Prosocial adaptation, the Catholic Church and raping children

Posted on January 19, 2011


Just yesterday I wrote in a post that Karol Wojtyła is almost certain to be soon canonised, unless the church finds anything in his past that it considers morally unacceptable. Later yesterday, an Irish newscaster revealed a letter from the Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio to the Irish bishops stating that they must not adopt as a policy the reporting of priests who raped children. This letter is dated from 1997, about nineteen years after John Paul II became the Pope. The church’s response to this news is telling (from the NYT story):

“It refers to a situation that we’ve now moved beyond,” Father Lombardi said. “That approach has been surpassed, including its ideas about collaborating with civil authorities.

He downplayed the idea that the letter was a smoking gun. “It’s not new,” he said. “They’ve known about it in Ireland for some time.”

Even now, however, the Vatican has refrained from imposing rules for the church worldwide that would mandate reporting clergy accused of abuse to civil authorities.

In other words, let’s not talk about the past and, anyway, everybody already knows the Vatican acted to protect molesters, so what’s the big deal? Together with the tonnes of evidence now available this letter helps to make two very important points – one concerning today’s Catholic Church, the other concerning religions in general.

John Paul II’s beatification has been approved by the current Pope, who had been earlier put in charge of dealing with cases of child abuse by priests and must have known about the way the church treated child molesters among priests under John Paul II. This means that he has long known that the previous Pope stood at the head of an international organisation that acted to protect hundreds if not thousands of child molesting criminals from prosecution by legal authorities – something that in most jurisdictions falls under criminal conspiracy. Yet, Benedict XVI in his role as the current head of the Catholic Church, apparently thinks it appropriate to raise John Paul II to the highest status that any human could possibly achieve in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Clearly, therefore, today’s Catholic Church believes that running an organisation that helps child molesters to continue raping children does not bar a person from being considered a paragon of christian moral virtue. This is the man the Church believes worthy of the veneration and emulation by all the faithful.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Taking a more distanced view to the history of international institutionalised child abuse, if it is at all possible to do so, reveals a vital point. Even if one accepts that religions have historically acted as culturally evolved mechanisms for motivating prosocial behaviour, it does not follow that all religions at all times and in all respects have acted in ways that we should consider ethical. Indeed, those two claims are very, very far apart – even though some (including at times David Sloan Wilson) have a tendency to run them together. Religions, like all ideologies, have the capacity to do great evil – the word is most condign in this case – and no adaptationalist theory should ever for a moment make us doubt that.