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Why you should never trust a priest in an argument

They’re devious. They’re like lawyers from hell. Michael Nugent notices some significant twists in the language from the Vatican.

The most significant sentence in the Vatican’s response to the Irish Government about the Cloyne Report comes on the second-last page, just before the concluding remarks. It says: “From the foregoing considerations, it should be clear that the Holy See expects the Irish Bishops to cooperate with the civil authorities, to implement fully the norms of canon law and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland.”

This sounds reasonable on the face of it. But it conceals a vital distinction that the Catholic Church has already used to mislead people in Ireland on the same issue. Look again carefully at the wording: the Bishops should implement “fully” the norms of canon law, and ensure the “full and impartial” application of the Church’s child safety norms. Yet when it comes to cooperating with the civil authorities, as opposed to the internal rules of the Church, the important word “fully” is missing.

This missing word “fully” is the exact formulation that the Dublin Archdiocese used in 1997 to mislead people about its response to the sexual abuse of Marie Collins. When the priest who had abused Collins was convicted, the Archdiocese issued a press statement claiming that it had cooperated with police in relation to her complaint. Collins was upset by this and told her friend Father James Norman. Father Norman told police that he had asked the Archdiocese about the statement and the explanation he received was that “we never said we cooperated ‘fully’, placing emphasis on the word ‘fully’.”

It sounds nitpicky, but the Catholic church has a long history of crossing their fingers and holding them behind their back while making all kinds of sincere-sounding promises. Wait until you learn about “mental reservation”.

The Catholic Church practices a linguistic trick called ‘mental reservation’ by which “there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be.” In some circumstances, of course, this may well be true. But not in the circumstance of responding to the rape and torture of children.

Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest, apparently.

Comments

  1. kieran says

    Hopefully Enda still has some balls to call them out “fully” he is not back tracking on his speech to the Dail. Next step call home the Irish ambassador from Rome for consultations and investigate the possibility of bringing a case against the holy see in the Hague. Also if the bishops in Ireland really want to show how sorry they are, withhold peter’s pence from the vatican.
    The big one will be to see if they push through the new laws on mandatory reporting. If a paedophile is receiving confession there is a legal obligation to report the crime.

  2. says

    I keenly recall my feelings of awe and bemusement when I encountered the concept of “mental reservation” in my catechism classes back in the late fifties or early sixties. We were discussing the commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (unlike pandering right-wing politicians I can remember the Ten Commandments) and the sin of lying. The nun carefully explained to us impressionable young children that telling lies was always a sin, whether mortal or venial, but in certain circumstances one could mislead people by making a “mental reservation.” The usual example involves protecting someone hiding in one’s home when potential killers arrive on one’s doorstep:

    Nazi: “Are any Jews hiding in this house?”

    Resident: “No Jews are at home here!” [Ha, ha, stupid Nazi! There are six Jews in the basement but none of them are at home here because this is my house, not theirs!]

    The mental gymnastics involved provide a fig-leaf for the intent to mislead by melding a literally true statement with an unspoken qualification that serves to mislead. This kind of casuistry is for some reason considered preferable to telling a straightforward lie to protect the innocent.

    Resident: “No, mein Herr. No godforsaken Jews here now or ever! Heil Hitler!” [So get lost, you damned bastard, so I can smuggle out the Jews in my basement under cover of night!]

    Too simple, I guess.

  3. says

    The Catholic Church practices a linguistic trick called ‘mental reservation’ by which “there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be.”

    Or they can just keep talking after you leave the room. It’s not their fault if you don’t hear them.

  4. Someguy says

    This is completely apropos of nothing, but as a longtime lurker, I just thought I’d ask: Are there any plans for a favicon for this site? Ever since the move to freethought, there hasn’t been one, and the little “Pharyngula” title in my bookmarks looks so lonely without one…

    Please, think of the bookmarks. :)

  5. Adam says

    Ireland is making it a criminal offence to withhold knowledge about child abuse. You should have heard the RCC wig out when someone in the gov confirmed that it could be applied to priests hearing stuff in confessional and not reporting it. Suddenly the law was nothing to do with protecting children and all about attacking freedom of religion. I doubt many people confess to being paedos in church but if they did they should be reported. And if they don’t well what is the church complaining about?

  6. Joven says

    I would have thought the main weasely bit would be the fact that they are cooperating not to enforce actual real law, but canon law, and the standards of the church. So they get to pretend theyre actually doing something, while still holding themselves above everyone else, and trying to still handle it internally.

    Until they say something to the effect of, ‘hey, these guys are fucking creeps, and we will call the cops on them the second we get wind of anything like this happening again’ then they arent really doing anything new, I dont think.

  7. says

    It ain’t just Catholic clergy:

    What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.

    -Martin Luther

  8. ThirdMonkey says

    What do you expect? These people have been telling lies for 2000 years. They’ve had to have gotten pretty good at it by now.

  9. Hurin, Nattering Nabob of Negativism says

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest, apparently

    Is there some other part of that profession I wasn’t aware of?

    “well the bad news is that there is a big angry giant in the sky, but the good news is I know how to appease him, and for a mere 10% of your weekly earnings…”

  10. johnx says

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest, apparently.

    Actually, misleading people is REQUIRED when you’re a Catholic priest.

  11. Musical Atheist says

    I’m running out of nauseated facial expressions at the Catholic church’s ability to schematize its corruption in such minute detail.

    I was interested by the phrase ‘the norms of canon law’, so went to check them out at the vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/resources/resources_norme_en.html

    The ‘norm’ pertaining to abuse of minors is a prohibition against being in ‘delict’ of the sixth commandment (adultery) with a minor (under 18), or a person whose mental abilities mean they should be considered as a minor and incapable of informed consent. However, the prohibition against viewing child pornography only refers to minors under the age of 14.

    These offences are to be ‘reserved to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’ for judgement. I’m puzzled though: does this imply that priestly use of pornography involving minors between 14 and 18 (still illegal in most places) would not be a case for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and would therefore be eligible for turning over to the secular authorities? Why the seemingly arbitrary change to what constitutes a minor when it’s porn? I seem to remember comments in the blogosphere about fudging of the age limit for abuse to be specifically considered pedophilia in the Murphy report (I think), but I can’t find the article referring to this.

    First-time commenter here, by the way. Hi!

  12. says

    what is the church complaining about

    I can’t believe I’m going to do this but… [remember I’m not arguing their point – just explaining their position – please don’t shoot the messenger]

    If you make a law that says priests must report child abuse then the vast majority of people will probably not confess that sin and thus, will be unable to be forgiven for it. If the priest-confessional is sealed then the person can confess and be forgiven (or whatever the ***** they believe).

    It makes “sense” within their tortured logic where all that really matters is the fluffybunny hereafter when God finally makes it all right (you know, the happy Stepford-place where you are sent where you can watch your loved ones suffer eternal torture while you are rendered incapable of feeling emotional about it because sadness isn’t allowed in Heaven).

    However, their argument is shite because doctors and psychiatrists arguably have an stronger claim to need this privilege (for purposes of being in the best position to help their patient) and even their privileged is not inviolate. They have reporting requirements as well.

    I haven’t seen any studies that look at the benefit / costs of mandatory reporting so I’ll leave that to someone who has – but they exist so it’s not an attack on religion is my point.

  13. Xavier says

    The catholic church has centuries of diplomatic history. It acts like a country. The US State Department could use the same wording to explain that Guantanamo is a perfectly legal prison, or that the Marines and mercenaries in Iraq where nice peoples.

    The title could be : “Why you should never trust a diplomat in an argument”. The religion has little to do in this story, it’s just plain old legal/diplomatic crap, from the oldest diplomatic organisation of the world

  14. says

    I can’t believe I’m going to do this but… [remember I’m not arguing their point – just explaining their position – please don’t shoot the messenger]

    If you make a law that says priests must report child abuse then the vast majority of people will probably not confess that sin and thus, will be unable to be forgiven for it. If the priest-confessional is sealed then the person can confess and be forgiven (or whatever the ***** they believe).

    You can make the argument that unless the persons confessing is also willing to confess to the secular authorities and take their punishment, they are not truly penitent. Priests don’t have to absolve people they don’t think are truly penitent.

  15. Abelard says

    Mandatory reporting of child abuse has been used with great success in the US and Canada since the 60s; but currently, only 26 states require clergy to report child abuse. The UK and Ireland do not currently have mandatory reporting laws, but instead rely on voluntary reporting. After the 2005 Clergy Abuse Scandal in Ireland the NPSCC commissioned this 2007 study on mandatory reporting. If there is any place for mandatory reporting it is UK/Ireland.

    According to our medieval-minded catholic friends who would place the church over the safety of children it is forbidden for confessors to betray any knowledge revealed in confession (Canon Law 983.1-2 & 984.1-2); their law even goes as far as forbidding any authority in the church to reveal confessional knowledge for the purposes of “external governance” (984.2). In order to maintain the so-called efficacy of penance the vatican would obstruct justice and subvert civil law.

  16. Ibis3, féministe avec un titre française de fantaisie says

    what is the church complaining about

    I can’t believe I’m going to do this but… [remember I’m not arguing their point – just explaining their position – please don’t shoot the messenger]

    If you make a law that says priests must report child abuse then the vast majority of people will probably not confess that sin and thus, will be unable to be forgiven for it. If the priest-confessional is sealed then the person can confess and be forgiven (or whatever the ***** they believe).

    I’m also a messenger, not an advocate. The sacrament of absolution is one of the prime functions of the Church. It relies upon the penitent feeling free to use the priest as a private conduit to confess sin, demonstrate repentance, and receive absolution by means of God’s grace. Unless the communication is completely secret, there is no such freedom. Make an exception for sexual abuse of a child, then why not for every crime? Shouldn’t the priest have to report confessions of murder? rape? beating of a spouse? drunk driving? theft? perjury? blasphemy (which I believe is still on the books in Ireland?)? Who would come to confess, when the priest can no longer keep the communication secret? No more absolution, no more communion (cuz you’re not supposed to receive it unless you’re in a state of grace) and all those Catholics are now in danger of dying unshriven and bound for hell.

  17. Ibis3, féministe avec un titre française de fantaisie says

    You can make the argument that unless the persons confessing is also willing to confess to the secular authorities and take their punishment, they are not truly penitent. Priests don’t have to absolve people they don’t think are truly penitent.

    If I were Catholic, this is the argument I’d be making.

  18. Larry says

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest

    Actually, this is true of any religious leader, Catholic, Baptist, or Muslim. Its just one of the fringe benefits.

  19. Hurin, Nattering Nabob of Negativism says

    Musical Atheist

    First-time commenter here, by the way. Hi!

    Welcome. Nice first comment.

    I also found the reference to “canon law” suspicious. I didn’t expect the situation to be this weird though:

    However, the prohibition against viewing child pornography only refers to minors under the age of 14.

    Nauseated face indeed. I know the Vatican is loosing friends rapidly, but you would think this kind of institutionalized shielding of sex offenders would be met with a lot less tolerance than it has been.

  20. jheartney says

    However, the prohibition against viewing child pornography only refers to minors under the age of 14.

    Not an expert in canon law, but my very strong impression was that viewing pornography of any sort was considered sinful, and the more explicit the porn, the more serious the sin. So the difference between viewing child porn and regular porn has to do with classification rather than heinousness, at least according to the church. It’s not like they’re OK with priests watching porn with 15 yo subjects.

    Of course, this is from an organization that advocates infinite years of torture as retribution for a single instance of masturbation, so it’s not like they really have that much credibility in this area.

  21. Sili says

    This sounds like a Ragecomic, but is it Blueberry- or Strawberryguy?

    I thought the Church had something called Sins of Omission, but I guess I’ve misunderstood. Apparently the sin is not to omit.

  22. says

    Ibis3 at 21:
    I know you’re not an apologist – I’m not directing this at you, but to any Catholuc lurkers.

    Make an exception for sexual abuse of a child, then why not for every crime? Shouldn’t the priest have to report confessions of murder? rape? beating of a spouse?

    Yes. The moral thing to do would be to report violent crimes, so the criminal can be tried in a court of law, and imprisoned if found guilty. This is called “justice,” and prevents the rest of us from becoming victims of serial offenders. I thought the church was in the business of morality, no?

    I have less of an issue with property crimes, and of course blasphemy is victimless and therefore not a crime in any sense.

    Who would come to confess, when the priest can no longer keep the communication secret? No more absolution, no more communion (cuz you’re not supposed to receive it unless you’re in a state of grace) and all those Catholics are now in danger of dying unshriven and bound for hell.

    I kind of wish there were a hell for child rapists, murderers, etc., but only a temporary one. I don’t think anything warrants suffering for eternity, which is why the Christian invention of hell is immoral in the extreme.

  23. kieran says

    The vatican mirrors Italian law for the most part. All italian law up until 1999 is mirrored after that there is now a process to accept or reject italian law when it changes. There is alot of co operation on security and that sort of thing so it makes sense to have the same basic laws.

  24. Anteprepro says

    Oh, this is rich. In the Catholic Encyclopedia description of mental reservation: “They admit the doctrine of the lie of necessity, and maintain that when there is a conflict between justice and veracity it is justice that should prevail. The common Catholic teaching has formulated the theory of mental reservation as a means by which the claims of both justice and veracity can be satisfied.”

    So, they withhold information about the kids their fellow priests raped, in the name of “justice”. They practice dishonesty, slipping through whatever loopholes they can invent, in order to lie, and do so, not for the greater good, but to save the ass of some of the worst criminals in our society that just happen to be members of their organization. How are they even allowed to continue existing at this point?

  25. docslacker says

    For those Irish readers of FTB, there used to be a way a way to formally defect from Catholic Church in Ireland so that they could no longer claim to represent you. And then, voila, the RCC announced changes in cannon law to no longer make it possible to formally leave the ranks. You can stop going to church, but the Irish RCC will still count you among their faithful.

    Boy, am I glad, I never go confirmed.

    http://www.countmeout.ie for more info

  26. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest

    Actually, this is true of any religious leader, Catholic, Baptist, or Muslim. Its just one of the fringe benefits.

    Lying for Jebus (Allah, Vishnu, Huitzilopochtli, etc.) is a time honored prerogative of the religious.

  27. AlanMacandCheese says

    Um…

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest, apparently.

    …but that’s what religion is all about.

    I see this dichotomy in the atheist community all the time i.e. the former believers: who get all exited and indignant when some religious figure is caught lying or acting in some way contrary to their espoused faith, and the never believed: who accept that all purveyors of religion or either liars or are insane.

  28. Hemogoblin says

    Is anyone else here reminded strongly of the Aes Sedai from the Wheel of Time series?

    So… are we to assume that the Black Ajah is in control of the Catholic Church then?

  29. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    I see this dichotomy in the atheist community all the time i.e. the former believers: who get all exited and indignant when some religious figure is caught lying or acting in some way contrary to their espoused faith, and the never believed: who accept that all purveyors of religion or either liars or are insane.

    Citation please.

  30. Anteprepro says

    AlanMacandCheese: “I see this dichotomy in the atheist community all the time i.e. the former believers: who get all exited and indignant when some religious figure is caught lying or acting in some way contrary to their espoused faith, and the never believed: who accept that all purveyors of religion or either liars or are insane.”

    Funny that I exhibit both behaviors, despite being a never-believer.

    I “get all excited and indignant when some religious figure is caught lying and acting in some way contrary to their espoused faith:” because religious hypocrisy amuses me, and the actions similar to those of the Catholic church disgust me to no end. It is not that any new revelation shocks me; it is that it needs to be pointed out as yet another example of the failings of religious authorities and religion as an institution. I see those same figures as “liars or insane” (or rather “deluded”, just shy of insane, lying to themselves), but even then, the sheer depths that they sometimes go too manage to surprise even someone as jaded as myself.

    I also sincerely doubt that most former believers don’t have a similarly low opinion of the religious higher-ups: several have left belief largely because of the attitudes and behavior of such people, after all. And I sincerely doubt that all never-believers have a universally negative view of religious authorities, either. My grandfather, who stopped being a part of the church in older age due to all the busybodies and hypocrites, has a much lower opinion of religious authority than say my parents, who really don’t give a damn about religion either way.

    So, tl;dr version: What ‘Tis said.

  31. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Of course, this is from an organization that advocates infinite years of torture as retribution for a single instance of masturbation, so it’s not like they really have that much credibility in this area.

    Oh, snap. What is infinity times, like, a million?

  32. Q.E.D says

    I am a lawyer and the “fully” distinction was immediately apparent. They are saying that they will follow Cannon Law first and Irish criminal/civil law secondarily, only if it does not conflict with Cannon Law.

    Abelard @19

    According to our medieval-minded catholic friends who would place the church over the safety of children it is forbidden for confessors to betray any knowledge revealed in confession (Canon Law 983.1-2 & 984.1-2); their law even goes as far as forbidding any authority in the church to reveal confessional knowledge for the purposes of “external governance” (984.2). In order to maintain the so-called efficacy of penance the vatican would obstruct justice and subvert civil law.

    THIS. Thanks Abelard for the citations. I keep telling people that the Vatican is deeply convinced that it’s laws are god’s law and that the civil and criminal laws of States are subordinate to their law.

    In this context, the casuistry of Vatican lawyers in response to the Cloyne Report is not only unsurprising, it is freaking Vatican policy.

  33. Aquaria says

    I see this dichotomy in the atheist community all the time i.e. the former believers: who get all exited and indignant when some religious figure is caught lying or acting in some way contrary to their espoused faith, and the never believed: who accept that all purveyors of religion or either liars or are insane.

    What else would you call promoting things that you have Z-E-R-O evidence are true–like, oh, genocidal scumbags in the sky and his emo scumbag son being nailed to a stick and being sucked up into a cloud?

    That’s called lying by any sane definition of the word.

    Welcome to fucking reality.

  34. says

    The entire job being a priest or minister requires lying to people. Some of these grifters even lie to themselves. They convinced people scared of death that a sky fairy loves them and will take care of them – as long as they give money to the church and judge people who don’t believe what they believe. Lying comes with the territory so a little slip of a word like “fully” means nothing to them. That little lie is nothing compared to convincing millions of people that a Big Man With A White Beard created the whole universe – just for YOU!

    What infuriates me is that I’m sure the Holy See KNOWS it played sleight of hand with that word and has no intention of adequately (or fully) cooperating with law enforcement. A shady lawyer couldn’t have done better.

  35. Musical Atheist says

    Thanks for the welcome, Iris and Hurin!

    If the age of consent is 14 then it makes more sense. Apparently 18 is the age one can get legally married in Vatican City/Italy without one’s parents’ permission.

    jheartney: The classification thing makes sense. But…if a priest watches pornography involving under 14s he’s watching child porn rather than just porn. But if he’s having sex with people who are old enough to consent to sex but aren’t old enough to get married it still counts as having sex with minors?

    I’m quibbling, I know. The thing is, this list of ‘Substantive Norms’ is the first document in the section of the Vatican’s website headed ‘Abuse of Minors: The Church’s Response’. The list of ‘normae gravioribus delictis’ comes first, then there are various addenda and updates. I’m interested that these are the two specific grave ‘delicts against morals’ that get included. Rape or abuse of a person over the age of 18 isn’t included in the list of ‘more grave delicts against morals’, although the grave delicts of trying to ordain a woman as a priest or desecrating the host are in the document. It also doesn’t include a distinction between consensual sex involving someone between the ages of 14 and 18, and rape or coercion. I don’t feel the church has its head together on this at all…

    It’s actually a rather comprehensive resource of church documents on the subject. But it doesn’t seem to include a document in which anyone expresses contrition.

  36. cicely, Inadvertent Phytocidal Maniac says

    Some things never change.

    I just finished reading Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser. One of the points she brings up over and over again is the outrage of the Protestants in England, in the Elizabethan/Jacobean time-frame, with the use of “equivocation” by Recusants in concealing Catholic clergy and matters relating to the outlawed Catholic Church.

    Same ol’ equivocation, different specifics, but still with the benefit of the Church as the Prime Directive.
    -

  37. madscientist says

    Not being a lawyer (but having been coerced into a few law subjects in school), I roll my eyes when I see these:

    “… to implement fully the norms of canon law”

    Translation: we care about the church’s law, not the laws of Ireland or any other state.

    ” and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland”

    Note that the statement is about the ‘child safety norms’ of the church, and we all know that has nothing to do with (a) laws, much less (b) child protection laws enacted through various sovereign states. In fact, going by the dictionary definitions of ‘norms’, I would interpret ‘child safety norms of the Church’ to mean ‘status quo – drop your pants and rape those kids, we’ll keep the law off you.’

  38. says

    Sally Strange 35:
    HILARIOUS! Thanks for that — it’s a keeper.

    Musical Atheist 48:

    Rape or abuse of a person over the age of 18 isn’t included in the list of ‘more grave delicts against morals’, although the grave delicts of trying to ordain a woman as a priest or desecrating the host are in the document.

    Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Why, it’s almost worth the effort of trying to get ordained and then desecrating a host. Because that would be really, truly horrible, considering the grave harm done to … someone? Anyone?

    But rape? Well, not so much.

    [/evil]

  39. says

    I kind of wish there were a hell for child rapists, murderers, etc., but only a temporary one. I don’t think anything warrants suffering for eternity, which is why the Christian invention of hell is immoral in the extreme.

    The whole concept of retributive justice is nonsensical in itself, and that the idea of a “hell” – a place in which suffering, whether temporary or permanent, is deliberately inflicted upon a person to “punish” him or her for wrongdoing – is intrinsically immoral. The idea that people who commit certain acts “deserve” to suffer has no basis in a rational system of ethics. Inflicting deliberate suffering on a person as retribution for a wrong does no good; it does not undo the wrong, and it only creates more unnecessary suffering. A rational response to a horrible event is to try to prevent it happening in future, not to seek revenge on those who brought it about. The idea of a “temporary hell” is no less immoral and intellectually incoherent than the idea of an eternal hell.

    In the real world, imprisonment can be justified for one reason only: as a form of containment for those who pose a serious danger to the public. (Of course most of the people currently in prison in the US are non-violent property or drug offenders who shouldn’t be there, but that’s a side point.) This justification clearly doesn’t apply to the concept of hell, since, by definition, those who are believed to go there are already dead and incapable of causing further harm. So there can be no possible rational ethical justification for it.

    It’s important to remember that we are the products of our genes, our social conditioning and the environmental stimuli to which we are exposed. Unsurprisingly, murderers and child rapists are often people who have themselves experienced some horrible trauma – many are themselves victims of childhood abuse – and who really need mental health treatment. People who are a danger to society should certainly be contained, but they should be treated with humanity, dignity and kindness, as should all other human beings. We should, as a civilization, be mature enough to move away from the barbaric, pre-rational notion of vengeance.

  40. Carbon Based Life Form says

    First, it’s “Canon Law,” not “Cannon Law.” The Code of Canon Law is on line at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM

    Second, the age of consent in Canon Law is part of with the Catholic Church’s laws concerning marriage: if someone is below the age of consent, he or she cannot marry.

    Third, the specific law is Canon 1395

    Can. 1395 §1. A cleric who lives in concubinage, other than the case mentioned in canon 1394, and a cleric who persists with scandal in another external sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is to be punished by a suspension. If he persists in the delict after a warning, other penalties can gradually be added, including dismissal from the clerical state.

    §2. A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.

    Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is doing its best to pretend that the problem is not that big a deal, or that it’s someone else’s fault, or that it is being overblown by enemies of the Church, or “just let us deal with it” (with an unspoken “preferably by sweeping it under the rug”) — anything rather than take proper responsibility. Supposedly, this is to protect the Church’s reputation, except that it is actually ruining the Church’s reputation; and apparently the hierarchy is too blind to see this. Honesty would serve them much better.

  41. Pierce R. Butler says

    Walton @ # 53: … imprisonment can be justified for one reason only: as a form of containment for those who pose a serious danger to the public.

    Don’t overlook a somewhat-effective deterrent effect.

  42. says

    Jesus, Walton. When I said “I kinda wish…” it was a cue that it was a whimsical thought. I’m sorry if I sounded serious – I hate when I do that.

    I agree with everything you said – almost. As Pierce R. Butler suggests, a deterrent effect should not be waved away. If we offer serial violent criminals a bed of roses in prison, would this not incentivize rather than deter violent crime?

    And as far as being a creature of my genes, the urge for retributive justice is not something I can simply turn off – and neither can you. I can use reason and empathy to work for societal systems that mete justice out fairly and with compassion, but with the understanding that those systems exist to protect us from ourselves. Without that lust for revenge that comes from deep grief, horrific pain and unquenchable anger caused by someone who knew their actions were wrong and acted anyway, where would we be as a species? We would have no need of courts or prisons: we could just shrug off the very idea of justice.

  43. fifthdentist says

    “What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.”

    Yeah. As long as we’re at it, we should make it a REALLY BIG lie. And a simple one, so that it is easily comprehended. Finally, this big, simple and easily understood lie should be repeated over and over until people accept it as truth.

  44. says

    Don’t overlook a somewhat-effective deterrent effect.

    It’s arguable in theory that imprisonment has a deterrent effect, certainly (though it’s very hard to measure directly), but there’s no real empirical evidence that an increase in the use of imprisonment as opposed to non-custodial sentences, or an increase in the harshness of sentencing generally, has any significant negative effect on crime rates. (For instance, the US prison population has been increasing very rapidly for the past couple of decades, with a dramatic increase in the harshness of sentencing for minor offences; the US prison population now exceeds 700 per 100,000 people, which is six or seven times higher than most Western European countries. There’s no evidence that this has decreased crime in the US. In fact, on an individual level, the evidence suggests that having been imprisoned tends to increase a person’s propensity to reoffend, in comparison with community service and other non-custodial sentences.)

    Bear in mind, also, that violent crimes are not generally rational acts. With very few exceptions, offenders don’t generally conduct a clear-headed cost-benefit analysis, weighing up the risks of capture and imprisonment, before deciding whether to stab someone in a bar-fight or whether to assault their partners. Most acts of violence are committed in the heat of the moment, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and many violent people are also suffering from untreated mental disorders and substance addictions.

    For these reasons, I’m very sceptical about the worth of prisons as a deterrent. It’s much more worthwhile to spend money on measures which are actually empirically associated with lower crime rates – improving socio-economic conditions and employment figures, for instance. I wouldn’t abolish prisons completely, but the prison population should be a fraction of its current level. Drugs should be legalized or decriminalized, and most remaining offences should be dealt with through rehabilitative community sentences and/or restorative justice. Prison should be a last resort for the compulsively violent, and it should be decent, humane, dignified, and focused completely on treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

  45. says

    And as far as being a creature of my genes, the urge for retributive justice is not something I can simply turn off – and neither can you.

    It’s a natural urge, yes; but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t recognize it as irrational and harmful, and try to move beyond it.

    Without that lust for revenge that comes from deep grief, horrific pain and unquenchable anger caused by someone who knew their actions were wrong and acted anyway, where would we be as a species?

    We’d be much better-off.

    </blockquote?We would have no need of courts or prisons: we could just shrug off the very idea of justice.

    We should shrug off the very idea of “justice”, if “justice” means “wrongdoers deserve to be punished”.

    Yes, the idea of revenge is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the average human, and it has an explanation as an evolutionary adaptation. But the same is true of religion and nationalism, and I presume you wouldn’t disagree that those are irrational and harmful. The fact that something is part of our nature doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for us, nor that we shouldn’t try to rise beyond it. Rather than seeking revenge on those who hurt us, we should try to understand why their psyche and experiences drove them to behave in that way, and use this information to try to help them and others not to commit similar acts in future. This is the rational person’s response.

    It is the irrational desire for revenge that has produced the death penalty, sky-high imprisonment rates and massive prison overcrowding, the routine use of “solitary confinement” and other forms of de facto torture in prisons, and other barbaric and irrational policies. None of these policies have any record of being effective in reducing crime; they are all very expensive; and they are causing immense social harm.

    Most of the people our society labels “criminals” are from deprived backgrounds, poorly-educated, suffering from untreated mental disorders and substance addictions, and have few or no prospects of stable employment. Sending them to prison tends to make these things worse, not better: prisons have a record of increasing reoffending, when compared with non-custodial sentences and other alternatives. If we were serious about actually reducing crime, we’d be spending money on mental health treatment, education and employment programmes, not on police and prisons.

  46. Pierce R. Butler says

    Walton @ # 59: … there’s no real empirical evidence that an increase in the use of imprisonment as opposed to non-custodial sentences, or an increase in the harshness of sentencing generally, has any significant negative effect on crime rates.

    Tweet! Goalposts in motion!

    Yr original claim concerned the lack of any justification for imprisoning the not-immediately-dangerous, not whether increasing that penalty had advantageous effects.

    There’s no evidence that this has decreased crime in the US.

    Much as I hate to advance this argument, but the crime stats over the last four years have (in a dramatic break from what I gather is the usual pattern) not increased in step with widespread unemployment. Could wholesale incarceration surpassing police-state levels have anything to do with this?

    … violent crimes are not generally rational acts.

    There go those damn goalposts again!

    … I’m very sceptical about the worth of prisons as a deterrent.

    Having, I suspect, spent much more time in the company of hardcore professional & amateur ne’er-do-wells than you (or most Pharynguloids), I can tell you that they do indeed serve that purpose on multiple occasions. We could, no doubt, do better (note the relatively low recidivism rate in areas like Scandinavia with much more humane judicial systems), but poor effectiveness =/= zero effectiveness.

    Returning, somewhat, to the point at hand: what, if any, correctional techniques have been shown to work on serial child molesters?

  47. Therrin says

    Returning, somewhat, to the point at hand: what, if any, correctional techniques have been shown to work on serial child molesters?

    Ordainment?

  48. says

    And a friend and I were discussing this. She jumped in as I was reading the Vatican statement aloud and asked, “Is there a comma in there? ‘Cause that makes a difference, you know.” More significant than even the word “fully” is the addition of that single comma which works to separates the items in a series!

    Original

    “…it should be clear that the Holy See expects the Irish Bishops to cooperate with the civil authorities, to implement fully the norms of canon law and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland.”

    Untrue and ambiguous version possibly understood by audience

    “…it should be clear that the Holy See expects the Irish Bishops to cooperate with the civil authorities to implement fully the norms of canon law and to ensure the full and impartial application of the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland.”

    These two sentences have two distinct and differing meanings. You may see right away that

    “cooperate…to implement”

    is quite different than

    “cooperate…, to implement…”

    And once again, I am stunned by the clever power of grammar!

    It wasn’t immediately obvious, for that matter, that this clause is also introduced with the fudge language formula, par excellence:

    “It should be clear that…”

    This particular kind of weaselly declarative statement only serves to announce the existence of summarized points and makes any of those following items completely non-binding regardless of the wording! The statement doesn’t even say “you” or “one”, but “it”. As though neither “one” nor “you” are actual, physical people reading and understanding! Merely that “it”, abstractly, should be understandable; “it” should be not un-clear, “it” floats in space somewhere, etc., etc., etc.

    You might read this and take away that the Holy See declared an “expectation”, resolved to “cooperate” — “fully” or not; set a task to “implement”, and might be even now establishing supervision in order to “ensure” some outcome. No, it is merely understood by the writer that “it should be clear that” these conclusions could be construed “[from] the foregoing considerations”. Did you construe that? Well, how nice for you.

  49. says

    Tweet! Goalposts in motion!

    Fuck off. I’m not in the mood to be patronized.

    Yr original claim concerned the lack of any justification for imprisoning the not-immediately-dangerous, not whether increasing that penalty had advantageous effects.

    On an individual level, the evidence suggests that imprisoning people increases the likelihood of reoffending, and that community sentences have a better record of reducing reoffending. Imprisonment is also brutal, traumatizing – solitary confinement, which amounts to a form of torture, is routinely used in US prisons, and chronic overcrowding and endemic inter-prisoner violence and sexual assault are features of life there – and extremely expensive to the taxpayer.

    So if you want to establish that imprisoning not-immediately-dangerous people is a good idea, you need to show some pretty convincing empirical evidence both that it is reducing crime rates, and that it is doing so more effectively, dollar-for-dollar, than spending the same amount on education, social services, mental health care, etc.

    Much as I hate to advance this argument, but the crime stats over the last four years have (in a dramatic break from what I gather is the usual pattern) not increased in step with widespread unemployment. Could wholesale incarceration surpassing police-state levels have anything to do with this?

    Citation needed. Assuming that your statistics are accurate, you’d need to show more than correlation to demonstrate that the United States’ brutal system of mass incarceration is actually keeping crime rates lower than they would otherwise be.

    In California, it’s often asserted that the introduction of the “three strikes” law in 1994 cut crime rates. This is incorrect; although recorded crime rates in California fell substantially between 1994 and 1999, this was part of a pre-existing trend, since crime in California had already fallen by 11 percent between 1991 and 1994; there’s no way of knowing how much, if at all, the introduction of the law contributed to this trend. Weigh this against the economic and social cost of imprisoning several thousand extra people, and it appears that “tough on crime” measures are not backed by compelling evidence for their efficacy.

    We could, no doubt, do better (note the relatively low recidivism rate in areas like Scandinavia with much more humane judicial systems), but poor effectiveness =/= zero effectiveness.

    You’re really making my point for me here. Imprisonment of not-immediately-dangerous offenders may or may not have some deterrent effect – it’s very hard to tell empirically, since so many factors affect differences in crime rates across countries and time-periods – but if you want to justify it, you need to establish that it’s more effective, dollar-for-dollar, than spending the money, effort and resources on other solutions. It seems pretty clear that if the money currently being wasted on imprisoning more than two million Americans were instead ploughed into education, social services, creating jobs, and/or providing adequate mental health care, it would do markedly more good dollar-for-dollar in reducing crime rates. (Aside from the fact that the state of US prisons is brutal, traumatizing, and a stain on America’s conscience.)

  50. says

    Returning, somewhat, to the point at hand: what, if any, correctional techniques have been shown to work on serial child molesters?

    I have no idea. What has that got to do with my argument? If you’re trying to make a point, make it; I’m not doing your research for you.

    I’m all for imprisoning serial child molesters, for the simple reason that such people probably need to be contained – but, like all human beings, they are morally entitled to be treated with decency and humanity while in prison, to be protected from violence, to be housed in acceptable living conditions, and to be given any mental and physical health treatment they need. At the moment, none of these things happens in the average US prison – where prison rape and violence are endemic, overcrowding is chronic, and health care facilities are inadequate. (The California prison system is so overcrowded, and conditions so poor, that the Supreme Court was compelled to order California to reduce its prison population by 37,000.)

  51. chigau () says

    Yes, the idea of revenge is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the average human, and it has an explanation as an evolutionary adaptation.

    citation needed
    Any cross-cultural study/meta-analysis that would support the notion that this is “deeply ingrained in the psyche of the average human”.
    Even an indication.

  52. says

    citation needed
    Any cross-cultural study/meta-analysis that would support the notion that this is “deeply ingrained in the psyche of the average human”.
    Even an indication.

    Fair point: I shouldn’t have asserted this as a fact. Rather, I was conceding these points to Iris to make the point that, even if the desire for revenge is an evolutionary adaptation, that doesn’t stop it being irrational and destructive. If the desire for revenge is a cultural construct rather than an evolutionary adaptation, then that strengthens the argument I was making even further.

    (In fact I think it probably is a cultural construct; I remember offhand that there are some cultures in which retributive justice is not practised. Though I’m not an anthropologist, don’t have time or energy to research that subject now, and won’t make any assertions about it which I can’t support.)

  53. says

    (In fact I think it probably is a cultural construct; I remember offhand that there are some cultures in which retributive justice is not practised. Though I’m not an anthropologist, don’t have time or energy to research that subject now, and won’t make any assertions about it which I can’t support

    AFAIK, a need for and feeling for “fairness” seems to be an evolved trait of many social animals, including humans. Punishment is the easiest form of satisfying the sense of fairness, but some societies do indeed manage otherwise. That generally requires very strong anti-retributive traditions though, IIRC

  54. 'Tis Himself, pour encourager les autres says

    Carbon Based Life Form #55

    Supposedly, this is to protect the Church’s reputation, except that it is actually ruining the Church’s reputation; and apparently the hierarchy is too blind to see this. Honesty would serve them much better.

    This is something that amazes me. If people say “oops, we screwed up, we’ll take these effective steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again” and are then seen to be taking effective steps, then critics are more lenient and even forgiving. But all too often the hierarchy of an organization fails to understand this simple concept.

    In the RCC’s situation, it’s quite obvious the hierarchy is more concerned with the Church’s dignity and prestige than anything so minor and mundane as the welfare of children. There’s a lot of hand wringing and a lot of finger pointing in various directions and an awful lot of weasle-worded mea culpa* breast beating, but effective steps taken to prevent child rape and turn offenders over to civil authority, not so much.

    The Church is seeing these pedophile scandals as a big PR problem. However (a) there’s more involved than PR and (b) they’re doing the PR all wrong. Fewer and fewer people are buying the song and dance because the song is out of tune and the dancers are stumbling.

    *Actually nostre culpae if my rusty Latin is correct.

  55. Pierce R. Butler says

    Walton @ # 64: I’m not in the mood to be patronized.

    Nor to address a cogent criticism, it appears.

    I have no disagreement with your criticisms of US lock-everybody-up policy (except that you neglect to mention the racism behind much of it). The “land of the free” schtick has about as much truth to it as “four out of five doctors recommend …”

    And I did not try to “establish that imprisoning not-immediately-dangerous people is a good idea” any more than I would claim that chopping off the hands of convicted thieves is. Nonetheless, both policies do prevent some crime – you gonna pull the “citation needed” routine on that too? – which suffices to undermine your overly-sweeping claim that “one reason only” supports imprisonment.

    Walton @ # 65: What has that got to do with my argument?

    What has your argument to do with the original post?

  56. cicely, Inadvertent Phytocidal Maniac says

    And I’m not sure that the Church has adjusted, “psychologically” speaking, to its greatly diminished temporal power. Crowned heads (now in short supply, especially as absolute rulers) are no longer expected to roll over and play dead in fear of the Popes’ displeasure.
    -

  57. Classical Cipher, OM says

    Nonetheless, both policies do prevent some crime – you gonna pull the “citation needed” routine on that too? – which suffices to undermine your overly-sweeping claim that “one reason only” supports imprisonment.

    No, I think for that to count as a reason it would have to be established that the so-called deterrent effect is at least bigger than the promotion (?) effect that Walton discusses, where people who have been imprisoned are more likely to reoffend. And I’m not sure that is established.

  58. echidna says

    I have no disagreement with your criticisms of US lock-everybody-up policy (except that you neglect to mention the racism behind much of it).

    To be fair, the pervasiveness of the implicit and explicit racism in the US is difficult to comprehend until you have lived there for a while. Other countries have racism problems as well, and most people outside the US when hearing about US racism will relate that to their own experience. But that experience is unlikely to give a good understanding of the US, because most countries have not had the corrupting experience of equating skin colour with inferiority in order to justify widespread slavery enduring centuries.

  59. says

    I have no disagreement with your criticisms of US lock-everybody-up policy (except that you neglect to mention the racism behind much of it).

    Indeed – ethnic minorities are vastly over-represented in the prison system, and there is endemic racism in the whole process of policing, prosecution and sentencing. This is true in the UK, my home country, too (where a black person is six times more likely to be arrested for a drug offence than a white person, and eleven times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offence, despite being no more likely to use or sell drugs). I left out this aspect of the analysis for the sake of brevity (believe me, I’m very well aware of it, and have posted about the racism in the criminal justice system hundreds of times on Pharyngula and on my own blog before; I can produce links if you don’t believe me), but it’s an important point, and supports my argument.

    And I did not try to “establish that imprisoning not-immediately-dangerous people is a good idea” any more than I would claim that chopping off the hands of convicted thieves is. Nonetheless, both policies do prevent some crime – you gonna pull the “citation needed” routine on that too? – which suffices to undermine your overly-sweeping claim that “one reason only” supports imprisonment.

    Er… no. It doesn’t. To establish that deterrence is not a reasonable justification for the use of imprisonment, I do not have to establish that prisons have no deterrent effect at all; I only have to establish that any deterrent effect of imprisoning people is less effective in reducing crime rates, dollar-for-dollar, than alternative uses of the money and resources currently spent on imprisoning people. (For instance, spending the money on education, rehabilitative treatment and mental health care.) This analysis holds true even if one completely disregards the humanitarian and moral costs of imprisoning people, and only examines its per-dollar effectiveness in reducing crime rates.

    If X is more effective than Y at achieving goal Z, and the costs of X and Y are the same, then it is not rationally defensible to do X in order to achieve goal Z. Thus, in light of the available empirical evidence as it stands, it is not rationally defensible to advocate imprisonment in order to deter crime. I therefore stand entirely by my statement that there is only one justifiable reason for imprisoning people at all – that is to say, containing someone who poses an immediate danger to the public.

    What has your argument to do with the original post?

    Nothing; I don’t disagree with the original post. My argument began as a response to Iris’ post on the concepts of hell and “justice”. You then decided to sneer at me and misconstrue my argument, so I responded to you.

  60. Anri says

    Yes. The moral thing to do would be to report violent crimes, so the criminal can be tried in a court of law, and imprisoned if found guilty. This is called “justice,” and prevents the rest of us from becoming victims of serial offenders. I thought the church was in the business of morality, no?

    But, remember, this only holds if you don’t accept spiritual justice. A Christian who actually believes what the bible is most commonly held to say on the topic of sin (post-Jesus, anyway) is that once forgiveness had been asked for, it is as if the sin had never taken place. Any justice system that holds that there is some responsibility beyond saying “I’m sorry” to god in your thoughts is therefore at odds with Perfect Sky-Daddy Justice and should be rejected.
    It’s also worth remembering that being the victim of serial offenders is a good thing, and encouraged in the bible. It’s a sign of being blessed.

    This is just one of those consequences of having actual faith (as opposed to just playacting) that most Christians don’t bother thinking about, as the conclusions are so clearly and immediately at odds with everyday real life.
    Kinda like mourning the dead, in that respect.

  61. kyoseki says

    I honestly can’t believe you people are this surprised about it.

    Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes arguing with anyone who believes in Biblical inerrancy knows that they’re totally ok with classifying omission as truth, ie. if the one passage in the Bible says there were two angels present and another says there was only one, then clearly both are true, since unless one of them says there WEREN’T two angels present, both could conceivably be true.

    Now while the Catholic church doesn’t generally resort to those kinds of arguments, adopting more of a nebulous position across the board, the same underlying motivation is clearly present.

  62. tim Rowledge says

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest
    Actually, this is true of any religious leader, Catholic, Baptist, or Muslim. Its just one of the fringe benefits.

    Lying for Jebus (Allah, Vishnu, Huitzilopochtli, etc.) is a time honored prerogative of the religious.

    (pardon probably mangled bq)
    Actually it’s pretty much SOP for any in-group; professional organizations, unions, trade groups, golf clubs, they’ve all done the “close ranks and lie to protect our members” thing. The big difference, the thing that condemns the religionists, is that they have claimed for hundreds or even thousands of years to have the exclusive franchise from The Lord His Very Own Self to declare what is moral and to judge or even punish people. (Including probably for such long sentences.)

  63. Q.E.D says

    Imagine an ancient, powerful, rich, global, organization that is welcome to operate in most Nation States of the world, indeed has diplomatic privileges, is given tax breaks, political privilege, has political views diametrically opposed to those of the host country, interferes with local politics, runs social services,teaches children in its schools and refuses to recognize the law of the land in which it operates because it substitutes its own law.

    Now imagine this organization runs a global paedophile ring.

  64. echidna says

    The big difference, the thing that condemns the religionists, is that they have claimed for hundreds or even thousands of years to have the exclusive franchise from The Lord His Very Own Self to declare what is moral and to judge or even punish people torture and kill people.

    And they still claim tax exempt status because religion is a “benefit to society”. I am hoping that between the anti-science fundamentalists and the child-raping RC priests being protected by the Vatican, the nature and magnitude of the benefit will be questioned. But I guess if the Inquisition was not enough….

  65. Richard Eis says

    I doubt if you could even have a one-god (snort!) religion without the prerequisite lying because you are asking for infallibility from humans interpreting a silent but apparently perfect god.

    That’s never going to work. They should just give up now.

  66. Musical Atheist says

    Sally Strange, #35: That’s extremely funny. I’ll hang on to it. I like the way incredulity turns into a sort of pitiful disappointment on his face.

    Cicely, #50: Thank you!

    Carbon Based Life Form, #55: Yes, that clarifies it. What a wonderful maelstrom of laws, articles, norms, by-laws, addenda and such-like must fly in these meetings, all without anyone apparently thinking of the obvious solution – acknowledge responsibility and actually cooperate ‘fully’ with the secular authorities.

  67. Carbon Based Life Form says

    . A Christian who actually believes what the bible is most commonly held to say on the topic of sin (post-Jesus, anyway) is that once forgiveness had been asked for, it is as if the sin had never taken place.

    To be fair to the Christians, that is incomplete. True repentance is not just asking God to forgive one’s sins, but also involves a sincere attempt to put right wrongs against others. Just to give an obvious example, if you steal something, and you do not make restitution to the person whose property was taken, you are not showing real repentence for your sin.

  68. David Marjanović, OM says

    Why does Vatican even need an age of consent? Who has sex there?

    Who doesn’t?

    I’ve read that JPII privately talked about sex in ways that only make sense if he had never had any.

    Supposedly, this is to protect the Church’s reputation, except that it is actually ruining the Church’s reputation; and apparently the hierarchy is too blind to see this. Honesty would serve them much better.

    So, so true.

  69. Carbon Based Life Form says

    The Catholic hierarchy should remember something from recent American history. What brought down Richard Nixon was not the Watergate break-in itself, it was his attempt to cover up the break-in. Covering up the pedophilia by members of the hierarchy makes them accessories after the fact.

  70. says

    Walton, I have some questions for you. I genuinely cannot get my head around the nub of your argument, which seems to be that punishment is always undesirable.

    I agree with your analysis of U.S. prisons, which are unconscionable abominations. Also, for those who may not be aware, the U.S. imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other country in the world. It’s horrible, but this is a red herring as far as this discussion goes. I am not talking about inhumane punishment: as you note, the more humane and rehabilitation-focused Swedish system produces lower recidivism rates, but incarceration there certainly serves as “punishment” by any reasonable definition.

    (1) Have you spent any time around very young children? When they behave badly (or dangerously), how would you propose the adults in charge of them respond?

    (2) If punishment has no worthwhile deterrent effect, is it your opinion that reward has no inducement effect?

    Putting aside for the moment that your writings on this thread seem to entirely ignore or minimize the potential “humanitarian and moral costs” to everyone else of not imprisoning people who have committed violent crimes, (3) how does one determine who poses an “immediate danger”? No one but the extremely mentally ill is constantly dangerous: even abusers have to sleep. (Unfortunately I know this particular fact from personal experience.)

    And to once again try to return from this digression to the OP, child rapists in the Catholic church were not punished, but rewarded with transfers to different parishes where they continued to harm children. From where I’m sitting, imprisonment would have been vastly preferable.

  71. says

    which seems to be that punishment is always undesirable.

    as I understand it, the argument is that punitive justice serves no purpose that cannot be served better by other means (for values of “better” that conform to utilitarian arguments of increasing the welfare of people within a society)

  72. says

    I genuinely cannot get my head around the nub of your argument, which seems to be that punishment is always undesirable.

    No. It’s important to draw some fine-grained distinctions here, and I apologize if I haven’t made this clear.

    I do utterly reject the notion of retributive justice: that is, the deontological moral claim that wrongdoers “deserve” punishment, and that “justice” demands that wrongs be punished. To any thinking person, this is plainly nonsense. (It’s also the premise on which the Christian doctrine of salvation and redemption is based, which is one of the reasons I find Christian morality to be incoherent nonsense.)

    This doesn’t mean that punishment can’t serve practical purposes, such as deterrence and containment. As I said, it can. And if it does more good than harm in a particular case, it is justified. But this is a pragmatic consequentialist justification for punishment, rather than a deontological one. There is a conceptual difference between “We should punish X in order to deter others from committing the same crime” and “We should punish X because he deserves it”. The former is a consequentialist argument, and is coherent and rational; the latter is a deontological argument, and should be rejected immediately because it is based on incoherent moral premises.

    A good illustration of the distinction I’m talking about is Kant’s “Last Murderer”:

    Even if a civil society were to be dissolved by the consent of all its members (e.g., if a people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse throughout the world), the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt does not cling to the people for not having insisted upon this punishment; for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in his public violation of justice.

    Kant was clearly wrong: “desert” and “blood guilt” are nonsensical concepts, founded in pre-rational religious thinking.

    So, if we are to justify punishment at all, it has to have a consequentialist justification: “We should punish X in order to deter others from committing the same crime” can, in principle, be such a justification. However, of course, the argument “We should punish X in order to deter others from committing the same crime” assumes empirical evidence that punishing X will, in fact, have the desired deterrent effect.

    (2) If punishment has no worthwhile deterrent effect, is it your opinion that reward has no inducement effect?

    I would not claim that punishment, as a whole, has no worthwhile deterrent effect. That’s an empirical claim which would clearly be wrong. I’m making a much more narrowly-defined claim: that the deterrent effect of imprisonment of not-immediately-dangerous offenders is insufficient to justify it. I’m not necessarily claiming that imprisonment of not-immediately-dangerous offenders doesn’t deter crime at all; but the evidence for its deterrent effect is limited, and it has to be weighed against the costs of imprisonment (the financial cost to the taxpayer, the humanitarian cost to the individuals imprisoned, and the fact that being sent to prison actually increases one’s likelihood of committing further crime on release). The evidence suggests that rehabilitative community sentences are much better at reducing reoffending, as well as being much cheaper and less coercive.

    , (3) how does one determine who poses an “immediate danger”? No one but the extremely mentally ill is constantly dangerous: even abusers have to sleep. (Unfortunately I know this particular fact from personal experience.)

    I’d say that having been convicted of murder, rape, child molestation, etc., is probably sufficient evidence of posing an “immediate danger”, unless there is some factor that makes the person no longer capable of committing further violent crimes (such as old age or physical infirmity). But people in this category – serious violent offenders – make up only a small proportion of those currently in prison in the US or UK. Most of the exceptional rise in incarceration, in both countries, is down to more and longer custodial sentencing for minor offences. There are plenty of people – shoplifters, drug users, tax cheats, and so on – who really should not be behind bars; they aren’t dangerous to anyone, and imprisoning them makes them more likely to reoffend on release.

    I am not talking about inhumane punishment: as you note, the more humane and rehabilitation-focused Swedish system produces lower recidivism rates, but incarceration there certainly serves as “punishment” by any reasonable definition.

    Yes, but it is inflicted on far fewer people. (And I’d go further still. No one should ever be imprisoned for a non-violent offence.)

  73. says

    Evidence that community sentences work better than imprisonment at reducing recidivism

    To reiterate, my point is not that imprisonment has no deterrent effect at all. Rather, my point is that any deterrent effect of imprisoning not-immediately-dangerous people is outweighed by the enormous economic, social and humanitarian costs of mass imprisonment; and that, if we seriously want to cut crime, the money and resources would be better-spent on (a) education and (b) mental health care, since poor education and untreated mental illness are strongly correlated with criminality.

  74. says

    Thanks for the clarifications, Walton and Jadehawk.

    I understand more clearly the distinction you are making regarding “punishment” evaluated for utilitarian benefits (as a deterrent or otherwise) and in light of more effective alternatives, versus something more akin to vengeance. This makes much more sense to me now.

    Also, I took your meaning of not-immediately-violent more literally than you apparently meant it. However, I don’t thing would not go quite as far as you do with respect to proscribing imprisonment for all non-violent crimes. If my neighbor keeps killing my pets (a property crime), or defacing my home, or breaking into my house and pawing through my stuff, for example, I’d be very much for locking her up, if other interventions failed to put a stop to it.

    As usual ’round these parts, this exchange has been illuminating, and a pleasure.

    PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Stay off the streets and sidewalks of Manhattan for the next 2 hours! I am taking a driving lesson. : /

  75. Pierce R. Butler says

    Classical Cipher @ # 72: … it would have to be established that the so-called deterrent effect is at least bigger than the promotion (?) effect that Walton discusses, where people who have been imprisoned are more likely to reoffend.

    A good point, made even more difficult to answer than most social questions by the fact that every society with the capability to imprison, does.

    echidna @ # 73: … most countries have not had the corrupting experience of equating skin colour with inferiority…

    Nor, since we now somehow aspire to completeness on this topic, do most countries have experience with a profitable and politically well-connected prison-industrial complex such as exposed by the recent/current Pennsylvania cases.

    Walton @ # 74: … I only have to establish that any deterrent effect of imprisoning people is less effective in reducing crime rates, dollar-for-dollar, than alternative uses of the money and resources currently spent on imprisoning people.

    Intuitively quite probable, but not sfaik “established”.

    If X is more effective than Y at achieving goal Z, and the costs of X and Y are the same, then it is not rationally defensible to do X in order to achieve goal Z.

    You sure about that???

    You then decided to sneer at me and misconstrue my argument…

    No, I then pointed out an excessively broad generalization (in retrospect, perhaps ameliorated by the vagueness of that word “justified”), with no expectation that it would be taken so personally.

    Walton @ # 53: … imprisonment can be justified for one reason only: as a form of containment for those who pose a serious danger to the public.

    Walton @ # 90: … my point is not that imprisonment has no deterrent effect at all.

    Where’s the dramamine? The poor goalposts are getting dizzy!

  76. Mattir-ritated says

    Wouldn’t it be easier and more straightforward to simply teach that one does not have an obligation to tell the truth if the person to whom one is speaking does not have a right to truth? This would pretty much take care of the “are there Jews in this house” situation, and places the ethical requirements squarely in the context of the relationship between the parties to a communication rather than in some magical essentialist Platonic world.

    Well, now that I think on it, that’s PRECISELY why the Catholic Church is so big on the moral reservations nonsense. Wouldn’t want one’s ethical guidelines to be based on actual relationships between actual real human beings. That road leads to carefree wanking, gay marriage, and an overall increase in human happiness.

  77. says

    Sorry for my typos (phoning in my comments today…) but I trust my meaning was clear enough:

    “I don’t thing would not go” should be “I don’t think I would go…”

    (Driving instructor is late because of traffic! FREAKING OUT HERE…!)

  78. Anri says

    C.B.L.F.:

    To be fair to the Christians, that is incomplete. True repentance is not just asking God to forgive one’s sins, but also involves a sincere attempt to put right wrongs against others. Just to give an obvious example, if you steal something, and you do not make restitution to the person whose property was taken, you are not showing real repentence for your sin.

    Interestingly, this was not what I was taught during my stint in the Presbyterian Chruch lo these many moons ago. It was never stated as brutally as I put it, but there was no ambiguity that the important thing was to get right with Jesus. God knew your heart, you see, so your actions towards other human beings were completely secondary.

    Don’t get me wrong – they didn’t actively discourage earthly acts of contrition, they just weren’t necessary for Mr. Perfect Justice’s forgiveness. Which, since the earth was transient and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, was all that truly mattered.

    I would also disagree with your argument that an attempt to return stolen property indicates greater contrition than no attempt to do so. A refusal to admit a theft to the victim might actually indicate remorse so great the idea of opening the topic is repulsive.
    (Of course, it is much more likely that such a reluctance stems from lack of remorse or fear of retribution that outweighs the remorse, but I don’t think that judgement can always be made definitively from outside. I’m being nit-picky, and I apologize.)

  79. uncle frogy says

    to the main post the church repeated in not so clear but very proper sounding language that they would continue to place their canon law above all other laws only problem with that is since they do it in private and mostly in secret they have been shown to actually seldom even follow their own law. Thus they prove to be a completely human organization no surprise there.

    I wonder about prison and punishment and who gets the “justice” and who doesn’t.

    I have myself witnessed the third strike case of a poor ignorant guy being convicted of theft third offense for taking a fan belt and some ignition wires from a pick your pts junk yard with a value approaching zero. Has any one even been seriously investigated for fraud who was involved with the latest financial melt down which resulted in massive loses for the companies and governments that took the advice to invest and tremendous bonuses for the people who recommended and sold them and knew they were no good.

    if the crime rates are not going up what are the reasons? who decides on what is recorded and why. is it arrest rates, crime reports or convictions that are counted? what role does drug use have on these numbers?
    the rates have been used politically for so long I do not really trust them to be in any way accurate enough very useful as reported in the press.

    uncle frogy

  80. says

    I’m rather pleased with myself, as I managed to get a big chunk of the Nugent piece, attributed to him of course, in a comment at the Irish Times on a piece defending the RCC.

    David B

  81. says

    I’m rather proud of myself today, as I managed to get a lot of the Nugent quote, attributed to him of course, accepted as a comment on a piece in the Irish Times today urging reconciliation between Dublin and Rome.

    I couldn’t get wordpress to accept my usual internet handle, which which I sign

    David B

  82. truthspeaker says

    Carbon Based Life Form says:
    6 September 2011 at 7:23 am

    The Catholic hierarchy should remember something from recent American history. What brought down Richard Nixon was not the Watergate break-in itself, it was his attempt to cover up the break-in.

    Keep in mind that, while Nixon lost the presidency, he was pardoned and never faced any kind of criminal justice for either the break-in or the cover up. Lying often pays off.

  83. steve oberski says

    @Walton Indeed – ethnic minorities are vastly over-represented in the prison system,

    Not to mention a certain religious majority.

  84. David Marjanović, OM says

    (Driving instructor is late because of traffic! FREAKING OUT HERE…!)

    X-D X-D X-D

  85. says

    Walton @ # 53: … imprisonment can be justified for one reason only: as a form of containment for those who pose a serious danger to the public.

    Walton @ # 90: … my point is not that imprisonment has no deterrent effect at all.

    Where’s the dramamine? The poor goalposts are getting dizzy!

    For fuck’s sake. I addressed this explicitly already:

    To establish that deterrence is not a reasonable justification for the use of imprisonment, I do not have to establish that prisons have no deterrent effect at all; I only have to establish that any deterrent effect of imprisoning people is less effective in reducing crime rates, dollar-for-dollar, than alternative uses of the money and resources currently spent on imprisoning people. (For instance, spending the money on education, rehabilitative treatment and mental health care.) This analysis holds true even if one completely disregards the humanitarian and moral costs of imprisoning people, and only examines its per-dollar effectiveness in reducing crime rates.

    If X is more effective than Y at achieving goal Z, and the costs of X and Y are the same, then it is not rationally defensible to do X in order to achieve goal Z. Thus, in light of the available empirical evidence as it stands, it is not rationally defensible to advocate imprisonment in order to deter crime. I therefore stand entirely by my statement that there is only one justifiable reason for imprisoning people at all – that is to say, containing someone who poses an immediate danger to the public.

    If you can’t be bothered with reading what I’ve already written, I’ll spell it out yet again for you.

    My argument was that the only rational justification for imprisoning people is to contain those who pose a danger to society. I stand by that claim. While it is probably the case that prisons have some deterrent effect on crime, you have not shown that prison-as-deterrent is a more effective means of reducing crime rates, dollar-for-dollar, than alternative responses to crime (such as rehabilitative community sentences, education and drug treatment). Indeed, you’ve conceded that societies that spend less on imprisonment, and more on education and social infrastructure, tend to have lower crime. Therefore, imprisoning people as a deterrent is irrational, because it’s a waste of money that could be better-spent on other means of reducing crime rates. There are, therefore, no remaining rational justifications for imprisoning people, except to contain those who pose a danger to society.

  86. says

    @Walton Indeed – ethnic minorities are vastly over-represented in the prison system,

    Not to mention a certain religious majority.

    What has that got to do with anything? My point was that ethnic minorities are over-represented in the prison system because (a) the criminal justice system is institutionally racist, and (b) because the burden of criminal sanctions also falls more heavily on the poor, and ethnic minorities are, on average, more likely to be poor.

  87. Nico says

    Misleading people is perfectly OK if you’re a Catholic priest, apparently.

    Of course. That’s what their job is right?

  88. Pierce R. Butler says

    Walton @ # 103: … you have not shown that prison-as-deterrent is a more effective means of reducing crime rates, dollar-for-dollar, than alternative responses …

    I sure haven’t: I would only face that obligation if arguing in favor of the extant US system. Haven’t seen that, have you?

    … imprisoning people as a deterrent is irrational…

    Only if you define “irrational” so broadly as to include “inefficient” and “producing unintended consequences” – which leaves damn little in the way of human activity to call “rational”.

    There are, therefore, no remaining rational justifications for imprisoning people, except to contain those who pose a danger to society.

    You assume a greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number viewpoint rather at odds with the way things get done (alas, I could not find a youtube clip of Roy Zimmerman’s “Intelligent Design” song – please look for his Faulty Intelligence album). If only…

    The malign designs of our ruling classes & obsolete customs aside, all the evidence you’ve marshalled to support alternatives occurs in the context of detention-deterrence. At most, this shows that we overuse incarceration – a far cry from proving it unnecessary.

    Do the more generous-minded welfare states (meaning, basically, NW Europe) retain their prisons out of tradition, necessity, or the sheer expense of putting at-large troublemakers under adequate well-trained & -equipped supervision? I’m asking because I don’t know – but I strongly suspect they’ve heard arguments such as you present here, and reject them for pragmatic reasons.

    And, as others have pointed out, our available means of sorting out actual dangers-to-society have numerous defects, and what to do with the questionable cases doesn’t lend itself to an easily acceptable default answer.

  89. Carbon Based Life Form says

    In #84, I said

    True repentance is not just asking God to forgive one’s sins, but also involves a sincere attempt to put right wrongs against others. Just to give an obvious example, if you steal something, and you do not make restitution to the person whose property was taken, you are not showing real repentence for your sin.

    In #95, Anri responded

    Interestingly, this was not what I was taught during my stint in the Presbyterian Chruch lo these many moons ago. It was never stated as brutally as I put it, but there was no ambiguity that the important thing was to get right with Jesus. God knew your heart, you see, so your actions towards other human beings were completely secondary.

    I was brought up and educated as a Catholic, and the Jesuits made sure I knew large chunks of Thomas Aquinas, numero uno when it comes to Catholic theologians. His Summa Theologica is on line, and in part III, question 90, article 3, he says “the perfection of Penance requires contrition of the heart, together with confession in word and satisfaction in deed.”

    In the Supplement, question 12, article 3, he says that satisfaction is defined as “compensation for an inflicted injury according to the equality of justice.” He also says that since satisfaction “is the act of justice inflicting punishment, [it] is a medicine healing past sins and preserving from future sins: so that when one man makes satisfaction to another, he offers compensation for the past, and takes heed for the future.”

    Thus, according to the premier Catholic theologian, giving satisfaction to those the sinner has injured is an integral part of repentance for the sin. To go back to my example of theft, if the thief says that he is sorry, but keeps what he stole, would anyone believe that he is sincere in expressing his sorrow?

    A related question: When the sin is also a crime according to the civil law, does satisfaction involve giving oneself up to the civil authorities? One could certainly make such an argument under Aquinas’s moral theology.

    Anri, you got me to do something I never thought I would after I left the Catholic Church. I made an argument based on Catholic moral theology. I suppose that it’s true that one can never completely leave the Catholic Church.

  90. Anri says

    C.B.L.F.:

    First off, let me quickly say that I’m not arguing that one branch of Christianity is right and another is wrong in regards to worldy pentitence, merely that not all branches teach that worldly visible repentence is required.
    That being said:

    You quoted a couple of sections by Aquinas. Most Protestants I know would likely say that although interesting, and possibly even pursuasive, that’s not the Bible, not god’s word and therefore merely commentary on Christianity. I suspect most of them would be shocked to find out how much of what they accept as Biblical thought acutally comes from Aquinas, but that’s a different issue…

    To go back to my example of theft, if the thief says that he is sorry, but keeps what he stole, would anyone believe that he is sincere in expressing his sorrow?

    God would, as he can presumably look directly into the heart of the person asking for forgiveness.

    A related question: When the sin is also a crime according to the civil law, does satisfaction involve giving oneself up to the civil authorities?

    I’ve heard opinions in both directions on this question. Mostly it boiled down to if the responder thought the law was worthwhile, and if the punishement would be more unpleasant than they were willing to endure. In other words, not at all based on religion, but good old practical human morality.

  91. Carbon Based Life Form says

    I am not arguing that one branch of Christianity is right and others are wrong either. You said what you were taught as a former Presbyterian, I responded with what I was taught as a former Catholic.

    I quoted Aquinas because he was, as I pointed out, the foremost Catholic theologian. If I am giving a specifically Catholic view, then citing Aquinas is good and proper. I did not quote the Bible because the Bible is silent on this question. I did notice that Aquinas did not quote the Bible either.

    If a thief takes something, and does not return it, then I simply will not believe any statement about repentance for the theft he may make. He is saying, “I am sorry for my sin, but I intend to keep the profits I made from it, and not make restitution to the person I injured.” In every legal system I am familiar with, there is a principle that no one may profit from a crime. I cannot see a just God not accepting that principle as well. Saying that someone can truly repent of an injury to another and need not do anything to repair the injury makes no sense to me.

    I must admit to almost complete ignorance of Presbyterian doctrine. I know TULIP, but that’s about it.

  92. Anri says

    C.B.L.F.:

    I am not arguing that one branch of Christianity is right and others are wrong either. You said what you were taught as a former Presbyterian, I responded with what I was taught as a former Catholic.

    I quoted Aquinas because he was, as I pointed out, the foremost Catholic theologian. If I am giving a specifically Catholic view, then citing Aquinas is good and proper. I did not quote the Bible because the Bible is silent on this question. I did notice that Aquinas did not quote the Bible either.

    Hmm, well, you did say, up at #84:

    To be fair to the Christians, that is incomplete…

    (emphasis added)
    I’ll certainly defer to your knowledge of Catholicism, but not all of Christianity is Catholicism – in fact, most of it isn’t.

    If a thief takes something, and does not return it, then I simply will not believe any statement about repentance for the theft he may make. He is saying, “I am sorry for my sin, but I intend to keep the profits I made from it, and not make restitution to the person I injured.” In every legal system I am familiar with, there is a principle that no one may profit from a crime. I cannot see a just God not accepting that principle as well. Saying that someone can truly repent of an injury to another and need not do anything to repair the injury makes no sense to me.

    Ok, as I am not as familiar with the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness as I’d like to be, let me ask a question: If you confess a sin, and are shriven by a your confessor, if he assigns you no penance, you’re done, yes?
    Your sin is forgiven – it was as if it never happened, am I correct?

    As a follow-up, assuming you are assigned a penance, it doesn’t need to have anything to do with the wronged party at all, am I right in this? My (possibly flawed) understanding is that it can involve some earthly restitution, but that it need not to be considered valid.

    If I’m right about this, then my point is that the issue at hand is whether or not you have ‘gotten right’ with your confessor, not whether you have ‘gotten right’ with the wronged party. This applies to both the Protestant and Catholic systems, the only difference being the identity of the confessor – the priest in the latter system, Jesus directly in the former.

    As far as this moral system not making sense, well, it’s religion. It doesn’t make sense morally. It doesn’t have to. They pretty much never do.

  93. KG says

    I’m rather pleased with myself – David Brooks Marshall the Liar

    Well I have to admit that for once I have no doubt whatsoever of your veracity, but tell us something we don’t know.

  94. Carbon Based Life Form says

    Let me just wrap up this discussion of Christian moral systems in what I must say is a rather strange forum for it.

    You say “If you confess a sin, and are shriven by a your confessor, if he assigns you no penance, you’re done, yes?
    Your sin is forgiven – it was as if it never happened, am I correct?” Not quite. A penance, which may be entirely nominal, “Say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, now let me hear your Act of Contrition” (the Act of Contrition is another rote prayer so common in Catholicism), but one is always given. And if the sin confessed involves an injury to another, an action to repair the injury will be assigned as part of the penance. If you stole something, and you have not returned it, then making restitution will be part of the penance. It may be possible to anonymously, and this would probably be acceptable, but it must be done. Just as a criminal may not profit from a crime, a sinner cannot profit from a sin.

    But, once the sinner has confessed, been given absolution, and performed the penance, it is in God’s eyes as if the sin had not been committed.

    I agree with you that Christian morality often does not make sense, especially as it is practiced. The hypocrisy that I encountered in the Catholic Church is a major reason why I am no longer a Catholic.

  95. Anri says

    Let me just wrap up this discussion of Christian moral systems in what I must say is a rather strange forum for it.

    Thank you for the discussion!