The Problem with Neutrality

It’s wrong to be even-handed when children’s lives are at stake.

It was only when I became a parent that I truly came to know fear. There are powerful instincts behind one’s sense of protectiveness, to be sure, but also much more than that. There is also, of course, one’s love for the child, as well as, unlike with the others you love, an awareness of the child’s utter innocence and vulnerability. And, finally, there is the recognition that he or she is your son or daughter, your gift, which is to say that your relationship with them is anything but abstract. The combination is so potent that sometimes just the thought of them coming to harm can be unbearable.

So if, God forbid, a terrible thing does happen, then it is tragic enough when it is no one’s fault, when the cause is an accident, say, or an illness. When someone is responsible, then that, of course, makes it even worse. And when, instead of justice being done, there is a cover-up, and this leads to even more children being harmed, well, then we enter the domain of horror.

Catholics the world over have been in that domain for some time now. It turns out that a small minority of their priests and members of their religious orders have assaulted, sexually and otherwise, thousands of minors under their charge. The crimes have only come to light since the mid 1980s, however, because many in the Church hierarchy have worked to keep them hidden, going so far as to reassign perpetrators to unsuspecting parishes where yet more children were assaulted. Some of the victims were even forced to sign secrecy oaths.

But the secret is out and commentators, mostly from outside the Church, have been trying to make sense of it for 25 years. From inside we have heard much less, although Suffer the Children unto Me: An Open Enquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal by Michael W. Higgins and Peter Kavanagh, both Catholics as well as experienced writers, is promising. Yet an open inquiry into what exactly? It becomes clear early on and throughout the book that the authors have taken the media coverage of the scandal as one of their central topics. “We live in the age of media,” they write, and “sex and crime are two of [its] most vibrant staples.” Thus have the “media frenzy,” its “hype and exaggeration,” as well as all of the associated spin forced Higgins and Kavanagh “to marvel at the intensity and ferocity of the coverage.”

Of course Kierkegaard warned Christians (and the rest of us) about all of this long ago. Following his battle with the Danish tabloid known as The Corsair, he began to think about how the rise of the daily newspaper and the extra-political public sphere that it fostered made way for “the public,” that detached, irresponsible, voyeuristic entity that people join on their way to the nihilistic sphere of existence that Kierkegaard called “the aesthetic.” Since members of the public have little or no political power they can afford to not take things seriously (Kierkegaard had no notion of how a citizenry can be distinct from a public) and so they pass their time debating and speculating endlessly upon the issues of the day, gossiping about celebrities and savouring the latest scandals. It is the job of journalists and pundits to feed this beast.

The distortion of truth is the inevitable result. And so we get Higgins and Kavanagh’s complaints about how the media has fed the myth that the Catholic church is systematically involved in abusing children, how it has encouraged people to abandon the presumption of innocence and how it has supplied fodder for “the animosity and bile [that have been] more the norm than the exception in the public sphere.”

Yet despite these criticisms, indeed despite a whole chapter in which the authors describe the media coverage as “intense, hysterical, extreme and rooted as much in vitriol as in fact and analysis,” some pages later we are told that “‘blame the media’ has become a tired and counterproductive mantra” and even that “much coverage is both discriminating and fair.” And though Higgins and Kavanagh quote an open letter by Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, arguing that New York Times coverage has been “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness,” they then go on to defend Times reporter Laurie Goodstein against some of the queries raised by the National Post’s Father Raymond J. de Souza. One might conclude that this shows Higgins and Kavanagh to be capable of discriminating judgement, of giving criticism only when it is due. But while this may very well be so, I think that something else is going on.

It has to do with how their book is structured. Every chapter, except for the last, is written in an extremely balanced, indeed maddeningly even-handed, way. Every figurative “on the one hand” is followed by an “on the other,” every pro by a con, every “compromis[ing]” villain by a “stunningly fair” hero. So it comes as no surprise that when the authors describe the two main opposing Catholic perspectives on the scandal—the liberal reform view that “sees the roots of the abuse in compulsory celibacy and the Church’s refusal to ordain women,” and the conservative outlook that invokes instead “a failure to root out homosexuality in the priesthood, a slackening in moral standards within modern society and among the Catholic laity, and weakness on the part of Rome and bishops around the world to enforce the clear teachings and commandments of the faith”—Higgins and Kavanagh say nothing about where their own sympathies lie.

One problem with this is that, given that it is combined with writing that, while thoroughly researched, is often fragmented and repetitive, presenting us with innumerable names, drive-by accounts of incidents, and citations of articles and committee reports, it becomes very hard for the reader to avoid getting lost. The authors will say that they had to write the book in this way because they wanted to reflect the complexity of the issues. This is why they decided “not to answer the dilemmas generated by the sex abuse scandal but instead to cast light, disperse shadows, open further inquiries and pose possibilities of understanding,” since their goal is “to allow readers to descend into some deeply troubling and pressing conundrums.” But what dilemmas, which conundrums? The facts are, after all, quite clear: what was done was abominable and the cover-up made it worse.

Evidently, Higgins and Kavanagh believe that neutrality is necessary if their treatment of the material is to be considered fair. Indeed, “fairness” is, as the reader may have noticed from some of the quotations above, one of their favourite terms of approbation. When we get to the final chapter, however, we find Higgins and Kavanagh taking a definite and partisan stance. The Church needs fundamental renewal: celibacy should be optional, women need to be more prominently engaged in its official life and power ought to be radically decentralized. Of course, this is none other than the liberal view, the one that they refrained from endorsing in the earlier chapters. And yet they have nothing to say about how it follows from what they wrote there. It seems that the fairness they displayed is supposed to grant them a certain authority, such that even conservative Catholics are expected to follow them when it comes to prescriptions.

What is going on here? The answer, if I may be permitted a hunch, is “neutralist liberalism,” a strangely dispassionate—because abstract—form of the ideology (due disclosure: I am a liberal myself, albeit one concerned with the common good rather than with neutrality). Drawing on Kant, neutralist liberals such as John Rawls, who calls his theory “justice as fairness,” and Ronald Dworkin, who never fails to invoke the value of “fair play,” have for some time now dominated the American academy. Their central claims are that justice requires the impartiality of the referee and that a just society’s rulebook can be both neutral (hence non–ideological) and liberal. Thus do we find Dworkin in his recent Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate proposing—without acknowledging the contradiction—that an explicitly liberal common ground can serve as the fair playing field upon which both liberals and conservatives should engage each other in American politics. Unfortunately, this way of thinking has come to influence a great deal of Canadian political thought, as we see from the work of some of our best-known political philosophers—Mark Kingwell, say, or Will Kymlicka. Even Charles Taylor has, alas, partly succumbed to its charms. And so too, apparently, have Higgins and Kavanagh.

Perhaps this accounts for a grave absence in Suffer the Children. I am referring to the fact that the book has very little, almost nothing, to say about the victims, about their rape and torture and what it has done to their lives. Higgins and Kavanagh have chosen to limit the focus of their inquiry to the Church and the media, and one wonders if this is because it is hard to remain neutral when confronted by terrible acts done to children. Indeed, since Kant, retributive theories of criminal justice have tended to avoid taking the victims and their sufferings into account, one reason being that these can be grasped only in terms of particulars and so are believed to undermine proportional reasoning. It seems to me, however, that giving the victims their due is essential to good judgement.

Consider the authors’ suggestion that “the Roman Catholic Church could be forgiven for thinking that it is not quite fair that it gets singled out for all the attention over sex when so many other institutions appear to be spared a comparably intense global scrutiny.” By “other institutions” they mean the state (e.g., U.S. politicians such as John Edwards or Eliot Spitzer), other churches (e.g., the scandals about some American televangelists in the 1980s and ’90s) and the military (e.g., Colonel Russell Williams). And here is how Higgins and Kavanagh account for the difference in treatment: “the electorate has become inured to the fallibilities of politicians, the hypocrisies of religious frauds, and the machinations of military sociopaths. But the Catholic Church’s centuries-old mystique, exotic power structure, sacralized priesthood, impressive organizational apparatus, icons of holiness and charismatic personalities all make the ‘sins of the Fathers’ especially heinous.” To which I would respond: no, what makes them especially heinous is the thousands of underage victims. One would think that this is obvious. Yet even though Higgins and Kavanagh go on to quote a Globe and Mail editorial that begins “the Catholic Church is not the only large organization with pedophiles amongst its members; however, it is one of the few that systematically protected sexual predators,” the authors persist in their belief that the difference comes down to the special sense of betrayal that arises when the authority figure in question is an established institution that claims to represent God. To which we must again reply: there may be something to this, but, at the end of the day, it is because of the children.

Another problem with justice as fairness is that it trivializes. Because fairness, I want to claim, is an aesthetic rather than moral or political category—and I say this not because the word was once used to refer to beautiful, light-skinned women. Playing games is another major mode of the aesthetic; indeed, “play” has been central to aesthetics since at least Friedrich Schiller. Those such as Rawls fail to recognize this, however, which is why we get claims like the following from his A Theory of Justice: “In much the same way that players have the shared end to execute a good and fair play of the game, so the members of a well-ordered society have the common aim of cooperating together to realize their own and another’s nature in ways allowed by the principles of justice.” But to model one’s conception of justice on the rulebook of a game is to fail to take it seriously; it is to fail to appreciate that justice is a matter of the common good of a citizenry rather than the fair play of a public, that it is something rooted in our practical rather than aesthetic lives. Justice as fairness, and other ideas like it, have nevertheless been increasingly influential, which is why metaphors equating life with a game abound in our society. And so we get Higgins and Kavanagh’s choice to describe the papal address at the conclusion of the 2009–10 Year of the Priest as “a game changer,” or the reference on their book’s back cover to the scandal’s “players” and the picture on its front of a downed bishop—not a person, but the chess piece.

So it seems clear that, despite Locke’s ironically intolerant claims (see his Letter Concerning Toleration) or the always entertaining New Atheist Christopher Hitchens’s indelicate queries, there are Catholics who can indeed play the neutrality game. Hitchens was asking about how the U.S. Supreme Court, six of whose nine members are Catholic, including Chief Justice John Roberts (who, it is worth noting, declared at his confirmation hearings that “judges are like umpires”), would rule in a case arising from a lawsuit filed by a Catholic priest’s abuse victim, one that named the Pope himself as a defendant. In the end, the Court decided against the Vatican’s claim of immunity on the basis of its being a sovereign state. We can, however, choose to interpret judges’ deliberations as aiming for justice instead of for fairness. Similarly, when our children, aesthetes all (when their childhoods are not stolen from them, that is), protest that life is not fair, we can teach them that it is not supposed to be. Because what it is supposed to be is just.