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...

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About the Author

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