Saturday, September 08, 2018

Moral Credibility

One recurring theme in a lot of discussions about the current crisis in the Catholic hierarchy that worries me a bit is that of 'moral credibility'. People will say things like, "The bishops have lost moral credibility". And this, I think, fundamentally fails to grasp how morality actually works.

We probably can make some kind of sense of the notion of 'moral credibility', but it's not straightforward. You can see how in general it would be better to get moral advice from a saint than from someone who has done evil things, but we also tend to tie credibility to experience, and we can also make perfect sense of the notion that a sinner sometimes giving better advice about the moral pitfalls of a sin he knows too well than a saint who had never had that particular temptation to overcome. But neither of these really seem relevant here, anyway. One can well make sense, in addition, of bishops being regarded as less trustworthy for their failures; but this is just ordinary personal trustworthiness, in the same sense that people don't regard politicians as being very trustworthy, regardless of whether they think they are saying the right thing. Politicians don't, as politicians, do anything that depends on a quality of 'moral credibility'. And while that's really obvious, the problem with concerns over moral credibility is that nobody else actually seems to do so, either.

Nor is this surprising, because this is how morality works in general -- it has its own standards. If an adulterer exhorts you not to commit adultery, what is at stake is not the credibility of the adulterer, but of what the adulterer is saying in itself.

One can of course have suspicion of episcopal motives. A few years ago I started noticing that bishops tended to start preaching against detraction after they had been criticized online for something. Contrary to popular belief, I don't think there is actually a special problem with detraction on the Internet -- people are, to be sure, often petty and malicious, and you can find genuine detractors here, as you can find them anywhere. But even when people are being nasty to each other, detraction, which is a very specific kind of sin in moral theology, is not generally the problem. In all my years on the Internet -- and not just on the Internet, but actively arguing with people on the Internet -- I have met endless numbers of people who were being impatient, sharp-tongued, dismissive, or too quick to believe negative comments by others, and indeed have been all of these things myself at some point, but I think I have only personally interacted with one person who actually was engaged in a definite act of detraction that could definitely be identified as such. Such people exist, but that's not what most people online are doing, even at their worst, and even if they were actually doing it, it's hard, just reasoning from the actual evidence you get online, to be sure that they are doing it. When an argument gets too heated, that's not itself detraction; when criticism gets sharper and less restrained than it should be, that's not in itself detraction; even a single act of passing on malicious gossip, which is certainly in the vicinity and the kind of thing a detractor might do, has many other possible explanations. Even if you thought detraction a much more common thing than I do, it's obviously suspicious that bishops would specifically preach on it when they themselves were being criticized; it looks rather like poisoning the well, and any halfway aware person who was aware of the circumstances would put question marks above their motives. It looks like the same sort of thing as people piously talking about the importance of forgiveness when they might have done something wrong. But note that motives are not doctrines. The standards governing whether the bishop's claims about detraction are credible are entirely different from those governing whether they are making the claims honestly or out of self-aggrandizement.

I think part of the issue is that we in this age have a strong abhorrence of the idea of hypocrisy. Note that I say 'of the idea of hypocrisy'. A large amount -- indeed, an absurd amount -- of our political interactions consist of trying to convince people that our opponents are being hypocrites, because it is one of the few charges that still can inspire general revulsion when it sticks. And everyone who has engaged in any amount of political argument at all has at some point or other experienced someone trying to discount what we say, not by engaging with what we say, but by trying to convince others (or sometimes themselves) that we are in fact saying it hypocritically. Now, hypocrisy, unlike detraction, is without doubt extremely common because it doesn't actually require much, and even people who are very decent by common standards may at times be extraordinary hypocrites. But their hypocrites doesn't say anything whatsoever about whether their claims are true; indeed, since people are only hypocrites by trying to look good, if someone is a genuine hypocrite that they are trying to dress themselves in something that would be regarded by many people as genuinely good. Those many people might be right or wrong, or the hypocrite could just be incompetent in his selection of good things, but hypocrisy never means trying to associate oneself with bad things. Thus even if there were some kind of moral credibility at which the hypocrite fails, this would not affect the credibility of what they are saying; that has to have an independent source of credibility, or at least a perceived independent source of credibility, by the very nature of hypocrisy. The hypocrite is a thief of appearances; the whole point is that the appearances have some kind of value independently. All of the hypocrisy-hunting in modern politics is entirely irrelevant to anything; it is political smoke. Discovering that a politician is a hypocrite on a particular point may give you reason to want someone more sincere in the office, but it doesn't tell you much about policies or causes, particularly given that hypocrisy is easy and there's no way to vet your political allies for sincerity, because hypocrites mimic people who are regarded as good. I guarantee that you are in league with hypocrites, no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

In any case, I suspect that the reason for all the talk about 'moral credibility' is tied to our abhorrence of 'hypocrisy' as a classification. In reality, it is all irrelevant. The whole point of an episcopal hypocrite is that he is trying to cover himself with the genuine moral appearance -- we can call it 'credibility', if we want -- of the entire Church and of Christ from whom the Church springs. And none of that appearance depends on the bishop himself. Nor should anyone have ever been caring whether bishops have 'moral credibility' rather than whether they are actually saying and doing morally right things. And this is all in some form true well outside the arena of ecclesial scandal. It is no doubt foolish to trust a known hypocrite to do justice -- but that's a completely different question from the question of what justice is in the first place. It makes sense to ask Cardinal Wuerl to resign because there is reason to worry that he cannot be trusted to uphold faith and morals, or because there is reason to doubt that he can be trusted with such a large amount of responsibility over people. But this doesn't reflect anything about the responsibility, or the faith and morals, or even those positions Wuerl himself advocates; all of these have their own standards, and it seems a rather serious wrong to suggest that these things should be held to the standard of Wuerl's credibility than to insist that they be judged according to standards actually relevant to them.

Bishops aren't, and shouldn't be, dispensers of personal moral advice, at least as bishops; if they do give moral advice, they should be making a sharp distinction between that and what they are doing as bishops. If a bishop is using his episcopal role only to give personal moral advice, the problem with him is not moral credibility; the problem is that he has failed in being a bishop in the first place. Bishops are there precisely to give what they have received, not to be originators; Bishop X not there to preach Bishop X's Faith and Morals, but the faith and morals of the Church, which they are there not to make but to proclaim. And indeed, the whole standard for good bishops is nothing, nothing at all, more than this: that they proclaim the faith and morals of the Church and that they protect its sacramental economy. They must be held accountable to this. But the credibility of the faith and morals of the Church does not in any way depend on the bishops, for which Catholics everywhere and through all of history might say, "Thank God."

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