Idea Log tends to enjoy Peter Beinart's columns in The New Republic, but his latest item on the Catholic Church scandal is rather puzzling. On the magazine's Web site the piece is framed as an article on "What not to say about the pedophilia scandal." But a far more accurate title would have been, "Don't say anything about the pedophilia scandal -- unless you're Catholic."
Beinart rightly observes that pundits and commentators have been befuddled by how to deal with the Church's plight. But he almost celebrates this incoherence and timidity by asserting that questions about such topics as the role of abstinence in Catholic practice are fundamentally theological and therefore beyond the public sphere. Consider the calls for Bernard Cardinal Law's resignation. As Beinart puts it:
You can't declare someone unfit for their post without having an opinion about the requirements of the post. And you can't have an opinion about the requirements of the post without having an opinion about the mission of the institution as a whole.
Such an opinion goes beyond the realm of newspapers and opinion leaders, says Beinart, because "non-Catholics don't have a legitimate role in determining the character of the Catholic church." Indeed, "there are some topics on which everyone's opinion isn't equally valid because, if they were, communities would lose their autonomy -- and, ultimately, some part of their freedom."
Let's leave aside how weirdly relativizing and postmodern this whole argument is. (Beinart suggests, for example, that there's no "universal morality" that allows us to judge the Church scandal.) Even more troubling is its implicit double standard: The Church can preach and proselytize to those who do not belong to it, but those same folks can't say anything back. Indeed, the Church hardly restricts itself to matters of faith and salvation, which is why the institution and its doctrines must remain open to secular criticism. Is this not the same Church whose United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbies so vigorously against abortion and numerous forms of biomedical research? And does not that political activism (or practice) derive directly from a theological stance (or theory)? Beinart's attempt to divorce the two is unconvincing.
Consider another example. The subtext to the entire pedophilia scandal is the very real possibility that the Church's theological position on abstinence in the priesthood makes sex-abuse offenses in this country more likely. Idea Log doesn't know whether this is actually the case, but at the very least it seems plausible. And if so, this is hardly something non-Catholics should feel compelled to stay quiet about.
Beinart has previously challenged the Bush administration's ridiculous and offensive tendency to cite "Christians, Jews, and Muslims" as if those are the only religions (or atheisms) that exist in this country. A similar take would have been much more useful with respect to the Catholic Church -- one emphasizing the importance of secular perspectives in the pedophilia discussion. Indeed, there's been an almost knee-jerk tendency in the media to restrict commentary on the scandal to Catholics. Idea Log's favorite example is how Townhall.com labels columnist Joel Mowbray each time he writes about the church: "Editor's note: Joel Mowbray is a lifelong, practicing Catholic." And what if he weren't? A non-Catholic perspective might be introduced. The horror!
We clearly need more diverse and far-ranging takes on what's going on with the Church right now, and these include Christopher Hitchens- and Bertrand Russell-style secular takes. How often in this debate thus far have you heard these startling facts: The pope waited until 1992 to apologize for the Church's treatment of Galileo and until 1996 to accept evolution. The Church has a backwardness problem -- and that is obviously relevant to the pedophilia discussion.
Writing recently in TAP Online, Jeremy Lott observed that MSNBC's hiring of Phil Donahue is a promising sign for the rehabilitation of a secular perspective in the media. If the Catholic Church scandal is indeed, as Beinart writes, "a cultural challenge for the American opinion industry because they have so little to say," that's a strong indication that the industry needs to challenge its own culture, not that it needs to keep quiet.