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International

Letter from Rome: “Zero tolerance” and English-speaking justice

The recently concluded Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse was a perplexing affair. One-hundred-ninety bishops representing their national episcopal conferences gathered to discuss a matter of urgent importance to the universal church. Journalists from around the world flocked to Rome, giving it the feel of a conclave about to elect a new pope. Yet there was little in the way of practical results, with the Vatican itself downplaying expectations leading up to the meeting and leaving victim-advocacy groups disappointed and angry.

The scope of the meeting was limited to the “Protection of Minors in the Church.” Sex with minors is a crime in addition to a sin and involves civil law enforcement and courts, while consensual sex between adults is a sin but not usually a crime. Greater “transparency” and “accountability” on the part of the church and especially bishops were the most common words used to describe the way forward.

There were two rival interpretations of the causes of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up by bishops. The first is that homosexual activity has accounted for the vast majority of abuse cases; networks of homosexual clergy have spread and hidden the abuse for decades. The second attributed “clericalism” or the abuse of power by bishops and priests over those they were supposed to care for and protect, with sexual orientation being just a coincidental factor due to the all-male environments of seminaries and rectories. When pressed on the issue by journalists, the organizers of the Vatican summit sided with the latter interpretation, perhaps out of fear for being labelled “homophobic” by the press.   

The reaction of the laity to the summit has varied significantly in different parts of the world. In my admittedly unscientific appraisal, those in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada and Australia have been the most strident in calling for “zero tolerance” of clerical sexual abuse, meaning that priests found guilty of a single instance of sexual abuse should be “defrocked”, meaning removed from the priestly state, not just from public ministry. Conservatives in these countries are the most likely to focus on homosexuality in the priesthood as the problem. Others emphasize the failure of priests to honor their vow of celibacy, regardless of sexual orientation.

My Italian friends, on the other hand, have been much more blasé, seemingly out of a desire to avoid scandal and speaking badly about priests. (Additionally, as the New York Times points out, there is no Italian word for “accountability.”) Those from African and Asian countries have also been much more reluctant to speak about sexual abuse and especially homosexuality. And then there are the Germans, many of whom tend to view the entire matter as expecting too much from bishops and priests in the first place.

As I said, a perplexing affair that I mainly tried to avoid. Perhaps it’s the result of being raised by Indian parents in the United States, having worked for the Vatican and living in Italy for the last twenty years, a condition that could be called cultural schizophrenia.

Of course, everyone is principally opposed to sex abuse of any kind,  especially when it is perpetrated by those who have taken vows of celibacy. I am still shocked and unpleasantly surprised when I hear of wayward priests. When I was young, I placed priests and sisters on a moral pedestal. Over the years, I’ve come to know priests as human beings facing the same temptations as the rest of us but whom God has called to something better. Celibacy is not a burden but a gift that allows them the freedom to be more generous with God and others. With our sex-saturated culture, it has never been clearer that bishops and priests need the prayers and help of the laity to remain faithful to their vows.

It also struck me that the varied reactions of my friends, practicing Catholics from different parts of the world, needed some explanation. I may have found at least a partial one, recently staring at me from the bookshelf, in George Grant’s 1974 lectures on "English-speaking justice." 

Provoked by the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion and John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, Grant says that the English-speaking countries have adopted a “contractual” rather than a “natural” form of moral philosophy.  “The view of traditional philosophy and religion is that justice is the overriding order which we do not measure and define, but in terms of which we are measure and defined. The view of modern thought is that justice is a way which we choose in freedom, both individually and publicly, once we have taken our fate into our own hands, and know that we are responsible for what happens.”

Influenced by the “secularized Christianity” promoted by John Locke and Immanuel Kant among others, English-speaking countries attempt to hold both views of justice, allowing it combine religious morality and technological progress. This contradiction, Grant says, “was exposed in the writings of Nietzsche. The Germans had received modern ways and thought later than the French or the English and therefore in a form more explicitly divided from the traditional thought.”

Grant continues, “It is Kant who is singled out by Nietzsche as the clearest expression of this secularized Christianity. Kant’s thought is the consummate expression of wanting it both ways. […] Kant persuaded generations of intellectuals to the happy conclusion that they could keep both the assumptions of technological secularism and the absolutes of the old morality. […] He delayed them from knowing that there are no moral facts, but only moral interpretations of facts, […] our ‘values’ are what our wills impose upon facts.”   

Once the contradiction is exposed, there is no reason for Western society to limit itself to the natural justice or the given order of things; humanity itself can now be manipulated according to human will or desire. Germans, Italians and other Europeans do not expect transcendental norms of religion to limit the will. The Anglosphere pluralistic religious understanding of justice has not hindered the will very much either, but some residual natural justice makes itself evident in occasional bursts of righteous indignation that look puritanical to Europeans.

Our contemporary desire to punish clerics and bishops for sexual abuse seems to be a sort of English-speaking justice, healthy in one sense but lacking the metaphysical foundations of the older sort. “Zero tolerance” may satisfy victims but it is not what it seems. Defrocking a priest does not nullify the “indelible spiritual character” of the sacrament of holy orders, as the Vatican well knows. The Church teaches that “[a priest] cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1583) Likewise, the Church does not recognize homosexuality as constitutive of one’s identity; it only sees persons with “homosexual tendencies” who, with God’s grace and some effort, should be able and willing to overcome them and avoid sinful acts. An apparent form of justice cannot change these truths.

English-speaking justice, then, is a mixed bag. Grant concludes, “In the task of lightening the darkness which surrounds justice in our era, we of the English-speaking world have one advantage and one great disadvantage. The advantage is practical: the old and settled legal institutions which still bring forth loyalty from many of the best practical people. The disadvantage is that we have been so long disinterested or contemptuous of that very thought about the whole which is now required.”

That was in 1974. After what seems to be a great injustice done to Cardinal George Pell, I am not sure we can rely on our institutions or our contemporary understanding of justice to see us though. While Pope Francis never tires speaking about divine mercy, it also presumes the just wrath of God. If Grant is right, we must think about “the whole” to recover the true meaning of these words.


Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.