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Pseudoknowledge and the Recent Anti-Benedict Hysteria

05/14/2010 Comments (36)

Some years back, a friend of mine was leaving evening prayer at our local Dominican parish when he found himself confronted by an angry lady scowling at the Dominicans in their habits.  My friend happens to be a history prof at the University of Washington.  The lady started muttering at him about the monstrous crimes of the Dominicans and how everybody (including my friend) was a blind sheep because they knew nothing about the medieval Church and the crimes it has committed.  (Surely, if any subject is taboo in our culture, it is discussion of the sins, both real and imagined, of the Catholic Church).  My friend asked, “What crimes do you mean?”  She replied, “Why don’t you ask your Dominican friends about the 46 million people they killed in the Inquisition in the 14th century?”

My friend had nothing to say in reply to this.  The woman took that as confirmation of her crushing rhetorical blow.  My friend was thinking, “That was roughly the entire population of Europe at the time.  The Dominicans slaughtered all of Europe and then killed themselves?”  The woman wandered off, muttering.

The 46 million (or 5 million) killed by Dominicans, or the Vatican, or Constantine’s Vatican if you are a Da Vinci Code true believer is a classic example of pseudoknowledge.  One of those things you pick up somewhere and repeat with a knowing air that substitutes for actual familiarity with the subject you are expounding upon.  If somebody questions whether you know what you are talking about, you don’t deal with the question of whether you know what you are talking about. You simply say, “So! You want to make excuses for the murder of innocent people by religious bigots!” in the same tone you use to say, “You left your soiled underwear on my coffee table.”  For, of course, at the end of the day, it will remain the case that some number of people (46 million?  Several thousand?) were put to death… well, not by the Inquisition exactly but certainly by the secular authorities working with the Inquisition.  So the story is close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades and that’s all that matters.  The idea is not so much accuracy as truthiness: the sense that you have righteously scored off bad guys.  And if they are bad guys, then they don’t really deserve to be spoken of accurately, do they?  They should have thought about that before they started killing off their millions, or however many it was.  The point is: I am righteously angry and when I have righteousness on my side, I don’t need to know what I’m talking about so long as I land some good hard punches on the jaw of Evil.

I think of this as I watch other truthy memes work their way through the consciousness of people who only know what they read for a second on the web.  For instance, there is the “Rome is shielding Bernard Law from prosecution” meme currently floating about.  The notion is that Law was spirited away to Rome to avoid landing in a Boston pokey for his role in covering up sex abuse.  In fact, Law cooperated with the civil investigation, but we (that is, we laypeople, who run all the courts, own all the guns, and staff all the jails) decided not to prosecute.  Law is not on the lam from anything.  One can (and I think, should) question the wisdom of putting him in charge of a basilica instead of putting him out to pasture for his atrocious decisions to reshuffle and cover up abuse.  But nothing is served by regurgitating the stupid claim that he is a fugitive from the law.  He’s just not.  At the end of the day, the quarrel is not about civil justice, but about how the Church should deal with an internal bit of housekeeping: punish the miscreant by making him clean toilets in a monastery or leave him to pad around some Roman Church saying Mass and greeting visitors.  It’s fine to be angry about John Paul for making the latter call.  I think it was the wrong call too.  But it’s what experts in morality call “lying” to say that Law is wanted by the Boston cops.

Similarly, one of the latest memes to arise is the claim that Crimen Sollicitationis (a 1962 Vatican letter dealing with the crime of solicitation in the confessional) threatens victims of abuse with excommunication for denouncing or providing testimony against an abusive priest.  Indeed, we are even informed that this still remains as official policy, all due (naturally) to the unbelievably evil machinations of Nazi Pope Ratzinger.

Fact: this is just not true.  Last things first, Crimen Solicitationis was superceded by 2003 (due largely to the work of one Joseph Ratzinger), so the claim that it is “still official policy” is bunk.  But far more important is the claim that it “automatically excommunicated” witnesses for reporting on or testifying to abuse.  As Sean Murphy points out, this meme is the coinage of Christopher Hitchens’ brain, not a brain known for sane or accurate readings of any documents pertaining to religious belief.  Hitchens, it will be recalled, is an almost preternaturally sloppy reader of religious documents.  As David Hart notes about God is not Great:

On matters of simple historical and textual fact, moreover, Hitchens’ book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors that one soon gives up counting them. Just to skim a few off the surface: He speaks of the ethos of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as “an admirable but nebulous humanism,” which is roughly on a par with saying that Gandhi was an apostle of the ruthless conquest and spoliation of weaker peoples. He conflates the histories of the first and fourth crusades. He repeats as fact the long discredited myth that Christians destroyed the works of Aristotle and Lucretius, or systematically burned the books of pagan antiquity, which is the very opposite of what did happen. He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).

Who better then, to turn to as your Sure and Certain Guide to the interpretation of an obscure Vatican document that many bishops were unaware even existed?  Yet, mysteriously, Hitchens’ reading has become Received Wisdom for many people who now live in the strange delusion that they must have, at some point, read Crimen Sollicitationis , even though they could not cite five words from it if their lives depended on it.  They seem to get this notion from Hitchens, who only cites about five words in order to buttress his claim that the sole purpose of the document was to tell victims, “If you talk, you will go to Hell.”  Yet common sense should move us to ask, “Why are there 39 pages of detailed discussion about how to proceed with reporting abuse, inquiring into the merits of the case, and kicking pervy priests down the stairs if the standing policy was simply to muzzle witnesses from so much as reporting abuse?”  If the sole purpose of the document was simply to prevent the reportage on crimes from ever happening and to muzzle witnesses under the threat of the fires of hell, it would appear that the other 39 pages of the document were rather superfluous.
Here’s the real scoop:

Crimen Sollicitationis did not threaten excommunication of people who revealed “child rape and torture” by priests. On the contrary: it imposed not only a duty to denounce such crimes (and the lesser offence of solicitation) to the bishop, but the automatic excommunication of anyone who knowingly failed to do so.13

Officials investigating or involved in proceedings pertaining to these “unspeakable crimes” were required to take an oath of perpetual secrecy, on pain of excommunication.14 This was the passage perverted by Mr. Hitchens’ selective quotation and extraordinary accusation. An oath of secrecy was also to be given to witnesses in the proceedings, but was not, it seems, to be backed by a threat of excommunication.15 Analogous oaths of secrecy and confidentiality are taken by secular professionals and officials. Confidentiality is usually maintained during secular investigations, and secular proceedings – Family Court hearings for example – sometimes proceed in secret.16

Once again, as with the Inquisition and the Church’s actions with regard to Cardinal Law, there is real room for criticism.  The document does not address perverts who operate outside the confessional.  This means two things. 
First, that all the business about excommunication in the document has in view the protection of the Seal of the Confessional, not a universal policy applying to all crimes by all priests against all victims. 
Second, the document thinks entirely in terms of ecclesial law and not in terms of civil law.  That, I think, is its chief defect.  For while a careful reading of paragraph 13 shows it does not “automatically excommunicate” witnesses against the pervert, it certainly does not encourage them to go to the cops either.  It gives laypeople (and their pastors) every reason to think that pervert priests should be dealt with “in house” and not by civil authorities when they commit grave crimes against their flock.  And while I suppose that in some remote theoretical sense a biblical rationale could be constructed for this approach based on St. Paul…

When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. (1 Cor 6:1-7)


...I also think that, as our bishops have made all too plain by their egregious failures, any such theoretical hope that they could be trusted to swiftly remove and punish miscreants was, shall we say, over-optimistic?... on the part of the drafters of CS.  Weak excuses can be trotted out.  Yes, the false charge of perversion was a favorite tool for Nazis and Commies in attacking the Church, so a 1962 hierarchy in spitting distance of the Iron Curtain might not be too eager to let Caesar take a look at the skeletons in the closet since there is still the reality that priests can be falsely charged.  But still, what should have been built in to the document, and what is conspicuously absent, is any discussion of the remedy of civil law for victims.  Nero wasn’t too keen on the Church either, but Paul still said he had the right to wield the sword in matters of civil crime (Romans 13).  In Crimen Sollicitationis, there simply is no consideration of the possibility of victims going to the cops and lots of pressure against it.  It is simply assumed that everybody involved would and should turn to the bishop alone and that the bishop would, of course, punish the abusive priest, not shuffle him off on new parishes with a fresh batch of children awaiting rape, sodomy and a raft of fresh horrors that the bishop never bothered to warn anyone about.  The unbelievably egregious and criminal failure of our church’s shepherds, in so many places around the world and for so long, makes it plain, I think, that Rev. Ladislas Orsy of Georgetown University is right when he says, “This document reflects a mentality and a policy. I do not think [the document] initiated it. And I do not think as a practical matter [the document] contributed much to it, because for the most part this document was just sitting in the archives,” he said. “But it is a manifestation of it.”  The culture and mindset it reflects is the notion that the priest mattered more than the victim—vastly more.  One can say that without shouting hysterically that universal policy threatened all whistleblowers, victims and witnesses of all priestly crime everywhere with automatic excommunication and that this is “still official policy.” 

The point is this: there’s enough real stuff to be upset about.  There’s no point borrowing trouble by believing hysteria from cranks who can’t be bothered to get elementary facts straight.  It doesn’t help victims and doesn’t bring anybody to justice. It’s just that simple.  Knowing what we are talking about is not aiding and abetting coverups.  It is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before our God, a quality not highly prized by the author of God is not Great, but one which, I hope, Catholics are still aiming to achieve.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.