I was meeting my friend, Father Timothy, for coffee a while back, a regular Monday morning ritual. Our conversations were wide-ranging: from economics and history to politics and science and everything in between. We rarely wandered onto the subject of organized religion though. Despite many years of formal religious training as a young man, I was never quite able to accept that there is necessarily “a unique path up the mountain.”
Somewhat in jest, but only somewhat, I confessed to Father Tim that I was a lifelong disciple of The Lone Ranger. The manner in which this crusader for justice resolved disputes, including those arising from differences in faith, taught that religion has many origins but the same destination. Father Tim was not amused. “You would have me believe that a ‘man of letters’ takes his religious doctrine from a mid-20th-century television character?” he inquired incredulously. I explained that I did not prejudge the wisdom of a man’s words by the letters behind his name, but by the content of the words themselves. I then reminded him that the spiritual path he had chosen had been blazed by a common man who carried more tools than books.
On this particular day, my friend was deeply troubled over the child sexual abuse scandal that was then just unfolding in the Catholic Church. He was aghast as to how something so egregious could occur. I wondered aloud why he was so surprised. After all, for a certain, though presumably small, percentage of those entering the priesthood, the church provided an attractive opportunity to enjoy the “company” of young boys. More recent reports suggest the problem may be larger than was initially thought. And not just in the church: the Boy Scouts and USA Gymnastics, facing sexual abuse scandals of their own, are following various dioceses of the Catholic Church in either exploring or actively seeking bankruptcy protection.
At this point, sensing Father Tim’s discomfort with the topic, I sought to steer our conversation in a less provocative direction, but he would have none of it. He wanted to delve deeper into this issue and I reluctantly agreed. Father Tim’s admirable quality of seeing only the purity of heart in those willing to dedicate their lives to the priesthood would be pitted against my steadfast belief in the rationality axiom—individuals act in their own self-interest to maximize their satisfaction.
I explained that there was an incentive problem at work in the Catholic Church known as adverse selection or “hidden information.” (Adverse selection explains why sickly individuals are more likely to purchase comprehensive health insurance, for example.) Not all of the young men entering the priesthood are motivated by the same ideals that had led him to answer this higher calling decades earlier. Unbeknownst to church elders, these young men were simply the “wrong type” to lead the flock. But their true “type” was known only to them.
I then allowed that academia suffers from a similar problem. Not all professors are drawn to academia to engage their students in objective, critical discourse. Some of them have no real interest in teaching per se. They self-select into academia because it offers an opportunity to indoctrinate young, impressionable minds. Academia provides a platform for the “wrong type” of professors, those willing to leverage their vaunted positions to turn their students into converts for the social and political causes they champion. They can be predatory and abusive as well. So we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that academia will somehow escape its own scandal, sexual or otherwise. All of the necessary elements are in place: inflated egos, a vulnerable captive audience, and a critical mass of character-challenged professors serving as the gatekeepers for their students’ success during and after graduation. As with the Catholic Church, the adverse personality traits that spawn this behavior cannot be observed directly, which is why some of the worst sociopaths are able to make their way through the university’s doors.
There is a second type of incentive problem that arises in the church and academia. It is known as moral hazard or hidden action. (Moral hazard explains why fully insuring savings and loan institutions against financial losses prompts managers to take on excessive risk, for example.) Because professors and the clergy enjoy a “protected” status within their respective institutions, tenure for academics and lifetime appointments for priests, their behavior is not disciplined by a credible threat of termination or excommunication. This protected status encourages bad behavior because the risk of punishment is deemed negligible.
Moreover, the church and academia suffer from a common problem: illicit conduct and breach of trust engendered by the expectation of higher ideals. It is this blind faith in the noble pursuits of the high priests that renders the unsuspecting especially vulnerable to exploitation.
So the first step in solving a problem is to admit that it exists. This makes it all the more confounding that church and university administrators have been so slow in recognizing the corrosion within their own institutions. And at least in the case of the church, the severity of the problem has been exacerbated by the cover up itself. The loss of trust is often the first casualty.
The church must be willing to sacrifice the offending priests or risk being seen by its followers as enablers of criminal behavior. In similar fashion, the relentless pursuit of knowledge demands that universities cleanse their ranks. Indoctrination should not be mistaken for teaching. A professor who cannot suppress his or her political and social views to foster balanced, critical discourse has no place at the classroom lectern.
The incentive issues plaguing the church and academia derive principally from employment that is virtually guaranteed—too many carrots and too few sticks. Tenure should be replaced with renewable contracts. And anyone who shows a systemic lack of objectivity that runs counter to the development of critical thinking skills should be terminated.
The church must likewise do away with lifetime appointments. Rather than bouncing offending priests around from one parish to another to exploit informational asymmetries (the new congregation does not know what it is getting), it must be willing to excommunicate offenders and cooperate with criminal prosecutions. Church leaders who provide cover for offending priests are no less complicit in their crimes. Protecting rogue priests from the consequences of their actions does not strengthen the church; it weakens the pillars of faith that are the very foundation of its existence.
The lack of moral courage on the part of these institutions to prosecute bad actors casts a pall on the vast majority of clergy and academics whose motives are pure. Cardinal sins paint with a broad brush. Left unresolved, the “high priests” of academia and the church risk losing their pulpits, because no congregation, be it parishioners or students, will long follow the teachings of a false prophet.
Though certainly tested, my friendship with Father Timothy would survive our discussion of this provocative topic and countless others like it. We have both since moved on to other venues and our Monday morning coffee sessions are regrettably now just cherished memories. For all of the world’s problems we attempted to solve, we never quite managed to finish the joke that first brought us together so many years ago: a priest and an economist walk into a coffee shop.
Dr. Dennis Weisman is Professor of Economics Emeritus at Kansas State University. He has published more than 120 articles, books, and book chapters. His research has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.