Sunday, May 1, 2011

How much is "enough"?—UPDATED

If I am made to walk the plank by a pirate, it is vain for me to offer, as a common-sense compromise, to walk along the plank for a reasonable distance. It is exactly about the reasonable distance that the pirate and I differ. There is an exquisite mathematical split second at which the plank tips up. My common-sense ends just before that instant; the pirate’s common-sense begins just beyond it. But the point itself is as hard as any geometrical diagram; as abstract as any theological dogma.
—G. K. Chesterton, “Wanted, An Unpractical Man”,
What’s Wrong with the World

I don’t wish to waste time dissecting Maureen Dowd’s gasbag collection of gripes over John Paul II’s beatification. Frankly, most of it is the usual garbage: JP2 didn’t follow the mainstream Protestant communions’ bad examples. The one charge that merits looking into is this: “… John Paul forfeited his right to beatification when he failed to establish a legal standard to remove pedophiles from the priesthood, and simply turned away for many years.”

Beatification isn’t a “right”, but that’s not my point. Factually, Dowd’s charge is incorrect as well: a legal process was already established, although it was horrifically slow. And he did make changes to increase the speed in 2001, before the scandals broke open in 2002.

But it’s still possible to argue that John Paul II — and Benedict XVI, who as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “owned” the revamped process — “didn’t do enough to protect children”. Indeed, when people don’t get so ridiculous as to accuse the Vatican of deliberately protecting clerical predators, they content themselves with charges of insufficient action.

But this accusation isn’t any better; at least Dowd’s charge has the merit of being specific. “John Paul II didn’t do enough” assumes a measuring stick that doesn’t exist.

If your only benchmark for “enough” is whether a crime occurs or not, then nobody will ever do “enough” to prevent evil from being done. But if you’re prepared to concede that point, then it’s handy to have an idea of what constitutes reasonable effort. That’s precisely what none of the pope’s critics gives us. Without such criteria, how do you say if enough has been done?

Let’s take a parallel example: Despite well-documented acts that credit Ven. Pius XII with directly and indirectly saving as many as 80,000 Jews during World War II, even those critics who are willing to acknowledge the evidence still claim he “didn’t do enough”. (Others do everything they can to dismiss or devalue the evidence.) The main thrust of the criticism is that Pius didn’t “speak out enough” against the Nazi’s repressive acts.

This criticism ignores a critical piece of wartime Europe reality: The Nazis — especially Hitler — brooked no opposition. For instance, on July 20, 1942, the Dutch bishops had a pastoral letter read out in all Holland churches condemning Nazi racism. On July 26, Jewish converts to Catholicism, who’d been spared up to that point, were ordered arrested; one victim of this retaliatory act was St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, née Edith Stein. Pius XII was well aware that he had to tread a thin wire, that to do some things would create more harm than good.

In the same way, Dowd — and various people saying “ditto” to her charge — ignores a reality of the Church’s structure. Simply put, the bishop of the diocese, or the relevant superior of the religious order, has primary responsibility for taking a criminous priest out of play. They’re on the scene; they’re the ones that have to initiate the process. What the Vatican doesn’t know about, the Vatican can’t do anything about.

Most of the predators revealed in the last ten years were ordained prior to John Paul II’s accession; in many cases, the abuses occurred before his pontificate, or at least before he reformed the Code of Canon Law in 1983. In fact, almost all the bishops who’d participated in the cover-ups had been elevated by Paul VI, not John Paul II.

The now-blessed pope admitted himself that he had been reluctant to discipline priests. Theologian and biographer George Weigel believes that his inability to see evil in those who betrayed his trust was an aspect of his own profound goodness, a “defect of his virtues”. And his delay in reacting to the revelations of 2002 was due to his “hands-off” administration — he depended too much for news on people who, for different reasons, wanted to spare the ailing pope further problems.

However, to say he “didn’t do enough” is hardly a substantive criticism. It’s to set the unattainable ideal as the only measure for success; moreover, it’s to blame him for the failure of others.

One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want. The keeper of a restaurant would much prefer that each customer should give his order smartly, though it were for stewed ibis or boiled elephant, rather than that each customer should sit holding his head in his hands, plunged in arithmetical calculations about how much food there can be on the premises.

In order for the complaint “he didn’t do enough” to be anything more than a frustrated whine, you have to know what you mean by “enough”, and the person of whom you demand “enough” must know it too. Moreover, it has to be reachable: stewed ibis might be reasonable to ask for in Cairo, but it’s almost certainly not to be had in Oslo. If the minimum acceptable is beyond the maximum available, the problem may not be that I don’t have enough, but that you’re asking too much.

But you have to know how much you’re asking for first.

Update: May 2, 2011
From a hit piece in the Irish Times:

SNAP, the US-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, started off the “beatification” weekend with a blistering statement that condemned the Catholic Church hierarchy for honouring “one of its own with a dismal track record” on the clerical sex abuse scandal, adding: “. . . the church hierarchy can avoid rubbing more salt in these wounds (sex abuse crimes) by slowing down their hasty drive to confer sainthood on the pontiff under whose reign most of the countless, widely documented clergy sex crimes and cover-ups took place.”
SNAP concludes that, given the vast number of clerical sex abuse crimes during the pontificate of John Paul II, the church should not even have considered beatifying the pope, let alone fast-tracking his sainthood.
  As I said on The Impractical Catholic last month, SNAP has never been interested in justice ... only in retaliation. David Pierre of details quite a bit of SNAP's history of histrionics, deceptive practices and false accusations in his book Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church, and has a sampling of these details on the website


  1. Well put.

    The "Didn't do enough" charge is essentially a "no true scotsman" fallacy. The person is decided to be guilty, and no matter what sort of evidence is provided in refutation, it is always rejected as "not enough" or "too little too late."

  2. @ Arnobius: Exactly, although the college course I took in logic didn't cover all the informal fallacies currently diagnosed.


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