Ruffini, Rupnik, & the ‘Right to a Good Name’

If you put yourself in the public spotlight, your official actions are subject to public scrutiny

Last Friday’s tone-deaf remarks by Vatican Communications Dicastery Prefect Paolo Ruffini saying he saw no reason not to continue using the art of ex-Jesuit sex abuser Marko Rupnik on Vatican products has drawn two distinct responses. Most of the Catholic press has ignored the story — not only nothing to see here, but we don’t even see it. A few outlets, Catholic World Report in the forefront, have gone after it.

Commenting on those remarks, Stephen White made an interesting observation: “Ruffini argued that the ongoing canonical processes against Rupnik make it presumptuous to stop using his art until a final verdict is in. ‘Who am I to judge?’ he mused, as though the ‘processes’ by which Rupnik was excommunicated (subsequently — and surprisingly — lifted) and dismissed from the Jesuits over these matters count for nothing” (post here).

White’s statement got me thinking, especially since, when I shared my observations in these pages about Ruffini with a European friend, he opined some might deem them defamatory. And that’s something I want to think about with readers.

Both Church and European approaches to wrongdoing are far less forthwith than in the United States. Unless somebody is a minor, we publish openly that “John Smith was arrested today on charges of rape.” Europeans don’t. If the arrest is publicly reported, it will probably sound something like “John S. was arrested today allegedly for rape.” The Church is usually even more circumspect. If it even admits the arrest happened, it will usually think nice thoughts first. If forced to acknowledge that the arrest occurred, it will generally produce something like “Fr. J.S., who feeds all the stray cats on Via Conciliazione every morning on the way to Mass, was arrested today and released pending trial on charges of alleged rape.”

The theoretical basis for this approach is likely how one understands the principles of innocence until proven guilty and the right to a good name. Catholic moral theology compounds the matter by differentiating between calumny (saying bad things about people that aren’t true) versus detraction (saying bad things about people that are true but you didn’t have to reveal). Built into the latter is the potential for a very cramped view of who should know.

Where this clashes with American experience is the question of free speech. In the American notion of free speech, the very hurly-burly of debate is considered healthy, even conducive to the truth coming out. As long as neither interlocutor is acting in bad faith, i.e., intentionally saying what he knows or believes not to be true, the repartee is legitimate. Perhaps A is right. Perhaps B is right. Or, perhaps A and B going at it sincerely brings the real truth out. For Americans, this seems particularly true in public life. It was the reason why the Supreme Court, in New York Times v. Sullivan, weakened defamation protections against public officials. Yes, I know that the reasoning of that case has been criticized and there are those who contend we could have robust public debate without it. I’m not necessarily defending the decision. I am simply pointing out its logic, which has some appeal: If you put yourself in the public spotlight, your official actions should be subject to public scrutiny, even scrutiny without benefit of the doubt to you, in the name of public accountability. If you don’t want the heat, stay out of the public kitchen.

How that squares with the ecclesiastical approach seems problematic, which may “explain” at least some of Ruffini’s approach, even to the extremes he seems to be carrying it.

Does one really need to have a formal declaration, signed by a dicastery cardinal and secretary and confirmed by the Pope, before we can say that “Marko R.” did immoral things to women? (I say “women” here, not women religious, because it is unclear to me whether or not the woman he absolved as his accomplice was a religious). As White asks, does the fact that “Marko R.” was already excommunicated (though absolved) for an offense that makes no sense unless the preliminary wrongdoing happened “count for nothing?” Or that his expulsion from the Jesuits for his creative interpretation of “obedience” (in an order that gives creative approaches to obedience free rein) suggests nothing about what else regarding Marko R. might be awry?

That’s like saying Al Capone’s conviction shouldn’t really be spoken of unless and until the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed and affirmed it or that his conviction on tax evasion alone should make us pretend we can infer nothing about whether he had anything to do with bootlegging, prostitution, gambling, and murder. Al C.’s “right” to a good name demands we simply say he sometimes cheated on his taxes.

At best, this seems naive. At worst, this seems vincible ignorance or, put more simply, playing dumb (for which we presumably should also cast no aspersions regarding motives). Either way, it may explain a lot of why the Church is in the hot water it’s in and why the ecclesiastical frog can’t seem to figure out how to jump out of the boiling pot of sex abuse scandals. It’s perhaps why, instead of lancing this pustule, the Church simply covers it up, shuffling off problems to Buffalo (or Slovenia). It’s why, amidst growing and even more heinous crime, the Church’s “penology” seems exclusively medicinal, never punitive. On the latter, its defenders pretend the Church is interested in “reform” of the wrongdoer. Yes, that’s important but it’s also amazingly individualistic. The wrongdoer’s wrong also creates scandal in the community. How do we fix that?

As those familiar with my writing know, most times when I write I have a very definite view of things. I do have a definite view of Ruffini’s remarks: they were deplorable and I believe they injure the Church.

What I do debate — and invite reader feedback on — is the question of what the moral obligation of “presumption of innocence” means, especially for public figures (and every recipient of Holy Orders is, ex officio, a public figure). Does “justice” really demand pretending that one is being “judgmental” short of a final and irrevocable declaration of wrongdoing? How then would we ever even investigate wrongdoing? How does one “balance” this attribution of good name to an alleged perpetrator against the damage to individual persons and the good of the Church (which includes her ability credibly to address moral questions) this approach yields? Is there something to the idea behind various “critical theory” approaches to knowledge that asks, Should we always attribute the purest motives to persons or institutions that are privileged by or benefit from the situation? Cui bono? 

I am not proposing concrete solutions and I recognize the moral challenges involved. That said, I think the Ruffini remarks point to a problem deeper than his blindness (or unwillingness to see) what’s at issue in the Marko R. case. They point to a potentially willfully self-imposed blindness by Church leaders to abuses that stems from how they approach the question of “good name.”


[A link to my previous post on Ruffini and Rupnik is here.]


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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