Thursday, June 24

The Limits Of Skepticism


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

Thoughtful Thursday, offering something to think about. Often, we are so attached to our own way of thinking that we don’t even consider new things. This will be an offering of something to pull us in deeper. Only by considering new ideas, can we grow. Growth comes in many ways. Through letting go of unhelpful ideas and moving on, or through challenge that grounds you more firmly and knowledgeably in your current ideas. 

In my “Skeptics Collection” post about a skeptic’s Christmas, I mentioned several interrelated characteristics of true skeptics.  Two such characteristics were:  (1) skeptics are willing to question any assertion, and therefore (2) skeptics are also willing to follow the reasoning resulting from (1) wherever it leads.  Both of these principles are among the most difficult principles to practice with consistent integrity, and yet are perhaps the most important.  Nowhere are these two principles more in need of being practiced than in the seemingly endless pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church.  Yet people seem willing to follow those two principles only so far, yet no farther.  That otherwise-skeptical people encounter such a “brick wall”, and where that “brick wall” is situated, tell us a lot about what people are willing to be skeptical about and what they are not willing to be skeptical about – in other words, about the limits of popular skepticism and what those limits imply vis a vis dealing with the pedophilia scandal.

Up to a point, the preceding two principles of skepticism proceed with square-jawed and rock-ribbed determination.  By now, we are all familiar with the usual arguments – which are unassailably valid as far as they go.  This argument says that, while individual sick and predatory priests are certainly guilty of their own crimes, that the episcopal leadership of the Church is at least equally guilty for sweeping such conduct under the rug, stonewalling secular law-enforcement and prosecutorial authorities, and generally covering up for the existence and perpetrators of crimes that scarcely bear description in public media.  The argument concerning the culpability of Church leadership asserts that the leadership knew what had been occurring, in many cases, for multiple decades, had the power to stop what was occurring – and yet, instead of intervening, stood idly by and did nothing while the lusts of child predators in Roman collars were literally slaked in the stainless flesh of innocent children.  Therefore, the argument concludes, while the individual priests are indisputably guilty, their leadership is even guiltier because of the common-sense judgment that knowledge plus power equals responsibility.  This argument seems – and I believe is – utterly iron-clad and irrefutable. So far, so good.


But a curious “brick wall” is encountered when the people who advance that argument deviate from their own reasoning at the last minute, swerving away from the paradigm of authentic skepticism and refusing to follow the inescapable implications of their own argument to their equally inescapable conclusion:  God is also complicit in the child-abuse crisis.  If knowledge plus power equals responsibility, then greater knowledge plus greater power equals greater responsibility, and at the final limit, infinite power plus infinite knowledge equals infinite responsibility.  If we are to credit the historic creeds of the Church, God is “the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth …”.  So if we use the categories of knowledge and power as measures of responsibility, then God is responsible in the highest degree conceivable. Everything parishioners vilify in criticism of the episcopal leadership of their diocese -- the willingness to stand by and do nothing while the abuse proceeded, despite their awareness of what was going on and their power to stop it -- without exception every criticism of their bishop also applies to God.  So parishioners’ anger at their bishop should be at least equaled by a corresponding, and at least equally justifiable, anger at God.  Yet this is almost never – I’m tempted to remove the “almost” – almost never the case.  Parishioners are willing to be consistent skeptics by questioning and following that questioning process wherever it leads -- but only up to a certain point.  Obviously, this begs the question “Why?”:  why are ordinary, sitting-in-the-pew-at-Sunday-Mass Catholics reluctant to follow this chain of logic to its logical – and bitter – conclusion?

I would argue that there are three distinct but related reasons why skepticism encounters a limit, even when the welfare of children is at stake.  First of all, any faithful Catholic is required to assent, at least implicitly, to certain teachings that are held to be irreformable because they are infallible.  (All religious traditions, without exception, have such teachings, but I will concentrate on the Catholic Church for now, since the issue is the pedophilia crisis.) They are “irreformable” in the sense that they are simply true a priori as part of the Deposit of Faith, just as the three-sidedness of triangles is true a priori in geometry. Secondly and as a corollary, the a priori irreformability of these teachings means that they cannot be questioned.  One of these a priori irreformable dogmas of the Catholic Church is the absolute, infinite, and unqualified goodness of God.  God is “omni-benevolent”. Period. Elvis has left the building. End of discussion. So if any chain of reasoning so much as tends toward the questioning of the dogma of the goodness of God, let alone flatly asserts the contrary, then it is the reasoning that is faulty, not the teaching. Now, of course, I seriously doubt that the average, Sunday-go-to-Mass Catholic could state the case so explicitly, any more than the average American could cite the 223 years of history and case law bearing on the meaning we currently assign to the phrase “free speech”. In both cases, it is largely a matter of the ambient culture, with the historical precedents and philosophical hair-splitting left up to the experts, and in that sense, more a matter of cultural DNA than explicit dogma.

The third reason people are reluctant to question the dogma of the unqualified “omni-benevolence” of God is because – to be quiet candid – they like that teaching.  Life is chaotic.   Life is often tragic.  Thousands of people in Phuket are swept away – around Christmastime, no less! – by a tsunami; people are slaughtered at random by a gunman in a Colorado movie theater; millions lose their jobs and retirement savings because the government, entranced by the meretricious blandishments of “casino capitalism”, deregulates the financial industry … etc., etc. … life routinely violates our deepest moral intuitions about who “deserves” what.  Anyone who is honest – your “resident skeptic” very much included! -- will have to admit that, even if one cannot manage the leap to actual belief, it would be deeply comforting to believe that there is a benevolent God  working behind the scenes, beyond and beneath the apparent chaos, keeping the accounts, and shepherding human history toward healing and some eschaton, some glorious consummation.  People who reject the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and birth control do so because they do not like those teachings, and so feel free to disregard them.  But some people like the dogma of the “omni-benevolent” God, and so their imputation of guilt and mendacity stops short of implicating God.  There is nothing to be censured in this.  It is simply a matter of human nature at work.

Elie Wiesel

But there is a price to be paid. Just as the Shoah gave many Jews cause to question the omni-benevolence of God – theologians and writers like David Blumenthal, Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, Elie Wiesel, Zachary Braiterman, et al. – the analogous holocaust of child abuse in the Catholic Church could and should serve a similar function of enabling Christian, specifically Catholic, theologians to engage theological issues with greater integrity through similar questioning.  That it has not done so – even among professional Catholic theologians, let alone individual Sunday Mass-goers – is a measure of how tenaciously Christians cling to the omni-benevolence of God, not merely as a matter of canonically formal doctrine, but also, and perhaps even more so, as an element of their own intimately personal psychological and emotional ballast. Catholics are personally and intimately invested in the omni-benevolence of God in a way they are not thus invested in the issues of homosexuality and birth control.  Hence their felt freedom to question the latter but not the former.  So Christian theology in the wake of the pedophilia crisis remains stubbornly schizophrenic to a degree that Jewish theology in the wake of the Shoah has not.  In fact, it would be fair to say that, at least so far, there is no Christian theology of the pedophilia crisis corresponding to the Jewish theology of the Shoah.  But until there is – until there can be – Catholics’ reflection on the pedophilia crisis will be divided against itself, and will therefore lack a certain degree of integrity in favor of a sense of whistling past the graveyard in the dark.


  • This is an interesting argument. I would add that the actual children involved are prone to asking these questions. “Is God good? If God is good, then why did this happen to me?” The answer is sometime heartbreakingly: “God is good. This happened to me. Therefore, I must be bad.” To me, this is the deepest, saddest, and most urgent reason a theology of this crisis is needed. I am not Catholic, so this is all I will say.

  • Yes, that is a common reaction, also, among adults. People are so personally & deeply invested in the “all-good-ness” of God that they would rather ascribe bad-ness to THEMSELVES than to God. In “Facing the Abusing God”, David Blumenthal, prof of Judaic Studies at Emory Univ in Atlanta, takes the opposite approach & questions the “all-good-ness” of God.


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