(David Sankey)

In March 2023, the Washington Post detailed how a group of Catholic conservatives spent millions of dollars de-anonymizing mountains of data to identify priests who were using phone apps that facilitate sexual hook-ups, like Grindr and Tinder. The most public of the targets was Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill, who was General Secretary for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when he was outed in such a sting a couple of years ago. This story reveals an ongoing problem for both priests and bishops.

Progressive Catholics were uncomfortable with the revelations. Michael Sean Winters said the sting was “creepy.” James Martin, SJ, noted on Twitter that it targeted gay priests rather than all the unchaste people who work for the Church. Both observations are true, but is there anything more to say about the ethics of the sting itself?

Conservatives defended the sting on moral grounds. But their moral analyses were largely consequentialist. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, emphasized the importance of promoting clerical sexual integrity. The stings provide “useful and important information.” He analogized the sting to reporting a drunk priest you see stumbling out of a bar. Maybe—but only if you put a hidden camera monitored by the ecclesial vice squad at every bar within a hundred miles of his rectory. Francis X. Maier, the former speechwriter for Archbishop Charles Chaput, took a similarly consequentialist stance, fuming over the priests’ violation of their promise to remain celibate. He also noted that the means used to detect the priests were not against the law and observed that, in any case, everyone is invading other people’s digital privacy these days.

This was ironic, given Maier’s work as a pro-life activist. The fact that certain procedures are legal doesn’t make them moral. And the fact that a practice is rampant doesn’t mean that it is fit for Catholics. And as Reno surely would attest in other circumstances, we need to pay attention to the morality of the means, not just the morality of the ends we seek. So the question is this: Is it moral to spend millions of dollars to turn peoples’ cell-phone data into a tracking device for wayward clerics?

One problem is the money spent on this surveillance project. Would not it have been better to devote this money to the corporal works of mercy? A defender could respond that the sting is a spiritual work of mercy, in that it permits the Church to identify and admonish the sinner. But does such an argument really work? In the Catholic tradition, admonishing a sinner presupposes a face-to-face relationship between the admonisher and the admonished, a relationship that is premised on equality in Christ. But the sting treats the unnamed people at the end of the data like targets, not like brothers in Christ. The process does not admit of equality, just as there can be no equality between a hunter and his prey.

Maier claims that priests who break their promises of celibacy don’t have a right to privacy. This claim is distorted, both morally and theologically. Morally, it is putting the cart before the horse. You can only tell who’s breaking those promises by violating that right. Theologically, the Church recognized some right to privacy for sinners by abandoning the requirement for public atonement in the fourth century.

The bishops need to act decisively. If they do not, their priests will become weapons and targets in the competing Panopticons of the culture wars.

The right to privacy may sometimes be exaggerated, and it can certainly be abused. But that doesn’t mean it is not real. Freedom from the constant, prying eyes of other people is essential to the development and maintenance of a sense of selfhood. If we do not recognize the claim other people have to be free of our scrutiny, then we treat them as objects for study, manipulation, and destruction—not as human beings equal in dignity to ourselves.

The sting distorts the relationship between the Catholics who fund and run it and the priests who fall within its ambit—which was potentially all priests. The moral danger to the self-appointed members of the purity committee is substantial. How does it affect their own relationship to the Church to see its priests as guilty of sexual sin until proven innocent? How does it affect their relationship with Christ to see themselves not as fellow sinners in need of redemption (even if one’s own sins are of a different sort), but as self-appointed police officers and judges?

There is also a moral danger to the priests, and to those who might wish to become priests. Will the fact that they live their lives in a context of pervasive suspicion and scrutiny, including electronic scrutiny, crush their spirits and erode their freedom in Christ? How will such priests interact with parishioners? Will they see them as fellow sinners in need of redemption, or as potential spies? How will they structure their lives? Will this lead them to avoid some sins (especially sexual ones) more than others (say, gluttony and waste)? Will an anxious obsession with not being suspected of committing sexual sin make them more likely to ignore sins of omission in their lives, including the duty to reach out to those at the margins?

The bishops need to act decisively. If they do not, their priests will become weapons and targets in the competing Panopticons of the culture wars. After all, if they put their minds to it, progressives can track and embarrass priests as easily as conservatives.

The bishops’ first task is to distinguish morally legitimate from morally illegitimate ways of obtaining compromising information. Stumbling upon a priest on Grindr is different from de-anonymizing data. Their second task will be deciding how to handle illegitimately obtained information, Here, in my view, is where the Church might helpfully borrow from the state. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable” searches and seizures. It recognizes that unreasonable searches affect everyone—not just the guilty. But without enforcement, such a prohibition is no more than a paper tiger. Consequently, the provision is interpreted as preventing the government from introducing evidence obtained directly or indirectly from such a search into a criminal trial. The government is thereby dis-incentivized from conducting searches without a warrant, except in certain extreme circumstances. The bishops should adopt similar disincentives for lay sleuths. They should strongly condemn any violation of priestly privacy, and they should declare that they will not allow priests whose activities were discovered in an unethical manner to be targeted or punished. The only exception, in my view, should be activities involving minors.

Some might say that this approach goes too easy on priests who break their promises of celibacy. I disagree—just as I disagree with those who say the Fourth Amendment goes too easy on those who commit crimes. The point of the Fourth Amendment is not to say that committing crimes is okay. It is to say that in using its considerable power to chase criminals, the government must observe reasonable limits. If that is what members of a state bound together by earthy ties owe one another, consider how much stronger the obligations are among members of the body of Christ.

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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