sake!” The astonishment was mutual. I would genuinely be curious to know which God James thinks these priests did believe in, because I fail to see how it could be the Christian God. Where does Christ, the Church’s professed lord and founder, wink and nod at sexual abuse of children? Where does he give license for God’s vicars on earth to treat seminaries as a buffet of desirable young lovers? I must have missed those verses. I do remember him saying something about children and abuse of power though. I think it involved millstones and execution by drowning, but I’m a little hazy on the details.

Here James suggested that since some of them confessed their sin to other priests, this is evidence that they did believe they were in danger of judgment and “repenting” accordingly. Now this truly gobsmacked me, to the point that I actually laughed out loud. We are talking about “confessions” delivered in confidence, to priests who the perpetrators knew would not be able to testify under the seal of the confessional. These men did not submit themselves to the discipline of the Church or of the state. What they spoke with their lips, they did not prove with their actions. I ask James, and would ask anyone: What do you think repentance means? Surely, whatever it means, it cannot mean this.

Based on my response, some have accused me of implicitly defining the word “Christian” so that nobody who is committing any sin, at any time, may be called one. “How convenient!” they say. But I make no claim to make such a definition. I merely observe that Jesus does seem to place rather a premium on following him in word and deed. Can my secular friends and I not at least agree that however one evaluates people on the spectrum of apostasy, the continual, shameless abuse of power to prey on children has crossed the line? Moreover, just so that I’m not misunderstood to be saying the Catholic Church is anti-Christ, can we not agree that this flies in the face of Catholic doctrine, specifically? That’s all I’m asking for the moment. I would have thought it was a small ask, but perhaps I thought wrong.

Meanwhile, while we’re defining our terms, we really ought to clarify this term “religion.” Now, I cannot say for sure what Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris or Douglas Murray mean by this word, though they used it liberally in their dialogues. At times they seem merely to mean the structure of religion: the mass, and the private school, and the rituals, and all the motions great and small that you go through without really understanding why, but one just does. And yet I wonder: Is this the “religion” which has the power to hold men back, as Murray proposes? Can mere structure, mere formality, offer the soil in which a seed might take root and grow? Or do we need that true religion and virtue which will not be content with whitewashing the outside of a man, but demands his heart’s allegiance?

This is the rub, you see: If this whole “saving Western Civilization” business that Peterson and Murray talk about is really going to work, it can’t be nominal Christians all the way down. One must hit that bedrock of people who actually believe this stuff, and act like it. Not just people with power, not just people who have ascended some ecclesiastical dominance hierarchy, but ordinary people. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. People like you. People like me. Ordinary sinners, in need of extraordinary grace.

And here we have reached the nub of it, for here we have reached the gospel. And here, we have reached that which I fear James misses completely. James misses the alcoholic one year sober, his eyes glistening as he tries haltingly to explain who he was before he met this man Jesus. He misses the estranged mother and child reunion in the back of a church pew. He misses the prodigal running down the aisle, crying “Lord, I am not worthy. Lord, I am not worthy. But speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.”

Misery, deliverance, gratitude. Misery, deliverance, gratitude. This is the transforming gospel. This is the voice which bids men come and die. This is the voice of the One who asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” This question, we must all answer, every man for himself: the pedo priest, the alcoholic wife-beater, the jealous brother, the bitter prodigal. And we know not how much or how little time we have to answer it.

“I will let you down,” Johnny Cash sings. “I will make you hurt.” This is the damned spot that will not out. Unless. Unless there is grace. Unless there is a fountain that can make the vilest sinner clean.

My hope for all men is that they might find that fountain. My hope for all the sinners. My hope for all the seekers. My hope for men like Peterson and Murray, carrying fears they cannot name, searching for they know not what, forced to admit that while perhaps God is dead, they confess to missing him at times. My hope that at the end of all their exploring, they might arrive where they started, and know it for the first time. That perhaps they might find themselves in a secluded chapel, on a winter’s afternoon, realizing that history is now. It has always been now.

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  • camainc

    Excellent post! I’m sorry I missed your debate. If you have a link for an online archived version of, could you post it here? Thanks.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “Of Pedo Priests and True Religion”

    Can someone clearly define what a “True Religion” is?

  • Dax Williams

    Ah yes. The No True Scotsman ploy.

  • Illithid

    The contention that the priests’ confessions indicates some level of belief makes sense. Regardless of how safe their secrets might be in confession, they would be safer still if kept to themselves. If they didn’t believe in the God they professed to serve, why ever would they confess these crimes? To brag?

  • Robb

    Great read. I thought ms Fogey did extremely well in the debate against somebody who was clearly a very experienced public speaker.

    I believe it is right to call out the straw man of the Catholic church as a flaw in Christian doctrine, though I am not so sure all of the preists are atheistic, only weak and perhaps within the Catholic church they believe they can be forgiven as long as they confess?

    Ultimate justice seems to contradict this? As described in the NT…

    It seems obvious to me however that the narrative and Truth of the NT is infinatley ‘better’ than no Truth atall…
    Even an evolutionaty Truth is still ultimatly meaningless, as RC Sproul conveys so well, and is where I believe JBP is wrong…

    I do however believe he understands the Overton window 😉

  • Brian Westley

    Yep, particularly this part:
    While Murray granted it would be simplistic to ascribe all the bad things of the 20th century to atheistic philosophy, he was impressed by David Berlinski’s assessment: that the one thing we can agree all the perpetrators had in common was they didn’t think God was watching them.

    It’s the usual backhanded way to lie and say “all really horrible people must have been atheists”.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Try hitting up “Douglas Murray” and “Islam” on YouTube and then report your findings.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Yes, note I didn’t say Cash wrote it, but his version and the video are what folks remember. Though he importantly changed one line. I’ll let you look it up.

  • Brian Westley

    Douglas Murray appears to be a complete idiot; in 2008 he claimed “Studying Islam has made me an atheist”, but also seems to call himself a “Christian atheist” and has made statements like “We’re Christians whether we know it or not”. He doesn’t argue coherently.

  • John Thomas

    If one defines true Christians as those who do not do grave sins, then by definition, anybody who does grave sins cannot be a Christian. But is it the right way to define who a Christian is? I am not sure about that. I find it much similar to Calvinists’ support for the belief in “perseverance of saints”. If a Christian apostatized, they would say that he was not a true Christian to begin with, because if he was a true regenerated Christian, he would not have apostatized. I am sure, they have Bible verses to support that claim too.

  • Robb

    Apologies, I never doubted you knew 🙂

  • @EstherOReilly

    “Douglas Murray appears to be a complete idiot.” LOL ‘K.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I’m not a Calvinist.

  • John Thomas

    I didn’t imply that. But that sort of argumentation invokes the memory of a similar claim by Calvinists in my mind. That was all I implied.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Ultimately, all I’m saying is that we can clearly identify a point at which someone is not a Christian. But that’s a different sort of claim from the Calvinists’, because it doesn’t speak to whether the person was EVER a Christian at some previous time. In fact, I believe one can begin as a sincere Christian, then apostatize.

  • John Thomas

    I would say that they committed a grave sin while being a Christian. Would that make them no longer a Christian? Maybe one could say that they didn’t live up to their calling due to whatever weakness they had and they tried to preserve themselves from facing the consequences of their actions and were weak. At the same time, one could also believe that Christian God is so loving and compassionate and understands that human beings can be sinful and weak to varying degrees that He could be still waiting for them to be truly repentant of their sins and be a better person in the future. Is that a possibility that you don’t find comfortable to consider?

  • @EstherOReilly

    I think we need to remind ourselves exactly what kind of actions we’re talking about, and what time scale. We’re talking about priests serially abusing children, sometimes arranging them in blasphemous crucifixion poses, over and over again. With the Vigano bombshell we’re also talking about priests who have spent years calculatedly gaming the church system for power and maximum sexual pleasure, weaving a network of lies around themselves to keep it all underground. This is not like the whiskey priest trying but failing to kick the bottle, or even like the man who has one moment of weakness and sleeps with a woman not his wife, then feels tormented and guilty about it. These are the kinds of men for whom the phrase “seared consciences” was created.

    Yes, God desires not that any should perish, but that does not mean if Theodore McCarrick died tonight he would get a slap on the wrist from Jesus because “human beings are weak” and these things just happen sometimes.

  • @EstherOReilly

    It’s linked right at the top of the post.

  • John Thomas

    I agree that gravity of their deeds are grave and they deserve whatever punishment that comes to them. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that there is no scope for repentence for them. It could happen at any point of time at least for some of them, we never know. The stories of David and Paul are all examples of those who did bad deeds and had the opportunity to repent for it. There is a reason that such stories are there.

  • Brian Westley

    Oh, I realize the claptrap he was referring to. But you were never helping me out.

  • @EstherOReilly

    If they repent at some future point that’s between them and God. This is wholly compatible with the judgment that they are not in a state of grace at this time.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Aight, well, have fun storming the castle. Also let me know when you get a free ride to Eton and start a think tank!

  • Brian Westley

    That makes about as much sense as your article.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Oh, sorry. To clarify, a free ride to Eton and years of experience running a think tank are just a couple things the idiotic Douglas Murray has on his resumee that you don’t have. My apologies, hope this is clearer.

  • Brian Westley

    Appeal to accomplishment is a logical fallacy; it doesn’t change his bad arguments.

  • @EstherOReilly

    No, it just makes your assertion that he’s a “complete idiot” look more than a bit puerile and insecure. Meanwhile I have yet to see any substantive engagement with his arguments from you, merely the aforementioned copy-paste of the titles of his articles and YouTube clips. If you’ve got something contentful to say, why not get on with it?

  • Brian Westley

    I can certainly judge him by his ridiculous statements.

  • camainc

    Thanks, I see it now. Still hard to get used to links not looking like links. If you don’t move your mouse over them they just look like bold text.

  • camainc

    One grave sin does not an apostate make. Multiple grave sins committed over an extended period of time indicates a severe problem with one’s faith. At what point is the line crossed into apostasy? I think only God knows where the line is, but we humans can certainly make some guesses at whether or not the line has been crossed. “A tree is known by its fruit.”

  • Karin Isbell

    It all started when the RC church placed church doctrine ahead of the Gospel instead of righteously the other way around.

  • John Henry Beukema

    Great work again, Esther. Thanks!

  • phillip mutchell

    I remember reading an article when my sister in law was pregnant with triplets that an American woman who following IVF found herself lumbered with twins had one aborted has she had only wanted one, I think of this and laugh at the notion that ‘life is sacred’ it isn’t, hasn’t, and will not ever be, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim or whatever; religion presents an ought, against the Is, not because life is sacred but that God IS. Let’s be honest though why should Priests be better than any other, if anything they should be worse because who’s surprised when the long term Porn viewer gets ever more aberrant with their desire and its inability to be satisfied, why then the horror when the poor Priest who’s continually subject to the world’s sickness and can’t even unload anywhere to anyone suffers collapse in his own morality and practice; none of which is to excuse but to truly stress that sin is to come short of God’s glory and in this alone can humanity have solidarity just as any grouping of Christians can only any solidarity when they genuinely recognise themselves as redeemed sinners, for the most part though others rush to publicise other’s failures with that same spirit that they had who brought the woman caught in adultery to Christ; extreme partiality masquerading as a desire for justice.

  • “Can my secular friends and I not at least agree that however one evaluates people on the spectrum of apostasy, the continual, shameless abuse of power to prey on children has crossed the line?”

    It troubles me that you seem to be thinking about apostasy as being measurable by immoral behavior. This is a significant misunderstanding on your part (albeit one that you share with many believers). The process of becoming an apostate is not one of engaging in, or seeking to engage in immorality. Indeed, virtually all of the apostates that I have known (including myself) were motivated by a desire for greater moral clarity and understanding, as well as a passionate and unyielding love of truth. What led us to apostasy was not a deficiency in our own moral character, but a deficiency in the Gospel, deficiency in the Scriptures, and ultimately deficiency in the Church.

    Others have already pointed out the hoary and holey fallacy made explicit whenever one speaks of “true” anything. But I do understand the emotional impulse. It is terribly and frightfully easy to look around at the Church, whether it be the kind of Corporate Christianity(tm) that we have here in the States, or even the infamous Holy See with it’s slowly-unfolding horror story, and say to oneself in a low whisper: “This CAN’T be what Christianity really is.”

    But the fact is that yes, this is what Christianity really is. It’s true as you note that Christianity has provided redemption and meaning for many people who would otherwise have suffered on the margins. But it’s also true that Christianity has evolved into a system of power that abuses many of those same people. We would expect nothing less or more of any other human-designed system, even one that had two millennia to improve itself. Obviously this is a challenge for Christians who insist that (at least at some level) this process is guided by the Creator of the Cosmos, but the capacity for cognitive dissonance tends to expand as the same rate as the contradictory evidence mounts. I would like to believe, as you suggest, that by digging down far enough we might find a bedrock of ordinary Christians who are faithful to the Gospel and whose lives are exemplars of their faith. But if you insist on connecting apostasy (or, being not-Christian) with immoral or un-Christian behavior, then from my experience you’ll dig straight through to the other side. By the criteria on which you seem to insist, I could perhaps present a handful of precious stones after a lifetime of toil in the mine of the modern Church. Now, I’m no less happy for having found them, but at the same time it shows the lie of the idea that there is any kind of rich vein to be discovered deeper within. I’ve been to the center and back; and gone back in again, and again, and again, ad nauseum.

    I’ll say it again: this is what Christianity really is. It is beautiful and ugly and joyful and despairing. It is everything that humanity is, because it is a human system. And like human systems, it creates structures of power and elevates people into those structures who may be (often are? always are?) too morally weak to handle them. And when those people succumb to power, abuse their power, and abuse those around them? Then Christianity perhaps moreso than other systems finds ways to forgive them, redeem them, and return them right back into the positions of power where the abuse can happen again. This, beyond the horror of the sexual abuse itself, is the real defeat of the Catholic Church in the wake of these scandals: that in order to preserve its own power it took confession and forgave the abusive priests and placed them in power again.

    But lest we think this is a particular problem with the Church in Rome, I’ll note that Patheos is currently engaged in the promotion of Mark Driscoll’s new ministry. His story is also one of the establishment and consolidation of power, the abuse of that power, and now the redemption and restoration of that same abuser to power. It is to the Church’s (and Patheos’) shame that he is being given an opportunity to abuse again. At some point we have to ask ourselves, is the system that Christianity has created one that is merely afflicted by abuses of power, or is it one for which this is endemic?

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    Hi again Esther,

    Thanks for drawing my attention here. I figured it’d be better to post here. I haven’t been participating in the Unbelievable threads long, but they don’t seem to have a very long lifespan.

    In any event, this is a strong post, and a good analysis of your side of the debate. It also gives me a clearer sense of the basis of your objections, and the way in which they motivated your line of argumentation. Live debates don’t communicate that sort of thing particularly well.

    I think you and I are more or less on the same page with regard to what constitutes a follower of Jesus in the fullest and most idealized sense. But, we’re obviously not talking about followers of Jesus in THAT sense when discussing pedophile priests. The question then is: So, what are we talking about? I think you and I have not only radically different answers to that question, but radically different approaches to the manner in which we go about answering it.

    I also get the sense (and I could be wrong about this) that I consider the intersection between the “pedo priest” problem and sin (as an existential condition) to be considerably wider than you do, extending to exponentially more people, and with diminishing gradients of moral responsibility extending all the way down from child rapists, to the congregant in the local church putting money in the collection plate. For you it seems much narrower (both conceptually and in terms of the number of people meaningfully implicated).

    We’d probably need several debates of our own to flesh all this out! Ha!

    I any event, I’m glad to have been introduced to your blog. I’ve read over some of your previous pieces and enjoyed them. I’m not sure how much value I’d be as a participant in the comments section, but I’ll definitely keep tabs on your blog as a reader.


  • ThinkLearnTeach

    What a treasure to have found your work, Esther! I look forward to reading more of your contributions.

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    link to my free ebook, “Messages from the Sun God, Jesus Christ”

    link to the ebook on blogger: https://messagesftsg.blogspot.com/

    blog http://www.jesuschristsungod.com

  • P. McCoy

    95 cents of your dollar donation to a Catholic institution is going to be used to pay off and deal with (even helping to escape justice) the Clerical Child Sex Predator Scandals!

    5 pennies LEFT to cover anything else, especially the bragging about the “growth of Traditional Catholicism” in Africa and the Philippines . Yes the latter ,where there is more foul waste than children, the latter who claw through that waste for FOOD, CLOTHING, BARTER material goods and items to build temporary shelters with- if they can’t or don’t then, they sell themselves for sexual favors to the highest bidder- not ALL clients are of the Catholic clergy but MANY of them ARE!

    Africa? It may produce malarial and ebola ridden butts in pews but that doesn’t generate cash! Cash comes from the FIRST, SECOND point 5 and SECOND worlds and they are waking UP! They don’t want to aid and abet child/ youth rapists either!

    The urban legend about it all being the fault of “Marxist Militant ‘Homosexual’ Cabalist Freemasons” that infiltrated the “innocent” Vatican in the late 1930s – mid 1970s is wearing thin. There are Gay Men as abusers most are in positions of authority- higher over lower clergy, employers over employees , seminarians over lay adult students-the cultists REFUSE to accept the reality that Boys and adolescent minors are raped by mainly Heterosexual Men who do it to established dominance and power over a victim as well as humiliate what they consider to be a lesser being.

    Five lousy cents – no different than any other cultists.