The onslaught against Christian norms of behavior - not to mention Christian theology - is becoming a drumbeat of intolerance. The tragedy is that, in some cases, Christian theology and disciplinary norms have lent themselves to conduct that is simply intolerable, and have thereby become their own worst enemy when it comes to defending them. It becomes a matter of the rule of faith versus the rule of law. It's the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
My thoughts on the matter were sparked by an Australian article about how the confessional became an emotional and spiritual haven for a priest to continue his sexual offenses against children.
On the one hand, we have the Catholic Church maintaining it will make no change in its protocol about the sanctity of the confessional. And it maintains that, despite the fact that – as just revealed by the Criminal Justice report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – it has presided over cases like the one in Rockhampton where Father Michael McArdle was forgiven no fewer than 1500 times by 30 of his fellow priests for raping children in his care.
"I was devastated after the assaults, every one of them," Father McArdle affirmed in a 2004 affidavit, quoted in The Australian on Tuesday. "So distressed would I become that I would attend confessions weekly. [After every confession], it was like a magic wand had been waved over me."
Now, as not a single one of those priests called the police – sanctity of the confessional and all that – McArdle continued his atrocities for decades, devastating the lives of ever more children.
And, on the other hand, we have the Catholic Church waving a flag upon what it sees as the moral high ground, warning the rest of us of what will happen to society if we vote for marriage equality. And its warnings include the dangers to children of gay couples.
I ask this seriously. How long can we, as a society, BEAR this?
There's more at the link.
The author deliberately conflates the confessional seal with faith-based arguments against same-sex marriage, which is not the same thing. Nevertheless, the question remains: how long, and to what extent, can a secular, post-Christian society permit and/or tolerate Christian views, and vice versa?
In the case above, the opposing arguments are a head-on clash of legal and moral cultures. The rule of law generally states that one cannot hide one's knowledge of a crime. By doing so, one becomes an accessory after the fact of the perpetrator's previous crimes by not revealing them, and (arguably) an accessory before the fact of the perpetrator's subsequent crimes by not providing information that the authorities might have used to prevent them from occurring. On the other hand, the confidentiality of the relationship between a penitent and a minister of religion (sometimes referred to as 'priest-penitent privilege', which dates back to the earliest systems of Canon Law), is still recognized in most Western secular legal systems as a qualifier to the law of evidence. In most such jurisdictions, a clergyman cannot be compelled to testify concerning sins (which may or may not be crimes according to secular law) revealed to him by a penitent who has approached him in his capacity as a minister or pastor, and is therefore not guilty of concealing a crime if he does not discuss them with police.
Priest-penitent privilege has, in the past, generally been accepted as overriding the accessory provisions of the rule of law. Whether or not that will continue is a matter of serious debate in the legal profession at this time, and the outcome is not certain. It's not the only faith-based issue creating serious concerns within systems of secular law. Let's look at a few examples from recent headlines.
The Ontario government in Canada recently passed the 'Supporting Children, Youth and Families Act, 2017'. According to one article, it:
... gives the state more power to seize children from families that oppose the LGBTQI and gender ideology agenda, and allows government agencies to effectively ban couples who disagree with that agenda from fostering or adopting children.
. . .
Bill 89 ... adds “gender identity” and “gender expression” as factors to be considered “in the best interests of the child.”
At the same time, it deletes the religious faith in which the parents are raising the child as a factor to be considered, and mandates child protection services consider only the child’s own “creed” or “religion” when assessing the best interests of the child.
Again, more at the link. The article, written for a pro-faith audience, is naturally very concerned about the denial of religious freedoms that this is claimed to represent. Breitbart claims that "Some Christians have reacted strongly to the new bill, calling it a violation of parents’ primordial rights to educate their children and a direct assault on Christian beliefs." It's easy to understand such a reaction . . . but at the same time, the reality is that the legislation is the product of a post-Christian society, in which faith-based norms are no longer dominant. Neither side is willing to consider that the other may have a point. The arguments are based on diametrically opposed world views. There is no possibility of reconciling them, short of one or both sides making concessions that are anathema to their beliefs and perspectives.
Such laws also directly and immediately impact which social services providers are permitted to handle foster care, adoptions, etc. In recent years, several major US cities - even entire states - have effectively forced the Catholic Church to shut down its adoption services, due to legislation banning 'discrimination' against same-sex couples. The Church does not regard such relationships as satisfactory parenting environments, for theological and other reasons, and therefore will not provide adoption services to them, which directly conflicts with secular law. To avoid that conflict, many otherwise suitable couples of faith have now been denied access to faith-based adoption services. (Similar situations have arisen overseas, for example, in Northern Ireland. Recently, the harrowing story of how British [secular] foster care authorities forced a child of Christian origin into foster care with Muslim families, and the difficulties that resulted, has aroused controversy. It's far from the only such case. Note that the authorities have refused to apologize, and will not make any public commitment to any considerations of faith or belief when planning further such placements.)
I can't pretend to have any easy answers. As most of my readers are aware, I was a Catholic priest. I believed in and supported (and still do) the priest-penitent privilege and the seal of the confessional. Nevertheless, when I read articles such as that one from Australia, I can absolutely and fully understand the outrage of the author. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably feel precisely the same way. It's similar to the reactions of Church authorities and 'organization men' to the priest child sex abuse scandal some years ago, about which I've written at length. They could not understand that their blinkered, head-in-the-sand approach would no longer suffice in a post-Christian society. Civil and political society, long since secularized, are simply no longer prepared to cut the Church any slack when it comes to conflict between secular and religious belief.
When it comes to a situation such as that described above, where the seal of the confessional was clearly and inescapably a major factor in the perpetrator getting away with his crimes for decades, affecting dozens (possibly even hundreds) of innocent victims . . . how is it possible to defend that faith-based right, in a non-faith-based, secular, post-Christian society? I don't know. In secular human terms, I can't defend it. It's as simple as that. In the eyes of society, and (I submit) even in the eyes of most people of faith, the right of innocent children to be protected from sexual predators overrides and supersedes any claim to religious exemption or protection. How can it be otherwise? Don't ask me. I don't have a magic wand, that I can wave to come up with all the answers.
I offer these thoughts as a starting-point for my readers to discuss the issue. Please let us know your thoughts in Comments - but please, do so with respect for those who may not agree with your position. Insults, accusations and dogmatic insistence will generate more heat than light, and won't advance the discussion one iota.