The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When the Catholic Church’s prohibition on scandal helped women

And why that policy turned tragic in modern times


Speaking with reporters last week, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Catholic Church is confronted not just with a crisis of widespread allegations of sexual assault and abuse of minors, but also the rape and even “a kind of sexual slavery” of nuns.

This statement was not technically news. Many already knew of these long-standing allegations of such horrific abuses of power.

What was new, and what some might consider a grave sin on the part of the pope, was not his silence but his public recognition of the problem.

We know all too well how long Catholic authorities have sought to keep priests’ sexual sins quiet. Only recently, because of the brave children and nuns who have come forward, has the depth of sexual abuse in the church been acknowledged as a crisis that must be addressed.

But why has scandal been systematically silenced in the church for so long? One answer lies in the medieval church's doctrine on scandal.

Christian theologians and jurists wrestled for centuries with how to handle the sins and crimes of priests and other clergy. On the one hand, they believed in the importance of punishing sin and sinners. But they also worried about causing scandal in doing so. For causing scandal was considered a sin not just for the perpetrator of the sin, but also for anyone who made that sin public: It was a sin, the sin of scandal, to make public information that might shake the faith of others, thus leading them to sin. A judge, therefore, ran the risk of committing the sin of scandal by inflicting a punishment that publicized the offender’s sin.

This tradition of suppressing scandal as practiced in the modern era has tragically justified the quiet transfer of pedophile priests from one diocese to another. We can absolutely suspect that medieval Catholic authorities would have done the same. That said, this medieval policy of avoiding scandal sometimes had outcomes that we can approve of. It could, in fact, actually protect women.

The medieval policy of silence that has kept the lid on sexual abuse by priests for centuries actually helped protect women in medieval Europe. Today, it may be easy to simply denigrate the “medieval mind-set” that casts priests who abuse nuns as “victims of seductive temptresses,” as the New York Times recently did. But such an idea advances an inaccurate caricature of medieval Europe. Yes, people in the Middle Ages were quite capable of horrific behavior, but their efforts to silence sex scandals, particularly stories about pregnant nuns, actually gave women certain protections against the sexist structures around them.

For example, in the interest of avoiding scandal, and also to protect human life, priests were instructed to tell an adulterous wife to keep her sin a secret, even if she had given birth to a child whom the husband wrongly thought was his own. The woman should repent and perform penance, but not in a way that revealed her sin to others. In keeping her secret, the woman could privately atone without risking her life or scandal to her family or community.

The same rules applied for pregnant nuns in medieval Europe. The scandal of a pregnant nun, so dangerous to the reputation of the church in general and to her convent in particular, was kept quiet to avoid shaking the faith of Christians. This was not done in the terrible ways we imagine, in horror stories of nuns imprisoned in dungeons and killed in horrific efforts to keep the pregnancy a secret.

Pregnant nuns were subject to penance and confinement, but great care was to be taken not to harm the unborn child, who might quietly be passed to the nun’s relatives or to the child’s father or his family. The nun herself could be reintegrated into her community and could even become head of the convent. For example, in 1259, a nun in Normandy gave birth in the care of two village midwives and sent the baby to her aunt to be raised, and a nun in 14th-century Bergamo who had three children with a priest later became the abbess of her convent.

This is particularly surprising for those who think of medieval Europe as inherently misogynistic. It absolutely was, but it expressed its misogyny in a different way. Medieval misogyny did sometimes cast women as temptresses. But it more often cast them as irresponsible, too easily misled by others to be held fully responsible for their behavior, and therefore not to be judged by the same standards as responsible men. This offensive ideology, combined with the importance of avoiding scandal, actually provided important protections for women. Authorities regularly sought to conceal sexual offenses of women to preserve the honor of their families, or in the case of nuns, that of their religious order.

That women were largely shielded from public punishment in no way absolves medieval Europe of its rampant domestic violence or fundamental inequalities. As for scandal, Pope Francis is right to reject the medieval teachings that advocated silence in an effort to avoid publicizing information that might lead Catholics to question their faith. What is needed, and what we must hope has motivated his decision, is another version of scandal theology: the notion that public confession, restitution and rehabilitation can forge a more authentic community of the faithful, and ultimately, a more authentic experience of faith.