A Positive Unintended Consequence of Controversy
Mary Eberstadt notes that, leading up to the turn of the millennium, the taboo against pedophilia appeared to be next up on the list of cultural norms to undermine:
The phenomenon of pedophilia chic revealed the intensely troubling possibility that society, especially literate and enlightened society, was in the process of sanctioning certain exceptions to the taboo against sex with minors—particularly sex between men and boys. As a matter of criminal law, of course, girls are often and tragically the victims of older men. But pedophilia chic concerned not the rate of criminal conviction but rather the open public questioning of the taboo itself. What the record through the 1990s showed was that in the case of girls the taboo remained solid, and in the case of boys it did not. In other words, to take the example before us now, had Roman Polanski been arrested for the same crime a decade ago, in all likelihood we would have witnessed the same outcry that we did this fall.
So now let us ask the more difficult question: Would Polanski in 2009 still have inadvertently united almost everyone in America against him if his victim had been a thirteen-year-old boy rather than a thirteen-year-old girl? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes—and for interesting if unexpected reasons.
Winding through some indicators of that “pedophilia chic,” Eberstadt concludes that the scandal in the American Catholic Church forced “literate and enlightened society” to reposition its opinion so as to permit moral outrage against cultural conservatives. It’s an interesting suggestion, and it certainly doesn’t conflict with experience with human nature.
One might also suggest similar reactions within the Church, itself. We can hope, for example, that church leaders will be wary of the judgments and suggestions of secular society such as informed organizational decisions in the late ’60s and ’70s. (The human frailty that begets the sorts of cover-ups that we witnessed in subsequent decades is probably beyond our ability to eliminate, although we can be more watchful.)
More broadly, it may be that the Church is in the process of reevaluating its relationship with and role in American society. One needn’t enumerate the examples of public school teachers who’ve been found to have abused their positions with children and teenagers to suggest that representatives of Christ must hold themselves to a higher standard. And one needn’t engage politicians in the dispute over their claims to define Catholicism as rightfully as bishops in order to discern that religion’s role, and therefore its standards, must be of a different sort than those compiled and applied within secular spheres.
The challenge is to make the beneficial reactions to horrible actions outlast the damage that those actions did to the Church’s standing.