July 25, 2002

Dear Readers:

Dr. Ink has been seeing the phrase “zero tolerance” in the news lately, and he worries about its use as a substitute for common sense, clear reasoning, and drawing crucial distinctions.

Most recently, it has been applied to the evolution of Catholic Church policy against abusive priests. Short of zero tolerance read a bold headline on the front of a recent St. Pete Times. “Two-day emergency meeting of U.S. cardinals doesn’t include a provision to immediately defrock abusive priests.” Doc sensed an almost editorial feel to these headlines, as if “zero tolerance” was a virtue and that falling short of it was a dereliction of duty.

Before advocating “zero tolerance” in matters of clerical behavior, Catholics and journalists of all stripe should go online and search the phrase. In case after case, “zero tolerance” is associated with denial of due process, disproportionate school punishments, and racial profiling.

Zero tolerance has given us the expulsion of students for using a knife in a science experiment, for leaving a butter knife in a car on school grounds, for carrying a folded nail file in a backpack.

Vox populi calls for zero tolerance as a substitute for discretion when the people no longer trust the judgment of leaders. Principals are deemed too lax, so adopt a zero tolerance policy for weapons. Judges are too soft-hearted, so impose mandatory sentences. Now the failure of church leaders to exercise discretion bravely and wisely provokes cries of zero tolerance.

Zero tolerance makes for bad theology, bad ethics, and bad law, which is why we’re likely to see a lot more of it.

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