Unspeakable sins

Why we need to talk about them

During his tenure as cardinal archbishop of Boston, Bern­ard Law vigorously defended the position of the Catholic Church on abortion, which is sometimes described as an “unspeakable” act in authoritative church teaching. All the while, it turns out, the cardinal was turning a blind eye to another act that most people consider “unspeakable”-the sexual abuse of children or adolescents by Catholic priests within his archdiocese. The label “unspeakable” hits us at a primal level, implying that the act in question is not only beyond all justification, but also that it cannot be discussed without sending shudders up the spine of anyone with an ounce of moral sensitivity. In this political and ecclesiastical context, when our bishops continue to “make the papers” both for their stand on prochoice politicians and for their involvement in sexual-abuse cases, it may be worth considering the consequences that the invocation of this label may have for our common moral reflection. First, the language of “unspeakableness” makes a radical demand, forcing those who hear it to focus all their attention and concern on the victims. In some contexts, its use is perceived as an essential rhetorical tool. Many prolife activists may view it as necessary to combat the invisibility of unborn life to the ruling elites of the United States, particularly the courts. And many lay Catholics may well see it as essential to counter the invisibility of abused children to the ruling elites of the church, particularly the American hierarchy. Second, the language of unspeakableness suggests that perpetrators are akin to monsters, thereby outside the realm of human concern. It is easy to do this if you don’t know the perpetrators personally-you can demonize them, you can reduce their whole lives to a terribly wrong choice or series of choices. But it is not so easy to do if you do know the perpetrators. You may see the good they have done, or sense the almost unbearable pressures that brought them to make the wrong choice, or know how they were broken and abused in ways that led them to break and abuse others. In certain cases, you may even doubt the continuing validity of the label itself. For example, many people with gay friends or relatives have come to question the stigma and shame associated with consensual homosexual acts between adults, long considered “unspeakable” in societies influenced by Christianity. Even if they view such acts as morally problematic, they would resist labeling them “unspeakable.” Third, it is all too easy to think of the “unspeakable” as the “unforgivable.” For Christians, this is a very dangerous move. We believe there is no sin that God cannot forgive, if it is repented by its doer. Christ came to save us from sin and death-full stop. Once we start drawing a line between “garden variety” forgivable sins and “unspeakable” unforgivable sins, tacitly or informally, we cast doubt on the depths of God’s mercy and the sufficiency of God’s grace. The only unforgivable sin mentioned in Scripture, the sin against the Holy Spirit, is generally interpreted to refer to the unwillingness of a wrongdoer to accept the divine offer of forgiveness. What about God’s justice? The relationship between divine justice and mercy is strained by the witness of the past century, which has encompassed evil on an almost unimaginable scale and depth: the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the killing fields in Cambodia, Rwanda. We also know too much about atrocities that are rooted not in a coordinated plan of extermination, but in the depths of individual perversion: I am haunted by an article I recently read about the rape of a nine-month-old baby girl. No glib answer will suffice, no theological nicety will solve the problem. We can only stand mute at the foot of the cross. The language of “unspeakableness” has practical problems and theological ones. It is polarizing; it suggests that being for the victim means being against the perpetrator, and conversely implies that human compassion for the perpetrator means downplaying the harm suffered by the victim. And so some members of the Catholic hierarchy were comfortable calling abortion an “unspeakable act”-they empathized primarily with the victims. But their conduct suggests that they did not consider clergy sexual abuse similarly “unspeakable”; they empathized primarily with the perpetrators. The trouble with the polarization caused by the language of “unspeakableness” is that it suggests there is no way for the community rightly to be for both the victims and the perpetrators, to the ultimate detriment of all concerned. To try to overcome the polarization, we need speech, not silence-the very speech that is not encouraged by the language of “unspeakableness,” which is more comfortable with denying the existence of a problem than with addressing it forthrightly. But we have all seen how the church’s teaching on abortion has become more credible as it has expanded its concern for the women involved, striving to alleviate the pressures leading them to seek abortions, and to offer forgiveness and support to those who have had them. Most Catholics now know we need to speak and to hear the hard truths about what abortions do to unborn life and about what leads women to seek abortions. In the case of clergy sexual abuse, we also need to be rightly for both the victim and the perpetrator, by speaking and hearing hard truths. Victims’ groups have done a good job informing us about the ways in which sexual abuse can harm children and adolescents. We need to learn more from them about what they need now, both from the institutional church and from their fellow Catholics in the pews. But hard as it sounds, we also need to learn from the perpetrators. How much do we know about what makes someone a sexual abuser? How can we identify and stop people at risk of such behavior before they start? Catholic treatment facilities need to become expert in the boundaries between sickness and sin, which may be far more porous than we would like to think. In so doing, they might help solve the broader problem of sexual abuse of minors, which extends far beyond the borders of the Catholic Church. There has been much scholarly writing recently on “truth and reconciliation commissions,” and the program of restorative justice they attempt to promote in societies scarred by gross injustices, such as apartheid or political kidnapping, intimidation, and torture (see Teresa Phelps, Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions, University of Pennsylvania Press). Human forgiveness works on a different plane than divine forgiveness. No one can forgive on behalf of the victims. No one can usurp the right of victims to forgive-or not to forgive-their tormentors, even if their tormentors repent. Nonetheless, truth-and-reconciliation commissions have tried to create social conditions under which repentance and forgiveness may take root and grow in human hearts. Perhaps the church, which sees itself as an “expert in humanity,” not just in matters narrowly religious, may find these commissions’ way of proceeding illuminating as we all continue to deal with the fallout of the “unspeakable” sins of our time. 

Published in the 2004-11-05 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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