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Stop Weaponizing The Priest Abuse Crisis Against Catholic Theology


Hillsdale professor Korey Maas has published another article on why he believes the priest sex scandal should convince Catholics to abandon Catholicism. I’ve debated the prudence of responding to Maas because it hasn’t been clear to me that engaging his argument would provide much value, either for Catholics, still coming to grips with the magnitude of this crisis, or for Christians more broadly who are interested in ecumenical understanding and the possibility, however challenging, of moving towards greater unity.

Indeed, although I find Maas’s articles smartly written, they strike me as the sort of concern-trolling you get from an estranged relative who smells blood in the water during a family crisis (I only ask these questions because I care, guys) than sincere theological engagement. All the same, I’m responding because I believe Maas’s latest article, in conjunction with the first, is not only offering an alternative viewpoint on the crisis from an “outsider,” which would be welcome. It is taking advantage of the crisis to challenge Catholic teaching in a way that obfuscates rather than clarifies.

Unlike many Protestants, Catholics believe individual faith is vulnerable to harmful external influences (hence the sin of scandal), so it is important that we identify the relevant theological and moral questions as clearly as possible. Along these lines, I believe what I argued previously on this topic still stands: to say that the Catholic church has acted and is acting hypocritically does not and cannot, in and of itself, lead to the conclusion that any specific Catholic teaching is false.

In other words, the only thing that matters with regard to the epistemic status of anything the Catholic church (or any other institution) teaches is whether it is true or not—not whether any person actually acts in accordance with it.

This Is a Category Error

This is the fundamental problem at the heart of Maas’ arguments: conflating the moral problem of hypocrisy with the philosophical-theological problem of truth. To be fair, the broader question he asks in both articles — What is unique about Catholicism that compels Catholics to be Catholic? — is an essential question for Catholics to answer. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the abuse crisis.

What makes this crisis a crisis for Catholics is that a shockingly large number of priests and bishops directly abused children and young adults and participated in systematically hiding that abuse. The crisis is also compounded by the completely tone-deaf and ineffectual response from the church hierarchy, both here and in the Vatican, to date.

This is an enormous problem, of course, but not because it calls into question church teachings on the evil of abuse or the necessity of justice for the victims or even the goodness of truth-telling. Much the opposite. It is a crisis precisely because it violates these teachings so gravely and brazenly. In other words, this is crisis of hypocrisy — not, as others have also argued, a crisis of faith.

That is not to say that there are no crises of faith lurking, or even active, within the Catholic church right now — something Maas is eager to point out. For example, there is disagreement, both in substance and in practice, on the validity of giving communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment. There are also questions on whether Catholics must now believe that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, and thus never morally permissible.

These are indeed very serious theological and moral questions, and they have the possibility to cause division within the Catholic church on the actual content of church teachings and, from a methodological standpoint, how the church can claim that its teachings have developed without engaging in doctrinal contradiction. So Maas is right about that specific point: Catholics, and the magisterium in particular, have to work these issues out with greater precision. But, again, what does it have to do with the abuse crisis?

Maas also points to the question of papal authority in Catholicism, and, in particular, Catholicism’s understanding of papal infallibility. He highlights some watershed moments in the development of the interpretation of infallibility in Catholicism, and fairly asks how Catholics should understand pre- and post-Vatican II conceptions of papal authority, especially given that there appears to be tension between the two.

Ultimately, Maas seems to believe that, however Catholics might try and work out these questions, the Catholic affirmation that the pope can speak infallibly at all is simply a false teaching. As a non-Catholic Christian, it is not surprising he holds that view. Most non-Catholic Christians, qua non-Catholic Christians, do. But again: What does this have to do with the abuse crisis?

Squaring the Circle

The best answer I can come up with is that Maas ultimately sees the abuse crisis as symptomatic of a greater error in the Catholic church itself, an error grounded in a false doctrine of papal infallibility that should eventually lead Catholics to ask themselves a version of this question: Given that I owe absolute fealty to every papal utterance because I am a Catholic, is there anything so beyond the moral or theological pale that the pope could say or do that would make me realize that the pope is wrong, and, consequently, Catholicism itself is wrong, and, therefore, I am wrong if I stay in the church?

Maas offers this sensational hypothetical to drive home this point: “Perhaps the line would be crossed if the church began — again — compelling magistrates to burn men and women to death for holding opinions contrary to its teaching?”

Yes, perhaps that would be a good place to draw the line, assuming that is what Catholics believe about papal authority. But that is not what Catholics believe. Whether if by “church” Maas means the pope or the magisterium (the teaching authority of all the bishops together), Catholics do not believe that the individual opinions of popes or bishops can compel the faithful to believe new teachings. That is not how infallibility or papal authority works. At all.

The Catholic church has recognized from its inception that bad popes and bishops can and will be part of its institutional history, a tradition that started with the kiss of Judas. Catholic apologists, recognizing that infallibility is an especially contentious area of confusion between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, have also provided careful explanations of the meaning and foundations of infallibility in both scripture and tradition. This is not a new debate.

But let’s say that Maas remains unconvinced by all attempts to defend Catholic teaching on papal authority, and sticks to his conclusion that this constitutive dimension of Catholicism is wrong—that is, false. Still, what is it about the abuse crisis in particular that led him to this conclusion? Why, really, is he talking about the legitimacy of papal authority and the abuse crisis in the same essay at all?

Are we supposed to believe that if the abuse crisis never happened, he would be assessing the validity of Catholic teaching differently? In short, isn’t it simply that he thinks Catholic teaching is false independently of how any Catholic pope, bishop, priest, or layperson acts?

If so, Maas should write that article instead, perhaps titling it, “Why the Papists Persist in Wanton Idol Worship,” with a sepia photo of a kneeling layman kissing a papal ring complementing the headline. Then we could know more clearly where things stand in the debate. That is, we are not actually arguing about what to do about bishops and priests who have done bad things, but, more fundamentally, about what to do about bishops and priests (and Catholic laity) who have bad beliefs.

The Rules of Engagement in the Kingdom of God

So let’s try to clear this up. To my Catholic sisters and brothers, especially those with doubts driven by this terrible scandal: Read the whole catechism, including its explanation of papal authority, then go on to read what you can of the doctors of the church, documents from the church councils, and some of the most renown church apologists (including, contemporarily, Bishop Robert Barron).

If you hear truth in what they say, then you should — “should” here meaning acting with free will according to what you believe to be true — remain in the church and do everything possible to protect your home from anyone seeking to destroy it, especially from within. There are indeed heaps of skeletons in the church’s closets, but now that they are coming out into the open the answer is not to abandon the home but to do everything possible to get all the skeletons out.

To my non-Catholic brothers and sisters, especially my fellow Christians, let us continue talking, debating, even arguing vigorously. There is nothing wrong with that. We can and should continue the discussion about the most authentic understanding of the church — the church as Jesus Christ intends it to be — and about the most authentic understanding of authority within the church.

But let’s commit to a fair debate with a mutual commitment to seeking truth, not point-scoring. It is simply disingenuous to link the substantive question of papal authority, or any other church teaching, to the abuse scandal, which still remains a problem of conduct, not of doctrine. Whatever else we might say about the definition of the “true” church, perhaps we can all agree that it should exclude schadenfreude-laced theological opportunism.