Not content with having poked its hooter into our pubs, fridges and bedrooms, now the insatiably interventionist state wants to colonise the Catholic confessional too. Yes, that’s right, some of the same politicos who gnashed their teeth when certain tabloid journalists were found hacking into celebrities’ private conversations want to hack into perhaps the most intimate conversation of all: that between a believer and his God.
In every country in which there has been a Catholic child abuse scandal, the confessional, that seemingly archaic wooden box in which Catholics confess their sins, has come in for a drubbing. In the minds of non-Catholics — especially the fashionably atheistic, Vatican-allergic ones who make up much of the modern political and media set — the allegedly creepy confessional sums up everything that is wrong with this weird Roman religion. Dark, mysterious, inhabited by whispering wrongdoers, hidden from public view by a thick curtain, these confessionals are seen as symptomatic of the medieval backwardness and cult of secrecy that apparently allowed child abuse to thrive in the Catholic church.
So no sooner had Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a national inquiry into how the Catholic church in Australia, and other organisations, dealt with child abuse than various bigwigs were calling for the confessional to be thrown open to scrutiny. These people are particularly incensed by the continued existence of the confessional seal, which places a duty on priests not to speak publicly about anything they hear from penitents. Attorney General Nicola Roxon said the idea of priests not revealing the details of paedophilic abuse they hear about in confessions is ‘abhorrent’. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon described the seal of the confessional as ‘a medieval law’.
The invasion of the Catholic confessional by pope-fearin’ politicians is a global phenomenon. In Ireland, following various abuse scandals, the government is considering a new law that would force priests to break the seal of the confessional if someone confesses to having abused a child. The Irish Times joked (at least I think it was a joke) that perhaps we should cut out the priest altogether and just have policemen hear people’s sins, so that they might ‘judge at once if they merit a decade of the rosary or a decade in Portlaoise Prison’.
Indeed. And why stop at child abuse? How long before priests are strongarmed by the state into dobbing in penitents who confess to having burgled a house, slapped their wife, flashed at an elderly woman? After all, those are pretty serious crimes, too. The inexorable logic of confessional-bashing is that no sin confessed by a stressed-out Catholic to his priest should remain private, save perhaps the sins of Onan and swearing.
In parts of America and Britain, Catholic churches under pressure to prove they aren’t raping kids have taken the drastic measure of installing ‘transparent confessionals’: glass boxes instead of wooden ones. The aim is to let everyone know that the priest is not fiddling with his flock, but of course it also means that the privacy of the confessional, the right to a space where you can freely commune with your God, is fatally undermined. The Australian Catholic church has flirted with the idea of ‘transparent confessionals’, too, discussing them as far back as 1997.
The war on the confessional, and particularly on the seal between penitent and priest, illuminates the double whammy of prejudice and illiberalism that motors modern-day Catholic-bashing.
The politicians and pundits who wring their hands over Catholic child abuse always claim their aim is simply to protect children, to save young ‘uns from being corrupted by the paedophile priests who apparently lurk within every Catholic organisation. Yet the tenor of their campaigning frequently tells a different story, one in which the Catholic church in its entirety comes to be depicted as debased, and in which the brave critics of this Roman hysteria are portrayed as enlightened beings tasked with rescuing brainwashed Catholics from what Nick Xenophon refers to as their church’s ‘medieval’ beliefs.
The prejudice of trendy Catholicism-baiters can be glimpsed in the widely held but utterly wrongheaded belief that so-called paedophile priests can wander into a confessional, fess up to their depravity, and be absolved of their sins. Leaving aside the fact that it is highly unlikely, bordering on unheard of, for a serial abuser of children to spill the beans to anyone, let alone a colleague in his own church, it simply isn’t true that priests absolve paedophiles.
In the vast majority of cases where priests hear a sin that is also a crime, they tell the penitent that absolution depends upon their handing themselves over to the secular authorities. That is, they explicitly refuse to absolve the penitent of his sins and actively encourage him to go to the cops. The notion that the confessional seal allows depraved abusers to wax lyrical about their antics with no consequences reveals more about the caliginous prejudices of the anti-Catholic set than it does about the reality of the church.
And the illiberalism of this Inquisition in reverse, this secular interrogation of the Catholic church’s every habit and belief, can be seen in the way that something as key to Catholics as the confessional is effectively being destroyed. Personally, as a severely lapsed Catholic, I gave up confessing at the age of 17, as part of my slow and torturous abandonment of belief in God and my embrace of atheism.
But I recognise how important it is for practising Catholics to have a space in which, in complete confidence, far from the madding world and its pressures, they can offload their innermost concerns and doubts, in which they can communicate honestly with God, as they understand it. To deprive Catholics of this space, or to turn it into a kind of gossip chamber that any Tom, Dick or Harry in authority could potentially eavesdrop on, is an attack on freedom of religion, plain and simple.
Today’s ridicule of the institution of confession is driven by little more than an elite snobbery which looks upon certain people’s beliefs as dumb and vulgar. And the attempt to undermine this institution is underpinned by an alarmingly cavalier approach to religious freedom.
The obsession with child abuse in the Catholic church is proving disastrous: it is putting pressure on priests to become snitches, throwing open people’s most private confessions to the prying eyes of the state, and sacrificing religious liberty on the altar of political expediency.
Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked online, is a regular contributor to The Spectator and The Spectator Australia.
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