Last month, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania confirmed what everyone already knew: child sexual abuse is rampant in the Catholic Church, and it routinely gets covered up by church leaders.
In response to the report, there were protests, investigations, and demands for greater accountability. Unfortunately, these efforts will do little to solve the problem, because the problem with the Catholic Church is not secrecy. It’s not corruption. It’s not even pedophilia.
Faith causes a fundamental misalignment of incentives in the church. Institutions that suffer from such a misalignment become corrupt. And corrupt institutions invariably reject reform.
To illustrate this point, imagine you’re an earnest member of the church who truly feels sympathy for the victims of the abuse. You want to stop the abuse, but to do that, you need to remove the abusers.
Who is responsible for removing the abusers? It’s the abusers’ bosses—the bishops and cardinals, and ultimately the pope. But what if these leaders neglect or refuse to remove the abusers? What if the pope says, “There’s no systemic problem of pedophilia in the church,” or what if he won’t even address the issue at all? What will you do? What can you do?
Generally, if you want to change the behavior of an institution, you first have to figure out where the institution’s authority comes from. Threaten to take away that authority, and the institution will reform itself. In politics, authority ultimately belongs to the citizens, and institutions therefore (allegedly) pursue the citizens’ preferences. In the marketplace, authority ultimately belongs to the consumers, and companies sell products that they believe will satisfy consumers’ preferences, lest those consumers take their business elsewhere.
Where does the church’s authority come from?
The pope derives his authority from faith. (Yes, Catholics would say he derives his authority from God. But in order for that to be possible, you have to accept that God exists and that he gave authority to the pope—both are premises that themselves rely on faith.)
What did Catholics in Pennsylvania have to say about their faith in the wake of the grand jury report? A recent Reuters article quoted some parishioners:
“I can’t talk about it without crying,” said Kathy Morris, a retired steelworker and a member of St. Patrick’s for over 15 years. “I’m going to Mass to try to find some peace.”
“I’m disappointed that it happened but as far as the faith goes, I’ll never give my faith up,” said Anthony Giuffrida, 66, an usher and lifelong member at St. Patrick’s. “I was raised Roman Catholic and that’s what I’ll be till the day I die.”
. . .
[Rev.] Carroll implored his parish to not spurn the church because of the grand jury’s findings: “Only God himself can bring us out of this darkness” (emphasis mine in all three quotes).
There are many more quotes like those, with some people saying their faith is strengthened in light of the report.
What would happen if we applied this standard to politics and business? Let’s say that every time a politician became more tyrannical, you were more likely to vote for him. Or let’s say that every time a company dumped toxic byproducts into our waterways, you were more likely to buy its products. Do you think politics and business would become less corrupt, or more so?
Of course, if you knowingly voted for tyrannical politicians and knowingly patronized polluting companies, one could be forgiven for questioning your opposition to tyranny or pollution.
So, earnest Catholics, how do you think it looks when you, by retreating further into your faith, increase your support for the institution you claim to want to reform. And if the church’s corruption does not cause you to question your faith—which, again, is the source of the pope’s authority—how do you anticipate the pope’s behavior will change? Will it improve or deteriorate?
If Catholics want to end the abuse in the church, they have to rein in the pope’s authority. If Catholics want to rein in the pope’s authority, they have to question their faith. Any Catholic not willing to do so—anyone who merely prays for the victims or decries the practices of the church while fundamentally reinforcing the church through deeds—does not sincerely want to end the abuse, and is an accessory to the crime and the corruption.
And if that fact doesn’t give the parishioners pause, then God help us all.