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The Two Percent Rule: Damning Catholics with Impunity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Apr 18, 2012

Mystery writer Robert Crais entitled one of his novels The Two Minute Rule. It is based on the premise that, when committing a crime such as robbing a bank, if you cannot get in and out within two minutes, your chances of being caught rise exponentially. This has inspired my own title, “The Two Percent Rule”. It means that the safest way to attack the Catholic Church is with allegations that are less than two percent true.

The clerical sex abuse scandal is the paradigmatic case in point. It is constantly used to paint the Church as the home of deliberately institutionalized pedophilia, and so to dismiss every positive claim about Catholicism as patently ludicrous. For example, in reviewing our Facebook page today, I found two hostile users portraying the Church exactly this way in commenting on articles we had posted there. In open discussion forums and blog commentary sections on secular websites, such opinions are expressed routinely. And yet the number of priests who have abused children (pedophilia) is less than three tenths of a percent, and the number who have abused adolescent boys (ephebophilia) is the same as for married men. That figure is two percent. (For more information on this, with appropriate references, see 10 Myths about Priestly Pedophilia.)

The Broad Brush of Condemnation

This and many other attacks on the Church rely on a combination of fallacious argument and ignorance. They take the sins and shortcomings of some members of the Church and apply them to the institutional Church as a whole. Of course, not all anti-Catholic assertions are of this type. There are some people who understand what the Catholic Church teaches, and also what she tries to accomplish through her members, and who simply disagree with these teachings. They think the effort to inculcate them is at worst harmful and at best a waste of precious resources.

But we do see wildly broad brush-strokes constantly, even on the part of some who start off as Catholics. Thus, if somebody feels they’ve been insulted or mistreated by a particular priest, they may never darken the door of a Catholic Church again, blaming the coldness and cruelty of “the Church”. Or if Catholic churches take up collections at Mass, it is taken to prove that the guiding motivation of the Church as a whole is to make money. Or, to take a hot-button issue just now, if some Catholic social service agencies once participated in transferring children from “unfit” natural parents to new adoptive parents in the past, this is taken to be just what we would expect from a high-handed, secret organization like the Church, which seeks to control our lives.

Note that my two percent rule is almost always operative in attacks against Catholics. Either the sins of a few are projected onto all Catholics, so that all are now guilty, or some  unusual activity is held to characterize everything the institutional Church does—as if, for example, her astonishing commitment to charitable works down through the centuries counts for nothing. Or again the shortcomings of Catholics are seized upon to portray the institutional Church, while the pervasive effort to overcome these shortcomings—the preaching, the teaching, the sacramental influence, indeed the very mission of the Church as Church—is ignored.

The Transformative Nature of Religion

It is impossible to ignore the reality that many critics of the Church seize upon such faulty arguments because they have a pre-existing animus against the Church. And there is no question that the world, the flesh and the devil work hard to encourage us to adopt whatever ideas can best serve as excuses for not embracing the virtuous life which the Church proposes. At the same time, it is also true that a great deal of confusion in assessing the “performance” of the Catholic Church arises from the general failure of secular public opinion to grasp the transformative character of religion in general, and of the Catholic religion in particular.

The Church claims to be the authoritative institutional implementation of the way of life exemplified by Jesus Christ. All persons are invited by the Church to participate in that life, but it is presupposed that this life will be something new, entailing substantial transformation of our perceptions, attitudes, desires, goals and habits. Such a transformation is not accomplished magically. It involves learning, prayer, cooperation with grace, practice and the slow formation of one good habit after another. In a word, this transformation takes time. Most will progress slowly; some will fail to make the appropriate effort, or will backslide.

There are organizations which exist to serve the pre-existing interests and goals of their members. Christian churches, by contrast, exist to serve the mandate of their Lord and Savior. Even so, some Christian churches lack what we might call an intelligible principle of Divine consistency. Their congregations may be formed from mostly like-minded people of similar cultural background. Over time these churches may take on, not only in the lives of their members but in their official teachings and goals, new identities shaped more or less exclusively by the cultural predispositions of their members. The Catholic Church is quite different in this respect. Not only does she claim a principle of Divine consistency from which her self-understanding does not permit her to deviate, but she also embraces members who do not choose her on the basis of their compatibility with a particular community. This is an aspect of what we call her universality. It is what makes her “catholic”.

For this reason, in the Catholic Church, there is always a tension between the larger cultures of which her members are a part and the habits inculcated through the Church’s own proper mission. Catholics are always in transition from secular culture to authentically Catholic culture. Against the inertia of their natural attitudes and inclinations, the Church presses constantly (yet through her members only imperfectly) to inculcate the way, the truth and the life of Christ. The Catholic Church is therefore profoundly transformative, and it is an egregious error to attempt to characterize the Church by the ways in which the lives of her members deviate from her formal mission, teachings, and goals.

Moreover, if we fail to grasp the Divine and transformative character of the Church as the very essence of her identity, personal flaws may dominate our perception. It then becomes very difficult to avoid employing the two percent rule. Each new generation of Catholics inherits a religion which has been passed down from Jesus Christ; each new generation must learn to live it all over again; each new generation, in some respects, will fall short.

Hypocrisy and the Authority Principle

I have just explained that there is a certain disjunction between “the principle of Divine consistency” in religion and the behavior of those who profess a religion. This principle of Divine consistency derives from the founding principles of each religion as embodied in any initial writings and in the traditions carried on from the religious founder or founders. In Christianity, clearly, this Divine consistency is provided by Scripture and Tradition, and the Catholic Church understands herself as possessing a Divine guarantee, through Peter and his successors, to judge the content and meaning of Scripture and Tradition infallibly.

I have discussed this “authority principle” in Catholicism repeatedly and at considerable length (see inter alia The Primacy of Peter, Authority Both Apostolic and Petrine, Authority and the Logic of Revelation, Conscience and Authority: The Protestant Dilemma, How Do We Know Our Faith?, and The Exegesis of the Reformers: Authority Redux). The Petrine authority provides a unique and extraordinarily solid and consistent “principle of Divine consistency” for the Church. But precisely because the Church claims authoritatively to articulate specific truths, the performance gap in the lives of Catholics becomes even more glaringly clear. Confronted with this performance gap, many of those who prefer to debunk the Church delight in what they perceive as her monumental hypocrisy.

In the light of my preceding comments on the transformative nature of religion, it should be obvious that this perception of hypocrisy is a misperception. When the Church condemns sinful behavior, she both admits and condemns it in all, including her own members, and including her own officials. The Christian message itself insists, contra the deceptions of the world, that human nature is weakened by sin and that our response to grace is a struggle. The authority principle in the Church—her claim to speak infallibly on questions of faith and morals—throws the sins of her members into the sharpest possible relief, making them far easier to address and eradicate. But this also accentuates the performance gap.

Here once again the two percent rule rears its ugly head. We can look at the arduous process of teaching, sacramental ministry, conversion, and the slow cultivation of virtue, and if we do we will see the 98 percent. Or we can look at the performance gap and respond accordingly, basing our opinions and denunciations solidly on the fallacy of the two percent. To take a loose analogy, condemning “the Church” when her members (including ecclesiastical leaders) sin is like condemning “the State” when citizens (including political leaders) violate criminal laws.

The Two Percent Peril

It is no coincidence (for there are no coincidences) that today’s Gospel included this passage from the third chapter of John:

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.

Here again, honesty demands we admit that a great deal of criticism of the Church is, in precisely the sense of this passage, insincere. But it is also true that many of the critics are so confused that they “know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). For those who are attempting an honest critique, however, I offer the following caution: It is very dangerous to condemn past sins based on current cultural presuppositions. If the two percent rule is ridiculously inadequate to begin with, it becomes a two-edged sword whenever mere cultural norms serve as its standard.

This can work in two ways. First, it is always popular to demonize the Church for past Catholic practices which just happen to be universally regarded as evil now, or perhaps for the failure of the Church to speak out vigorously against such evils in some former age. For example, the Church is condemned for her apparent tolerance of slavery in earlier ages, when acceptance of slavery was culturally endemic, even though the Christian Faith in general militated against this practice and led to its mitigation and ultimate elimination throughout most of the world. Or more recently, as I mentioned earlier, the Church has been condemned because some of her social service agencies and service-oriented religious communities helped to arrange the transfer of children from poor and often unwed mothers to more prosperous families, when this was the standard cultural practice in those times and places.

In other words, almost nobody saw a problem with the participation of Catholics in these accepted cultural procedures at the time; in fact, critics of the Church then were more likely to rail against the growing efforts of the teaching Church to change the culture in these respects. Yet today’s critics, enjoying a culture little tempted in these particular ways, both condemn past Catholic behavior and insist that the Church change her negative attitude toward those temptations which are widely accepted today. Chief among these are the sexual temptations: extra-marital sex, adultery, divorce, contraception, homosexual behavior, gay marriage, and the killing of unwanted offspring for convenience.

Second, it is equally popular to demonize the Church at one and the same time for the sins of her members and her teachings which militate against these sins (whenever it so happens that both are culturally unacceptable). The classic example of this surrounds the sex abuse scandal. All of the Church’s sexual teachings militate against the infidelity and impurity at the heart of this scandal, but these teachings—including the teaching that homosexual acts are sinful—are rejected by our culture. So here the Church is condemned both for what she teaches and for the fact that some of her members fail to live in accordance with those teachings.

But even a casual observer should be able to see that criticism of the Church based on cultural mores is, as I said, a two-edged sword. If we wish to condemn the Church for being too lenient with cultural mores in past ages, we should not insist that she be lenient now. If we wish to condemn the Church for the sins of her members, we should not also condemn her for her institutional teaching against those sins. Unfortunately, those who are culture bound are in fact culture blind. They do not understand that moral action must be governed by principles, not by cultural happenstance. Mark my words: In a later age, an age that learns once again to recoil in horror from abortion, the Catholic Church will be condemned because her members tolerated so much of the culture of death in the 20th and 21st centuries, even as she is condemned now for officially opposing it too vigorously.

This is the final error of the two percent rule—that it uses only two percent of what should be common sense. It not only ignores the vast bulk of reality, but it selects self-servingly what little it chooses to see. It is not only myopic, but inconsistent. In fact, the two percent rule is a tautology. By redefining the part as the whole, it invariably proves those who know almost nothing to be right.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 21, 2012 10:19 PM ET USA

    Frank Keating on resigning from the bishop's Review Board (sex abuse): "Some say the scandal is blown out of proportion... it's not fair... it's an example of anti-Catholic bias... other churches are plagued by sexual abuse allegations... and on and on. The problem with this is that it's false... Recently, the attorney general of Massachusetts declared that the mistreatment of children there was "so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable." There will always be no excuse.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 19, 2012 10:27 PM ET USA

    Rather, if I do say so myself, our protestant brethren have a saying, "You may be the only Bible that most people will ever read..." Conversely, it could be said, "You may be the only Church that 'outsiders' come into contact with;" or "You may be the only 'papacy' that alien Christians ever experience." Intellectuals should surely have a care! We are too much worried about how any observer might react to the "concept" of Church and not too much concerned about living it out. Ave...

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