James Carroll, in “Constantine’s Sword, The Church and the Jews,” implicitly invoked the law of unintended consequences when he described the Church’s dilemma regarding the Holocaust. Carroll contends, for example, that the Church did not fail to rise to the challenge posed by Hitler out of cowardice, anxiety over Bolshevism, or preoccupation with its own power and prerogatives. He cites Pope Pius IX’s response during Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”) in Bismarck’s Germany when the Church’s institutional interests were threatened to dispel the notion of cowardice. No, according to Carroll, the cause of the Church’s disappointing performance as a champion for justice rests squarely on its close to two thousand year history of anti-Judaism. He writes” “… Nazism, by tapping into a deep, ever-fresh reservoir of Christian hatred of Jews, was able to make an accomplice of the Catholic Church in history’s worst crime, even though, by then, it was the last thing the Church consciously wanted to be.”
The law of unintended consequences posits that actions have effects that are both unanticipated and unintended. And, unfortunately, sometimes, as in the case in point, unintended consequences can turn out much worse than intended ones. This concept dates back to the eighteenth century and political economist Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and Consequentialism (judging by results). However, it was American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who popularized the concept in the twentieth century. In a seminal article published in 1936 entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action,” Merton identified five sources of unanticipated consequences:
1. Ignorance: It is not possible to anticipate everything, thereby leading to incomplete analysis.
2. Error: Incorrect analysis of a problem or following habits that worked in the past but may not apply to the current situation.
3. Immediate interest: A current and pressing interest may override long-term interests.
4. Basic values: Core values may require or prohibit certain actions even if the long-term result might be unfavorable: long-term consequences may eventually cause core values to change.
5. Self- defeating prophecy: Fear of some consequence drives people to find solutions before the problem occurs, thus the non-occurrence of the problem is unanticipated.
The Holocaust, tragically, is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences in action.The Church certainly did not intend to become complicit in one of the worst crimes in human history, but core doctrines, in addition to anti-Judaism, including supercessionism, anti-Modernism, papal absolutism resulted in its complicity. Lack of intent to commit a crime mitigates the seriousness of a crime, but does not exculpate a criminal from culpability or accountability for it. A drunk driver who causes the death of another in a vehicular accident, for example, is charged with criminally negligent homicide, not premeditated/intentional murder. Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences also applies to the recent worldwide priest sex abuse scandal.
Between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests sexually abused children in the United States, taking advantage of vulnerable school-age children in their pastoral care. Since 2004 the U.S. Church has paid over $2.7 billion in expenses related to the scandal, while patterns of similar abuse by clerics have been exposed in several other countries. Bishops and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been accused of covering up the criminal activity of pedophile priests, compounding the seriousness and extent of the crimes. Surely there was no conscious intent to do so, but the Church’s climate of secrecy, reluctance to cause or admit scandal and what Jason Berry, author of “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church” terms, its “structural mendacity, institutionalized lying,” has once again resulted in complicity.
On June 22, 2012, Msgr. William J. Lynn, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a former aide and advisor of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, now deceased, was found guilty of endangering children, becoming the first senior official of the US Church convicted of covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision. The twelve-member jury acquitted Msgr. Lynn of conspiracy and a second count of endangerment after a trial that prosecutors and victims’ rights groups called a turning point in the abuse scandals that have shaken the Catholic Church worldwide. According to the New York Times’s front page article covering the verdict, the trial sent a sobering message to church officials and others overseeing children around the country. It quoted Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor of law at Duquesne University, a canon lawyer and frequent church advisor, who said: “I think that bishops and chancery officials understand that they will no longer get a pass on these types of crimes…Priests who sexually abuse youngsters and the chancery officials who enabled it can expect criminal prosecution.” On July 25, 2012, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of the Common Pleas Court sentenced him to three to six years in prison. As she imposed sentence, Judge Sarmina said: “You enabled monsters in clerical garb… to destroy the souls of children….You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong.”
On September 6, 2012 Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, was found guilty in a county criminal court for failing to report suspected child abuse, becoming the first Catholic bishop to be convicted in a US court of shielding a priest who was a threat to children. The crime, a misdemeanor in Missouri, could have cost Finn a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. But after a brief nonjury trial, Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court Judge John Torrence gave the bishop a two-year suspended sentence of probation with nine conditions, including mandating direct reporting of future suspicions of child abuse to prosecutors.