Rod Dreher confronts the Grand Inquisitor

Rod Dreher, the “Crunchy Con”, is appalled by the following quote:

Here is a stunner of a line. N.B., Jose Barba is one of Maciel’s victims, and Martha Wegan was the victims’ canon lawyer:

Mr. Barba said that in a later phone conversation with Ms. Wegan, she told him it was better for eight innocent men to suffer than for millions to lose their faith.

Emphasis mine. That line — it is better for eight innocent men to suffer than for millions to lose their faith — is very nearly the essence of the scandal right there.

Mr. Dreher has had an interesting string of posts lately (especially here) inspired by the sex abuse scandal, but raising more general social questions.  I should say from the first that Dreher has always struck me as a profoundly decent, intelligent, and principled man.  He also strikes me as a sort of tragic figure, in that, like Orestes or Antigone, he shows us the destructive power of virtue.  On the one hand, Dreher is a Christian and a conservative, a friend of authority, tradition, and religion who has a great deal of sympathy for Catholic beliefs and piety.  On the other hand, Dreher is a journalist, and he believes that whatever the worst that the press can dig up about about some member of an institution, rather than that institution’s self-understanding or average behavior, is THE TRUTH about that institution.  On the one hand, he has acknowledged that constant harping from the press on the failures of authority figures tends to weaken community and destroy religion.  On the other hand, he thinks that journalists have an absolute moral obligation to expose all misdeeds of the Catholic clergy (even, it seems, minor details of cases from half a century ago, even though no other institution is expected to endure any such scrutiny at all).  Thus, Dreher finds himself forced to advocate measures that will destroy the things he truly loves.  This is what makes him a tragically noble figure.

Dreher also thinks it inexusable for the Church to make any effort to protect herself from these attacks.  Rather, she is to broadcast all the failings of all her ministers and then abase herself before her enemies.  It never occurs to these journalists that it’s their hostility that forces the Church to engage in cover-ups.  When you know that any wrongdoing in your institution will be broadcast across the whole world and cited as proof of your intrinsic wickedness, it makes it that much harder to call the cops and go public.  It also takes a good deal of ignorance of human nature to assume that constant criticism leads people to behave better, rather than making them secretive, defensive, and resentful.  Consider the Middle Ages, when popes practically talked about nothing but the sins of priests and bishops.  (It was part of an argument for increased papal authority.)  They could afford to, because there were no newspapers to destroy the faith of the people.  Clericalism as we know it is a reaction, a self-defense mechanism against hostile governments and press.

I know we’re all supposed to agree that cover-ups are “inexusable”, but if we’re going to keep obsessing about this issue (in a world where the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse of minors is ignored by the media because it doesn’t involve the Church), it really would be worth our while to consider the episcopacy’s position.  After all, what about those millions of faithful?  Is it wrong to give them any consideration?  After all, if the Catholic faith is true, then a soul that abandons the Church is in much greater danger of spending an eternity burning in hell.  This is surely something one should try to avoid.  Ah, I hear you say, but it didn’t work–trying to conceal clerical sins just made the scandal bigger when it did come out.  To this I say, first of all, that this doesn’t prove that concealment wouldn’t have been the right thing to do if the bishops could have pulled it off.  (The fact is, they don’t seem to have been very good at the whole cover-up thing.  Sometimes, when I hear about some new 30-year old incriminating document coming to light, I think “Gee, guys, haven’t you ever heard of a paper shredder?  And why did you write some of this stuff down to begin with?  If you’re going to do this, do it right.”)  From the John Jay Report, we see that incidents of sexual abuse were going down dramatically long before the scandal broke, as one would expect since the period of utter lawlessness in the Church was drawing to a close.  If the bishops had pulled off their plan, the problem would have been fixed (more or less), and no one would have been the wiser.  Evil men would have gone unpunished, but isn’t that a small price to pay to save souls from scandal and perdition? 

Furthermore, one could argue that the cover-ups were a good idea even if they were bound to fail, just so long as they weren’t bound to fail immediately.  A lot of people have died between 1980 and 2002, and perhaps many more of them have gone to heaven than otherwise would have.

Dreher compares this line of reasoning to that of Dostoevsky’s fictional Grand Inquisitor, and the comparison is indeed an interesting one.  However, the Grand Inquisitor’s goal was to lie to people so that they would be happy.  The goal of the bishops was to lie about a small (in the eternal scheme of things) matter so that people would keep believing an important truth.  Basically, there are five claims at work here:

  1. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
  2. 1. is only true if His ministers in the Catholic Church are generally decent men.
  3. Christ’s ministers in the Catholic Church are generally decent men.
  4. If 3. is true, then there will not be cases of appalling wickedness in the priesthood.
  5. There are not cases of appalling wickedness in the priesthood.

Let’s say your a bishop, and you know that 1 and 3 are true, while 2, 4, and 5 are false.  You also know that pious but simpleminded people believe 1,2,3,4, and 5.  You gauge that 1 is the most important statement, while 5 is not really very important.  However, when some people learn that 5 is false, they will apply 4 and 2 to conclude that 1 is false, and thus forfeit their salvation.

Let’s also consider this from a Darwinian point of view.  An institution can only survive in the competitive marketplace for loyalties if it is able to minimize negative exposure and maximize positive exposure.  An institution that can’t do this will die.  Therefore, we can be sure that all institutions now in existence that have managed to stay alive for an extended time have developed defense mechanisms against bad press.  Now the Catholic Church is being asked to dismantle its defense mechanisms:  it is not to be allowed to conceal wrongdoing, nor is it allowed to minimize it by pointing to official policies or the innocence of the pope, or by pointing out that its sins are no different–qualitatively or quantitatively–than any other institution of comparable size and function.  The Church is told to just announce its sins and beg forgiveness from a (presumably innocent) world.  This will quickly lead to the Chruch’s destruction.  One can be certain that no other institution will adopt such suicidal policies.  If publicizing one’s own shortcomings led to increased credibility, we could be sure–simply by natural selection–that every institution would have discovered this long ago.

In my ideal arrangement, priests who are accused of pederasty would be turned in to the police right away, and the Church would not suffer for this because no one would read newspapers.  Down with journalism!

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