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Pope's theory on clergy sex abuse

  • 16 June 2011

One of the intriguing qualities of Pope Benedict XVI is his intellectual style.

He consistently uses large theoretical constructs, such as secularism, to reflect on the condition both of Western societies and of the Church. He also regularly attributes the dysfunctional aspects of both Church and society to the embrace of false theory. He has regularly attributed sexual abuse by Catholic clergy to bad moral theory.

The strength of this way of viewing the world is that it simplifies complex realities and provides a focus for reflection and conversation with those of a different view. Particularly during his visit to England earlier this year the Pope Benedict has stirred helpful conversation about the place of religion in society. His intellectual style engaged his listeners and offered a different perspective even if it did not persuade them.

The breadth and abstraction of this intellectual style also allow space for confident leadership. If you believe you can identify the causes of weakness in society and the Church, you may also be able to exercise control over them. If the root of corruption lies in false theory, you can work to convert people to true theory. In a church you may also be able to proscribe bad theory, to prescribe true theory, and so to eradicate corruption.

The strengths of this intellectual style are also its potential weaknesses. When you think in large theoretical terms it is easy to miss the subtle relationships that are crucially important. It is also very easy to miss the ways in which your own perspective may be part of the problem, not simply an authoritative guide to its solution. If your diagnosis is inaccurate your remedy will be at best unavailing, and at worst counterproductive.

When Pope Benedict blames bad moral theory for sexual abuse by the clergy, he may offer an example of the weaknesses of this intellectual style. His judgment is firmly held: he has made it in at least three places. In itself his argument is not without plausibility.

Proportionalism, the moral theory that he has in mind, is complex. It could be misunderstood as propounding a moral relativism, within which we could not speak of actions as in themselves right or wrong without referring to our intentions, our circumstances or to the perceived consequences. Someone who held that point of view might then be able to argue that in his circumstances paedophilia would be morally acceptable.

The Pope