What the latest church scandal teaches about the Catholic right

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A cross.
A cross. Illustrated | iStock

The latest sex scandal in the Catholic Church alleges that a prominent priest, Monsignor Jeffrey Burrell, used the gay hookup app Grindr to habitually violate his vow of celibacy while serving as general secretary of the U.S. bishops' conference. The story, which appeared on a muckraking Catholic news site called The Pillar and was based on cell phone data apparently acquired from a third party, has inspired widespread ambivalence among prominent Catholic commentators. On the one hand, many are hurt and disappointed to learn of another wayward cleric flagrantly disregarding church teaching. On the other, there is considerable discomfort about The Pillar's violation of Burrell's digital privacy.

Yet there is one group of Catholics who have risen up in unambivalent defense of the accused priest: the so-called Catholic integralists who advocate for a unification (or integration) of church and state in the U.S. and elsewhere. Such authors as Adrian Vermeule, Gladdin Pappin, and Sohrab Ahmari have taken what sounds like a liberal position, maintaining that the main and perhaps only offense committed in this case is The Pillar's act of publicizing Burrell's alleged sexual misbehavior.

As Timothy Troutner, a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame explains in an informative thread on Twitter, this might seem surprising, given the strenuousness with which Catholic conservatives have insisted on the church upholding its doctrines surrounding sexual morality — let alone the integralists' public record of skepticism toward due process and liberal proceduralism.

Yet on another level, the position makes perfect sense. As Troutner puts it, the integralist vision of the church "forbids any check" on its "autonomy/sovereignty, journalistic or otherwise." Vermeule, Pappin, and Ahmari have consistently held to this position in cases of cardinals being prosecuted for financial crimes, and in incidents of reporters looking into evidence of prelates covering up sexual abuses of minors. And now they are applying this standard in the Burrell case.

The integralists think the institution of the church should be insulated from any higher or external oversight, be it legal, moral, or journalistic, even though in such a world the biggest scandal of all — the decades-long abuse of children by priests and its concealment by the church hierarchy — would still be hidden from public view, with predatory clerics still terrorizing kids and Catholic laypeople deliberately kept in the dark.

That's the way authoritarian institutions work: They cultivate obedience by tamping down on investigations into the truth. It's good to know the integralists are willing to embrace the full implications of their position.

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