Cardinal’s Law (A corollary of Godwin’s Law) – The Church, Sex Abuse, and Online Discussion

Every time I write about Catholicism, a certain set of commentators immediately invoke the child sex abuse scandals regardless of the issue at hand. This is particularly true if you say something positive about any aspect of the church. Given Pope Francis’ well-publicized and generally well-received comments, especially by people generally opposed to the church hierarchy, this has happened a lot to me lately. Just peruse the comments of any CNN thread on Pope Francis and you’ll see it instantly.

I see two ways of thinking about this:

First, there are people for whom Catholicism simply equals the pedophilia scandal. It’s genuinely impossible for them to think about the word Catholic without thinking about child rape. This is a serious problem and an understandable one. These scandals are so horrific, the reactions of the hierarchy over the years so unacceptable (and often criminal), and the media coverage so widespread, that forming a metonymy between Catholicism and pedophilia in the public consciousness is natural. That said, the kind of positive publicity that Francis is generating threatens that metonymy, which brings us to the second mode of discourse.

Second, some people hate/fear organized religion in general or Catholicism in particular to such a degree that they want to derail any conversation that might lead in a positive direction. Saying, “child rape” is the nuclear option that ends any possibility of discussion. If you are trying to talk about Catholicism in all its complexity, and someone says – “they are child rapists” or “covering up for child rapists” or “it doesn’t matter what Francis says, because child rape” or “every child rapist and everyone who covered for them must be in jail” or any iteration of this kind of thing – the conversation ends.

It thus functions in the spectrum of Godwin’s Law, a well-known assessment of internet discussion in which people use comparisons to Hitler/Nazis to derail/end conversations.

In (dis)honor of Cardinal Bernard Law, I have decided to name this corollary Cardinal’s Law:  Here’s my proposed text: As an online discussion about Catholicism grows longer, the probability of the conversation becoming an argument about pedophilia and culpability grows larger.

Any friendly amendments/edits?


One manifestation of Cardinal’s Law goes as follows: Maybe Francis has said good things about topic X, but he’s done/said nothing about child rape, so it’s all meaningless.

As a counter, here are some of the things that Francis has said/done about the sex abuse scandals. Is it enough? No. Can there ever be enough? Probably not. I’m not interested in defending the Church on this issue and I think Francis needs to do more. But until we agree on what he has done, what the facts are here, then we can’t really know what needs to happen next.

(Reuters) Mueller is head of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department which includes the office
of the “promoter of justice”, or sex crimes prosecutor, which
investigates cases of sexual abuse and decides if priests are to be

Francis said the
department should continue to “act decisively as far as cases of sexual
abuse are concerned, promoting, above all, measures to protect minors,
help for those who have suffered such violence in the past (and) the
necessary procedures against those who are guilty
,” a statement said.It
said the pope wanted Catholic bishops around the world to promote and
put into place “directives in this matter which is so important for the
witness of the Church and its credibility”.
victims’ group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)
said the statement did not go far enough and criticized it for saying
that the Church’s stance against sexual abuse was “a continuation” of
the line wanted by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict.
“Action, not discussion, is needed,” SNAP said in a statement.

  • 4/24/2013 – Criticism of the “transfer” policy (Christian Science Monitor)
    • This is actually from a series of writings published before he was pope, including from his authorized biography. He talked about the common practice of transferring priests accused of abuse, often putting new children at risk.

CLERGY ABUSE: Francis says punishing the priest is more important than protecting the church’s image.
must never turn a blind eye. … I do not believe in taking positions
that uphold a certain corporate spirit to avoid damaging the image of
the institution. That solution was proposed once in the United States:
they proposed switching the priests to a different parish. It is a
stupid idea
; that way, the priest just takes the problem with him
wherever he goes.”

  • 7/28/2013 – Press Conference, Papal Flight 
    • Francis was asked about Monsignor Ricca’s alleged history of consensual homosexual behavior in the past. Francis wanted to distinguish between consensual homosexuality and pedophilia. Given the link made between homosexuality and pedophilia (a major trope in Russian discourse on homosexuality is that it leads to child rape), this is a vital distinction.
    • It’s a really important quotation in other ways, as I argued in The Atlantic, because he’s saying the problem with the alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican is not that they are gay, but that they are a lobby. I argued that  Francis has made strides in the normalization of homosexuality as something other than an intrinsic evil. 
Ilze Scamparini
I would like permission to ask a delicate question: another image that has been
going around the world is that of Monsignor Ricca and the news about his private
life.  I would like to know, Your Holiness, what you intend to do about this? 
How are you confronting this issue and how does Your Holiness intend to confront
the whole question of the gay lobby?
Pope Francis
About Monsignor Ricca:  I did what canon law calls for, that is a preliminary
.  And from this investigation, there was nothing of what had
been alleged.  We did not find anything of that.  This is the response.  But I
wish to add something else: I see that many times in the Church, over and above
this case, but including this case, people search for “sins from youth”, for
example, and then publish them.  They are not crimes, right?  Crimes are
something different: the abuse of minors is a crime.  No, sins.  But if a
person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a
sin and then converts, the Lord forgives, and when the Lord forgives, the Lord
forgets and this is very important for our lives.  When we confess our sins and
we truly say, “I have sinned in this”, the Lord forgets, and so we have no right
not to forget, because otherwise we would run the risk of the Lord not
forgetting our sins.  That is a danger.  This is important: a theology of sin. 
Many times I think of Saint Peter.  He committed one of the worst sins, that is
he denied Christ, and even with this sin they made him Pope.  We have to think a
great deal about that.  But, returning to your question more concretely.  In
this case, I conducted the preliminary investigation and we didn’t find
anything.  This is the first question.  Then, you spoke about the gay lobby.  So
much is written about the gay lobby.  I still haven’t found anyone with an
identity card in the Vatican with “gay” on it.  They say there are some there. 
I believe that when you are dealing with such a person, you must distinguish
between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of someone forming a lobby,
because not all lobbies are good.  This one is not good.  If someone is gay and
is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?  The
Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in a beautiful way, saying …
wait a moment, how does it say it … it says: “no one should marginalize these
people for this, they must be integrated into society”.  The problem is not
having this tendency, no, we must be brothers and sisters to one another, and
there is this one and there is that one.  The problem is in making a lobby of
this tendency: a lobby of misers, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of masons, so
many lobbies.  For me, this is the greater problem.  Thank you so much for
asking this question.  Many thanks.

 So – What did I miss? 

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