Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Scandle Within the Catholic Church

It's a good thing all those priests molested all those children, because this sure helps atheists prove the inferiority of religion.

After all, we all know that if not for religion, pedophilia would not exist - in the same way that Schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's Disease are also caused by belief in God. Furthermore, as we all know, in the absence of belief in God, no human being would ever act to protect a secular institution he belonged to from bad publicity.

That was sarcasm. I suspect that there are some who might not recognize it as such.

The fact is,"belief in God" and "pedophilia" are not related. Nor is "belief in God" and "willingness to protect an organization that one belongs to." These are both facts about human beings independent of religious beliefs, thus they are not facts that separate the religious from the non-religious.

There are two relevant moral considerations to be drawn out of the recent revelations that, in Europe, as has already been revealed in America, the Catholic Church has covered up allegations of child abuse by members of the clergy.

Divine versus Secular Morality One relevant point is that it provides some counter-evidence to the claim that a belief in God provides a person with a special incentive to do the right thing. In one way of thinking, a commitment to God and church is a commitment to a moral life that brings with a commitment to do the right thing (as described within that religion). Another way of thinking says that agents can be motivated by fear of eternal punishment.

Yet, no religion has ever held that these methods are absolutely reliable. There has always been a recognition that temptation exists and that people might find themselves in situations where "the devil" might urge them to act in ways that God would not approve. So, there is an easy way out for this type of objection. These are cases in which people were not as committed to good as they should have been. They allowed themselves to be seduced by evil forces into acting in inappropriate ways. Now it is time to confess their sins, repent, and resolve to do better in the future.

There is a strong parallel to be drawn here between the temptation to evil and the commitment to do good in terms of conflicts that arise between good desires and bad desires on a desire utilitarian model. The "devil's" temptation can easily be mapped to bad desires. In this case, it applies not only to pedophilia itself, but in the desires that placed the well-being of the church over the well-being of the children. The moral fault within the Catholic church is that its leadership did not have its priorities straight. It cultivated desires that tended to thwart other desires rather than desires that would tend to prevent the thwarting of other desires.

Yet, this secular description - in terms of conflicting desires - tells us that secular institutions are vulnerable to the same forces. Pedophilia exists independent of religious beliefs. Members of secular organizations are also going to have an interest in preserving the good name of those organizations. In certain circumstances, this is going to motivate the members of those secular organizations to act in ways contrary to the interests of children. The best way to prevent these ill effects is to make it clear that this condemnation is universal - that it would not be okay to engage in this type of activity to protect a secualar organization.

Religious Privilege

Another morally relevant issue rests in the fact that religous organizations have traditionally received a type of immunity from public scrutiny that has not been given to secular organizations. The Catholic Church has been subject to civil lawsuits in the United States and its clergy have been arrested for violating the law. There is a strong public attitude of, "Thou shalt not condemn or Church or its leadership."

Well, there is no justification for this attitude. The Catholic Church ought to be subject to the same set of standards regarding criminal and civil responsibility, as well as moral judgment, as any secular organization that has involved itself in the care and education of children. People who participated in this cover-up should be terminated from their positions and replaced by people with a stronger dedication to doing the right thing.


Both of these arguments use this case to deny religion a special place in human affairs. The first denies the moral superiority of the religious - since the religious and non-religious are subject to the malevolent force of the same demons or bad desires. The latter denies that any religious institutions should be subject to the same oversight and be required to live by the same rules as any secular institution.

However, both of these argue for the equal treatment of religious institutions as compared to secular. While it argues against the superiority and privelege of religious institutions, it does not argue for their inferiority.

To illustrate this point, there was another story that made the news this week. This one concerned a 15 year old girl who hanged herself because of bullying and harrassment from classmates. This provides another example in which the members of an institution failed to take action to defend the interests of a child against those who would do them harm.

This time, it happened in a secular setting - a public school - and their is no sign that there was any religous motivation behind the attacks.

As such, it seems, atheist bloggers and commentators apparently fail to find it worthy of their attention. At least, I have not heard much mention of this particular case. This suggests that it is not concern for the well-being of children that is motivating these comments. The welfare of children is as well served by taking a stand against bullying as it is by taking a stand against abusive priests. It suggests that the interests actually rests elsewhere - in preserving or promoting the social status of one's tribe, perhaps.


What we are dealing with here are the possibilities and limitations of human psychology. Everything that has happened to the Catholic Church can happen to a secular institution. Everything that has happened is a result of weaknesses in human nature that are as common among those who do not believe that a God exists as it is among those who do. If, in fact, the protection of children from harm is the dominant motivating interest, as indeed it should be then it is important to recognize that religous institutions are not the only institutions capable of generating these types of risks.


Anonymous said...

This post gets certain things wrong, and although I doubt you mean to be a concern troll, the way in which you get things wrong is reminiscent of that behavior.

Take, for example, your use of the suicide which made the news. Unfortunately for your writing, the officials at the school apparently did attempt to stop the problem by intervening. The interventions did not work, but they did take place. And once the suicide occurred, the school is looking for ways to amend its policy to solve the problem.

Contrast that with the church: the bishops did not attempt to stop the abuses, but merely acted to cover them up. Now that the cover has been hopeless blown, they are attempting to cast the blame on others and refusing to alter their policies.

Your example in fact is an illustration that, at least anecdotally, a secular institution at least attempts to justify its position of trust, rather than lie to protect that trust like a church.

I can't say that I'm concerned that bloggers who are particularly atheist aren't mentioning that case, because I'm not. It's a tragedy, but what relevance does it have to atheism? Given the different response of the school and the church to scandals, the only relevant thing they could say is "this illustrates that secular institutions can handle things better than churches do", and that would be in poor taste.

Furthermore, I would argue that the immunity which churches have to scrutiny (and to punishment by outside forces) is in itself a way in which religious organizations are inferior to secular ones. Anything which creates a blind spot in law enforcement is a problem, not matter what other effects it may have.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not understand what you are criticizing.

First, I explicitly stated that the immunity that churches have to scrutiny is a problem. My post states this explicitly.

And, second, whatever objections are raised to the fact that "the bishops did not attempt to stop the abuses" the very same objections would still apply no matter what other term you might put in for "bishops" - whether it be "teachers" or "administrators" or "police" or "family members".

Focusing on the term "bishops" gives a free pass to any non-bishops who might also engage in the same type of behavior in relevantly similar circumstances.

Failure to appreciate the fact that there are elements of human psychology at work here that all humans share - and that other institutions are also vulnerable to these types of forces, fail to put us on guard against similar abuses elsewhere.

Richard said...

The fact is,"belief in God" and "pedophilia" are not related.

I'm not sure I believe this. Pedophelia could create a desire for some sort of religious feeling.

And, belief in christian morality does seem like it could lead to more willingness to actually molest children.

In christian teaching, it's desires that are immoral. So, given that someone wants to hurt a child, there's not really any extra sin in actually doing it. They've already committed the act in their heart.

So, we have causality in both directions.

Nor is "belief in God" and "willingness to protect an organization that one belongs to." These are both facts about human beings independent of religious beliefs, thus they are not facts that separate the religious from the non-religious.
This also seems untrue.

I like the organizations I belong to. I think it's generally a good thing for the world.

I do not believe that they are necessary to lead mankind towards God and away from a literal eternity of suffering.

A religious person and I both want to preserve our organizations. But, my motivation is less strong.

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Everything that has happened to the Catholic Church can happen to a secular institution.

Not all organisations are the same.
Rather than comparing the Catholic Church to some vague 'secular institution' surely you should compare it to a secular institution that is authoritarian in the same way as the RCC. Otherwise you aren't comparing like to like.
Likewise there will churches that are not as authoritarian as the RCC, without a head who is supposedly infallible.
What you say about human nature is true but certain institutions can arguably promote the worst of that nature due to the power structure and their lack of openness.

On top of that you have the Pope being the head of state of the Vatican which adds an extra layer of immunity from prosecution similar to that of other heads of state and diplomats.

SS400 said...

This is a very nice post. I notice among some of my friends (and perhaps myself sometimes, though I don't like to admit it) the sort of thinking you're describing here. I notice that sometimes people using words like "atheism," "theism," "rational," and "irrational" tend to subtly add to their definitions, perhaps unconsciously, the notion that these words are badges of honor or scarlet letters that inherently make the person they describe better or worse. Thanks for the thought provoking read, sir.