A story about St. Thomas Aquinas is said to sum up his disposition, faith, and saintliness. Being such an eminent and careful philosopher even in his own day, many of Aquinas’ peers were amazed at his trusting nature. And what is more fun than tricking someone who is smarter than you? So they schemed. When he came into the classroom one day, some of Aquinas’ fellow monks looked out the window and yelled out “Look! There is a flying cow!” only to have Saint Thomas rush over to look out eagerly to see, of course, a normal afternoon scene in the countryside without flying cows. The monks laughed and laughed, and one asked: “Why would you believe us telling you something so unbelievable as this?” Thomas’ reply is unforgettable: “I would rather believe that cows could fly than that my friends and fellow monks would lie to me.”
I love this story, and it is one I think about often – It can be so difficult to give people the benefit of the doubt! I think the gift must take a lifetime to master…
My theory is this: the Catholic Bishops may have, in some circumstances, done the right thing when they moved pedophile priests around instead of turning them into the police.
The Viewpoints: Phenomenological vs. Numinological
On one side of the ongoing culture wars, the here-and-now is of the utmost importance. Disregard the common definition of the word – for now I want to call this viewpoint the phenomenological. This secular vision of the world, growing daily in the West, argues we must at least seek a utopia on earth, even though most realize utopia will never be complete. Though the context may differ, mostly this striving pursues its ends through the means of law and order, commonly mixed in with some notion of consequentialism. The greatest good for the greatest number of people is a foundational paradigm of this phenomenological vision, and justice is to be doled out in this life
Religious and non-religious alike take the phenomenological vision as their own primary lenses more often than not. When one uses the phenomenological as his main interpretation of the world, he can be an incredible physical and existential danger to his fellow man. Relying on the pursuit of utopia by any means in the present world can be the most dangerous idea men can hold. Cliché adequately describes the murder of hundreds of millions in pursuit of Soviet and Chinese communism as proof of the danger – but it is still true. All of us have a strong temptation to make this life our complete and satisfactory home, even if we don’t push a utopian ideal. This includes strong theists. But the phenomenological shouldn’t be our primary way of viewing the world. There is another option…
The other side of the war, which we can call the numinological side, believes that the utopia sought can be found only beyond death – ultimately that attachment to this side of reality is futile. The here-and-now does not matter nearly as much as the ultimate state of things, whatever that may be in the particular version of the spiritual system which it dwells. Near-Manichaeism (or Buddhism) when taken in its pure form, this side believes any utopia on earth is impossible to achieve, and mostly not worth even the pursuit. Men are fallen, and our systems will always mirror this fact. Concentration on God’s Will for the long game defines the ends (and often means) of the actions of those who espouse the numinological view.
The numinological, when taken as the only way of understanding reality, can also lead to a dangerous and dysfunctional view of reality. Mother Teresa spoke of “putting skin to your prayer,” or doing the work with your hands that you simultaneously pray will come to pass. Atheists mockingly put the principle in alternative terms, jibing the religious: “Why don’t you just pray that his amputated leg will grow back?” People of faith should keep these aphorisms in mind. You cannot ignore this side of the eternal curtain and have a functioning and healthy understanding of God or creation. Look where that has led in Islamic radicalism. We have been given free will, a locus of control and dominion, emotional attachment to others, the law of entropy, and the gift of reason – these and many other things suggest that there is more to be done than a simple and single-minded reliance on God for discernment and gifts. It is the mark of a numinous-thinker to use “God will (take care of it) / (tell me what to do)” as an excuse or crutch of inaction. Very few of us ever hear the voice of God (and if you do, it might be time to go to the doctor). Discernment is not a passive process, nor is charity or justice. So the numinological cannot either be the way we primarily understand reality. Is there a third way?
In truth, it isn’t an either/or scenario, or at least it shouldn’t be. Though most people ascribe primarily to one or the other of these two visions of the world, it is an error to do so. A careful balancing of phenomenological & numinological is important to having a holistic understanding of justice, virtue, morality, and human nature & destiny in the shadow of eternity. On the one hand, we all must remember that every person we meet is a being with a destiny of God’s making, toward forever. On the other, we cannot ignore the problems of this life and our fellow human beings and expect that God’s plans do not involve our actions and choices; there is a reason we were put here.
There are contexts in which the phenomenological or the numinological viewpoint should predominate our decision-making in a given situation, and others where both should be considered. But in some sense, the two sides will never understand each other. Can you see where I am going with this yet?
The Decision to Relocate Pedophiles
Pedophilia is probably the most disgusting crime on earth, and one might be able to make the case that it rivals murder in its depravity. There is no doubt that within the Church in which it had been perpetrated all those times, the act is seen as a mortal sin of the highest seriousness when understood by the abuser. From a positive law perspective, I can sympathize with the idea that the recalcitrant pedophile should be executed alongside murderers (a discussion for another time). Completely disgusting – and if it were my child I might kill the perp myself in anger. But that is not what the Church should do…
Many bishops have been lambasted time and time again, by people of all political, religious, and social persuasions, for their having transferred known pedophile priests to different parishes upon the discovery that the priests were abusing children. The problem with this is that it is a pure phenomenological response to a problem that spans both the numinological and phenomenological. Where the Church must always bridge the spiritual and physical realm, in some circumstances, transferring a priest was not the wrong thing to do.
Besides the main purpose the bishops have in composing the Magisterium as teaching body, there is a practical reason for their authority and respect on a worldly plane: they act as buffer and bulwark between the secular political and practical religious considerations that inevitably result in a world in which not everyone is the same religion. A failure to act as intermediary in such a place of respect is a failure of the role almost completely. From this, it must of course be true: there is a time when loyalty to earthly legal authorities is not the advisable course of action.
Imagine you are a spiritual adviser who advises a priest in his role as priest and human being. The priest comes into your confessional and breaks down, telling you that he has inappropriately touched children in the past, as he used to be a drinker and doesn’t even know how many people he has hurt. Through his anguish and weeping, the priest promises, swears to the heavens above, that his abusive days are over, this confession marks the end of a life of darkness and indulgence, and his intent is fully toward rehabilitation and metanoia. What do you do?
There is a problem here that the phenomenological will never understand. What separates Christianity from all other religions is the notion of forgiveness that Christ commanded take an ultimate place among virtues. For many of the abuse cases that ended in the transfer of a priest, we will never know what happened in the confessional. If a priest, in apparent honest testimony in the confessional, admitted to these horrible sins and swore on his mother’s grave that he would forever avoid them in the future, is it a bad choice for confessors and bishops to believe them? The view through the phenomenological lens would probably always say yes. One can always take steps to ensure that the priest never is in solitary contact with young people again, of course. We need not be fools about it. But could a forgiving be what is required of Men of the Cloth within the numinological when we are dealing with something so disgusting as sexually harming children?
Perhaps this is not the circumstance of many of the transfers of pedophile priests – perhaps avoiding responsibility was the intent. In that circumstance, of course the transfer was wrong and deserving condemnation by secular and religious authority as well. But if honest confession and future promise is behind even one, I think the argument comes down to this: 1.) Are we to trust the priest when he swears up and down that he will never do it again (ask Aquinas)? and, 2.) Do we owe Jesus Christ obedience and trust when he assures us that forgiveness is essential to our religion and we must give it – even if it means a building rage from earthly dominion and power? Whose authority is of importance in this event: the One who commands we forgive, or the courts, lawyers, juries, and police?
Not knowing the whole story in the cases of the transfer of pedophiles is similar to not knowing the hearts or minds of those in the occasion of an apparent sin. We cannot know the full circumstances of the practice, and there were likely times that in the ultimate sense, forgiveness was the correct response, 77 x 7 times. Can our spiritual beliefs conquer our visceral need for vengeance and retribution?
Bring on the anger, phenomenologicals…