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.