How Is Cardinal Law Like Britney Spears?

NOTE: This article was begun quite some time ago, with the intention of submitting it to local newspapers. While it was in progress, the Cardinal resigned and new leadership was put in place in the Archdiocese of Boston, with pledges of strict reform. However, the policy of same-old, same-old employed after Fall River, which is becoming apparent with subsequent actions, at least in terms of trying to weasel out of responsibility by hiding behind Donna Morrissey and doublespeak — and the continuing attempts by Catholic intellectuals and pundits to defend the indefensible — makes this still relevant enough to warrant posting in its rough state, though I am working on a more up-to-date article for forthcoming local use. 

Damage control, theologically speaking, is not the prevention of scandal. By the time damage control occurs, it's too late. The scandal has already occurred — and damage control can only ever create new scandals. This is due to the fact that according to the ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, as elucidated by scholars like St. Thomas Aquinas1 and in the Catholic Encyclopedia2 (published in New York almost a century ago), scandal is simply an evil action which leads other people into committing further evil actions of their own. 

If it isn't contagious, it isn't scandal, and if the deed itself isn't wrong, it isn't scandal either. It has absolutely nothing to do with the way that we ordinarily use the word "scandal" to mean either something which causes public shock and horror, or the state of public shock and horror. This state is a common response to real scandals, naturally enough, and so the term has come to mean this alone in the popular usage through derivation. 

Scandal, like any scientific term, has many aspects. There is active scandal, which is the originating evil action, and there is passive scandal, the subsequent evil actions it engenders -- the deeds of the scandalizer and scandalizee, respectively. Both passive and active scandal may be further defined. There is direct scandal, which is active scandal deliberately undertaken to encourage the target individual[s] to engage in wrongdoing, and indirect, which is done entirely self-interestedly and only contagious by accident. 

Passive scandal may be further qualified as "scandal of the weak," which means leading other people astray by bad example who otherwise are well-meaning. (And active direct scandal contains an even rarer subclass, that of diabolical scandal, which means that the scandalizer is deliberately inciting the scandalizee in the hope of causing the latter to become completely corrupted — trying to turn the other to the Dark Side, as it were.)3

Examples of all of these can be supplied gratis by the Enron case, which contains not one but many types of scandal in the strict technical sense. When Enron simply engaged in acts of wrongdoing, this was NOT scandal. When Enron did so and this then encouraged other companies to do follow suit, they became guilty of scandal. When this only happened by bad example, this was merely indirect active scandal. When they went out and tried to solicit other companies to engage in their "creative accounting practices", they then became agents of direct active scandal.

The companies who followed suit knowing it was wrong, and citing Enron as a justifier to themselves, were guilty of passive scandal; the ones who simply thought "everyone's doing it, so it must be okay" were only guilty of passive scandal of the weak. (Not the same as "Scandal of the Week", it must be noted — though we have that, too, only taking place much earlier than you might suppose.) I don't imagine that there were any instances of diabolical scandal going on, but this is the sort of thing that can really only be known to God. 

Now the reason for clarifying this is not to merely exercise pedantry and nit-picking, but to address what in a way is the worst part of the official response to this wretchedness, extending almost without discernible difference across the dioceses of the Eastern seaboard.4 It is not the fact of the abuse, not the still-worse fact of the cover-ups, not the even more egregious disingenousness5 that characterized the early days of the investigation — "I am shocked — shocked! — to discover abuse going on here" — but the invocation, IRA-like, of a higher standard incomprehensible to outsiders.6

Over and over again (most lately I have heard it voiced by the Diocese of Manchester New Hampshire7) it is claimed that the response of the hierarchy was (—though admittedly flawed by today's perspective—) an example not of official butt-covering and whitewashing of sepulchers filled with corruption, but of the different — and implicitly higher — standard of the Catholic theological tradition, (as opposed to the Catholic bureaucratic tradition) which emphasizes the redeemability of every person. 

But in the classic tradition, this view was not in any way incompatible with punishment. One of the stories told of St. Catherine of Sienna's spiritual heroism is her success in redeeming a hardened killer whose jail chaplains had despaired of getting him to repent before his execution. The man had insisted that he was not sorry for any of his crimes; the local authorities were faced with the dilemma that if they executed him in this state, he would surely go to hell; the solution was to keep counseling him until the last minute, respecting his free will and right to damn himself, but doing everything possible to redeem him. —Not, however, to set him free to kill again, out of hope that he would somehow miraculously be redeemed without any desire for it, nor to postpone his execution infinitely when his guilt was not in question, out of hope that they might at some future date be able to convince him of the need for reconciliation.

(Note that this example is not at all intended to challenge recent theoretical developments in regards to the question of capital punishment, but only to use an extreme situation as demonstration of how these abstract ideals and tensions have been embodied in historical practice. In other words, I'm not supporting the death penalty here. I'm referring to social history involving the theology-in-action of the Roman Church.) 

Mercy tempers Justice, in the classical tradition, not the other way around. Justice is the foundation, the baseline for interaction between persons, and only after the requirements of Justice have been met is it permissible to back down, with much careful consideration of the good of all (not just the friends of the authorities, that is!) from the full stringent penalties required. 

Hence a sentence in a secular court might be mitigated due to circumstances of age or impoverishment, for example — but not because the judge does not like hurting people, or seeming to be "mean", or because the defendant happens to be a cousin or colleague of the judge! In all of those cases, the baseline of Justice has been discarded, and hence the good being addressed is entirely one-sided and thus in opposition to the fundamental purpose of a court. (There are, interestingly and not at all coincidentally, many statements about judges and especially judicial corruption in the Bible.) 

Now, in the course of this business, there have been a consistent series of responses from the hierarchy, with each progressive revelation of misconduct: 

     1) How dare you impugn us? 

     2) I am shocked, shocked to discover pederasty in our midst! 

     3) But it is only a few, and you're blowing it out of proportion because you're bigots. 

     4) We didn't know about it. 

     5) "That was then" — we didn't know it was harmful. 

     6) "That was then" — it was the '70s. 

     7) It isn't really pederasty anyway because most of them were adolescents. 

     8) We hid it because we wanted to protect the victims. 

     9) We hid it because we wanted to help the poor molesters. 

     10) Once again we are taking definitive action to put a stop to it. 

     11) We have to forgive and forget and move on as good Christians. 

(Only once has the appalling "It's your own fault for not taking proper precautions for your children" appeared in public8 and so far has not been repeated, but that it was said at all has to be indicative of the mindset of the Church authorities.) 

"The guilty flee where none pursueth." 
-- Proverbs 28:1

Particularly galling to me is the disingenuous appeal to a former "naivetι." The claim that they did not know it was wrong, appealing to historical relativism as a defense, falls down when one considers that there were books bearing imprimaturs — clerical seals of approval — being published in the 1950s which advised parents against leaving their children with sports coaches, scout troop leaders, and non-Catholics who might take advantage of them, to their lasting harm.9

It also falls down when considering the efforts taken to conceal the very fact of the accusations — people don't try to hide something unless they fear the consequences of exposition. Now this could work two ways — an innocent person could hide what they are doing, say, in a totalitarian regime, where "Everything that is not required is forbidden" and so forth. But that was clearly not the case. They were not, in fact, attempting to conceal from a hostile authority, but from their own most loyal followers, the ones who have given the benefit of the doubt — and in some cases are still doing so — for as long as possible. 

This repeated claim that the hierarchy was only trying to do the best and most merciful thing for all concerned, out of compassion, is belied by the immense corpus of evidence that they put a great deal of energy and cash into silencing the victims either by bait or intimidation, spending money to have lawyers and detectives discredit the accusers, rather than face charges and disprove them where possible. Nor is it enough to allege that it is the fault of the Zeitgeist — for one thing, the Spirit of the World ought not to have been respected more than the Holy Spirit! 

So now we are offered as excuse that they wished to prevent scandal, of all things. Evidently they are unfamiliar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2284 and 2285, where this is all summarized succinctly: 

2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense. 
2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." (Mt 18:6; cf. I Cor 8:10-13.) Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing. (Cf. Mt 7:15.)

If I, at age eight, could understand the difference between "scandal" as it is commonly used and the true theological meaning of the word after my mother explained it to me, then surely Princes of the Church with degrees in Theology and many other subjects are capable of the same. If they are not, then we are in even more trouble than we knew. 

But these clerical claims of ignorance and incompetence, put forward as we can only suspect falsely, are no real defense against the odium that loyal orthodox Catholics, speaking from within the tradition, are now expressing. We are not helpless sheep to be led astray by the secular media; we are not "of the world" and caught up inexorably by whirlwinds of popular culture. The revealers of the scandals may be malicious, though many of the local journalists have been remarkably polite and respectful on the air, if incredulous, in their interviews. Not all of them have asserted that celibacy is the root of the problem, and when they have discussed the question, have done so with opportunity for response and challenge. But if what these reporters were saying was true — as it has proven to be — then to respond with outrage and denial of what they knew to be true was simply adding another scandal to the pile, another sin which serves the purpose of leading astray the multitude. 

I say that to cover up, to conceal, to deny the existence of clerical misbehavior is not only scandal, but grave scandal, because it incontrovertibly does encourage further evil actions. How is a priest to be restrained from sin by his superiors, when he sees them not merely turning a blind eye but willing to lie, to browbeat, and to bribe the way of offenders out of trouble? On the one hand, you have the making clear the pathway of present sinners by providing such as Fathers Porter and Geoghan (to sadly name but a few) a "Stay-Out-Of-Jail-Free" pass through the practice that I have heard termed, by someone who should know, "playing checkers." 10

Then there is the bad example that this provides to clergy who might be tempted, yet still resist temptation, if they did not see that abuses of trust and power were for all intents and purposes rewarded by their superiors. And finally, there is the fact that by allowing the rapists to continue to maraud, they were guilty of allowing countless youths to be drawn into a state of passive scandal — although, without a doubt, these victims were not morally culpable for engaging in behavior which contravenes Church doctrine. So in no possible way — except for "the way of the world" — could the bishops and cardinals be said to have avoided scandal. 

What they have done, in fact, is the very thing that they claimed to have wished to avoid: they have made it inevitable that innocent priests will be victimized with false accusations, that they will never be believed again, and that the principles of the Church that they are supposed to be defending will appear to be discredited along with their messengers. All of which could have been avoided if they had come out at once, at the outset, and investigated fully, and cleared out the wrongdoers from the temple, instead of that very human act of hiding mistakes. Qui custodet and all that. 

They are left with the choice, the same choice that Enron's executives left themselves, of being either Irredeemably Stupid, or Unconscionably Evil. Or, as seems not unlikely, both. Gross incompetence? Wilful malfeasance? Take your pick. For to plead ignorance of the harm caused, and the excuse of doctors' authority, is to say that they were oblivious to the evidence thrust in their faces time and again — parents coming to complain because their children were distressed and traumatized by abuse, and the recidivism. For them to claim innocence on the grounds that "the doctors said he was cured" (leaving aside the fact that the doctors were not chosen for their expertise in the subject, but the reverse) falls apart the instant a priest abuses again. Considering how often these malefactors were transferred, only serial amnesia can explain this prolonged "ignorance" of the molesters' uncured, unrepentant status. 

No, they were not engaged in any kind of moral action, nor in prevention of scandal, for all those years, but rather in the very worldly, secular, and entirely natural-but-base activity of covering their backsides. It isn't right when the government does it, it isn't right when corporations do it, and it sure as Hell — quite literally — isn't right when the leaders of the Catholic Church do it. 

At the present, as they continue the attempt to remain detatched and above it all, speaking always in the subjunctive mode (eg, "Mistakes were made"), these princes of the Church appear to embody only the worst aspects of any aristocracy — the "Dark Side of Feudalism" as it were, refusing to acknowledge obligations to those whom they should be leading. By failing to demonstrate any deep contrition — if you're only sorry because you're caught, and you don't want to be punished, that's imperfect contrition, as every Baltimore Catechism student should know — they forfeit the right to demand our forgiveness.

"He is guilty of the sin of scandal who without positively pledging or inducing to sin nevertheless performs an act evil in itself which will be an occasion of sin to another. ...Thus those who blaspheme before others when they foresee that their example will cause the latter to blaspheme are guilty of scandal; so also those who attack religion or morals, hold immoral conversation, sing immoral songs or (by their behaviour, dress, writings etc.) offend against the laws of decency and modesty, when they foresee, as is usual, that those who see, hear, or read will be impelled to sin." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912)

In conclusion, what does Cardinal Law have in common with Miss Spears? The answer is that they are both agents of indirect active scandal, of the same sort. Britney Spears is justly castigated across the board for her performances and lyrics which set forth as an ideal an image of young women as lust objects longing for abuse and without any deeper or higher aspirations. Moreover, her mass-marketing and glitziness, carefully targeted, makes it almost inevitable that children are attracted to her, innocently, without understanding the darker currents and complexities that her song-and-dance masks.

Cardinal Law's scandal does not partake of any of "the glamour of evil" that (in however tawdry a fashion) surrounds Miss Spears' performances, being entirely sordid, vile, petty and ultimately pathetic, as denial after denial is driven out of the shadows by the harsh light of evidence. But it is, undoubtedly, far worse.

posted 27.April.2003

1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, 1220s - 1274 AD

2 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII
Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company
Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Relevant article to be found at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13506d.htm
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
—A fascinating source of insights, good and bad, into old-time RC theology and other non-doctrinal teachings, from a more official and formal perspective than mere family folklore.

3 There are further subdivisions which are not clear to me, between received and accepted passive scandal, which seem to be "distinctions without differences," perhaps because of  losses in translation.

4 Maine, I have heard on NPR, has done the opposite and, once caught, simply handed over all relevant records to the AG's office — records which go back 75 years. This alone should give pause to those who claim that the source of the problem is recent social attitudes to sexual morality, dating from the 1960s, along with the fact that several of the admitted molesters claim to be "second-generation" victims of clerical sexual abuse — abuse which happened during the supposed "Golden Age" of pre-Vatican II.

5 In other words, outright lies.

6 (I say this is like the Irish Republican Army because, in the worst days of the internecine fighting during the 1960's and '70s, the supposedly-Catholic Provos would argue that they were not violating Catholic directives against terrorism and atrocity — their predecessors, the Fenians were actually excommunicated earlier in the 19th century — but that Rome 'simply didn't understand' their special circumstances and why it was in fact all right for them to blow up department stores and airports full of noncombatants. If only, they said, Rome understood, the Vatican would not condemn their actions — but no one who was not born into the struggle could possibly understand and sympathize. This was explicitly stated to a relative of mine in the course of a long night's discussion in a Paris bistro by several Provos in the 1960s, by the by.)

7  Father Edward Arsenault, Chancellor of the Diocese of Manchester, on The Exchange, NHPR, 05/09/2002, hosted by Laura Knoy.

8  Law  on Shanley, April 29, 2002, as quoted in the Boston Globe.

9  I found this several times, in books on marriage and the family from before Vatican II which I encountered in my research during an attempt to prove that Catholic sex teachings, at least as commonly understood by the faithful, were not as wierd or repressive as popular belief would have it. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate the most explicit statment of this, again, although I am fairly certain it was published by P. J. Kennedy of Boston. It struck me forcibly at the time, some two or three years ago, then in the wake of the Fall River scandals, as giving the lie to the claim that "no one knew" juvenile molestation to be harmful.

10 This I heard second-hand from sources personally known to me, with personal knowledge of the inner workings of the dioceses both of Boston and Manchester. I have no reason to doubt it, and the fact that something in a culture has a name, just as the fact that something is prohibited, means that that thing is not unheard of, whether it be rape, murder, embezzlement or pederasty. If there is indeed a Chancery slang term for the practice of moving known molesters around to evade scrutiny, this indicates (if any further proof were needed) that this is no rare or unusual thing in New England.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana/William H. Sadlier, Inc., NY, 1994.

Odd Lots