Blog Post

On abusive priests

The current wave of revelations concerning child abuse by Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-ups by the Church hierarchy is, predictably, turning into a field day for atheists. On Friday Bill Maher invited his buddy Christopher Hitchens onto his show for a five-minute segment dedicated almost entirely to eviscerating the Catholic Church and its indefensible defense of, in Hitchens' eminently quotable words, "the rape and torture of children." Despite the self-evidence of its indefensibility, both men went on at some length about just how self-evidently indefensible pedophilia is, Hitchens pointing out that he and Maher could confess any number of crimes to one another and still go out for a drink, but that this permissiveness would end abruptly at the suggestion that one of them had molested a child. While no one can deny, again, the obviousness of how repellent the crimes in question are, the overlooked question is what the implicit message is when precisely these two men get together to make these points. That message can only be, it seems to me, that the abuse of children by pedophilic priests registers as a win in some sense for atheism. Certainly it's grist for the mill of some pretty rough humor, as when Maher said in his monologue that the Vatican's response to the suggestion that priests should be allowed to marry was "that's absurd! You can't marry an eight-year old." But none of this should mask the fact that crimes committed by an earthly clergy are literally irrelevant for the claims of atheism. To use the fact of clerical abuse as an argument against religious belief in general would be the same as citing the abuse of congressional pages by some legislators as a powerful argument against democracy. The abuse of children by Catholic priests is ghastly and should be investigated, revealed, and punished. It should be decried by everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. But the fact of such abuse is inconsequential to the theological claims that underlie the atheistic critique of religion. If anything, they simply bolster the essential creed of most moderate faiths: that earthly institutions, no matter what they say, always fall short of divinity; are ultimately human and fallible; and hence are always in need of questioning and critique.

William Egginton's picture

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).