Ireland has endured much of the brunt of the religious offensive on civilized society. Having had to outlast the conflicts Catholicism has wrought and Ireland’s battles with the Englishmen’s church, much of the Irish citizenry, as of late, has lost its taste for the divine. The Roman Catholic Church has had much to answer for by way of child molestation and the concealment there of. We might reel at the stories and accounts of what happens here, stateside, but to be sure, Ireland has had it worse. We are talking in terms of thousands when it comes to abuse cases in Ireland, some of which include high ranking officials directly. America, while a very religious country, still managed to turn against the organization of Roman Catholicism, but imagine if we had discovered transgressions on the scale of thousands here in our own backyard!
So a member of the Irish legislative branch has concocted a law to be introduced that takes an indirect swipe at the Catholic Church. “Under the new law, every person in the state is obliged to report suspected sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults to police,” according to an article on IrishCentral.com. So naturally this raises the eyebrows of priests that hear confessions. Not only did their eyebrows rise, but a group of over 800 priests vowed to disobey this law. Apparently the inalienable rights Catholics have to confession trump the inalienable rights children have to not being sexually abused.
Let us, for a minute, not argue over the legitimacy of the legislation. The article I got this tirade from already addresses whether or not the law is practical and whether it is plausible to put into use in cases of anonymity in places like a confessional booth. I’d rather focus on the moral implications of the act of confession, and the duties good people have to reduce the suffering of children.
This is an argument for what the moral duties of a priest are, and as agents of benevolence, what they should be:
Evil must be encompassed by the mental, emotional, or physical suffering of any sentient beings. If what it means to be “good” means anything, then let us say that to be good means to actively eliminate evil whenever it is possible. So when superheroes do good, they are actively fighting evil so to speak, even if it is removing a cat from a tree, or helping a nervous elderly woman cross the street. When they are unaware, they cannot be to blame. If Spiderman was unaware of a murder about to take place, we could
not hold him responsible. But if he were to swing by on a web, witness an altercation where a murder was underway, and he kept on swinging, then we might ask him why he didn’t do anything about it. We might be pretty pissed off at him. Superman can hear and be aware of all the events all over the world (and sometimes further) all at once. When Superman is busy being Clark Kent, and many people are suffering around the world, he is actively ignoring his duty to save the people whom he is aware of, that are suffering. He could be saving everyone all the time from the evils of life with his super awareness and super speed, but he doesn’t. Boy Scout, he is not. So morally speaking, we are saying that if someone is aware of suffering, or imminent suffering, then in order to be a good person one must reduce that suffering to the extent that one can. If you do not try to reduce this suffering, either by an act of will or omission, then you are not doing good, in fact you are contributing to the existence of evil.
I will, for the time being, grant the existence of souls, and an afterlife because I intend to show that priests, and indeed all Catholics by extension, violate morality even by the lights of their own faith.
When a priest hears a confession, thereby eliminating the sins of the penitent, let us say that they are eliminating the evil and suffering that the soul of the sinner will endure in hell. This, according to the church, is an act of inscrutable good. But, what about the suffering of the people that the sinner inflicts? If that sinner is a child molester, and the confession comes in the form of a blatant admittance of abuse of a minor, then should it not also be the duty of the priest to eliminate that suffering as well? Again, if evil means anything it means the needless mental, emotional, and physical suffering of a being—in this case a helpless one. It seems rather apparent that an agent of good, like a priest, must stop evil where ever it is present, so that to save a potential soul from the fiery pits of hell should not have to take primacy over an abused child. This is intuitively abhorrent, unless of course you believe the eternally suffering soul of a child molester is a greater suffering than the momentary suffering of a child here on Earth.
Here is where the issue of full goodness is lost. It seems like there is no reason why a priest shouldn’t make the attempt to reduce the possibility of future child molestations. If a Catholic child molester, who is willing to confess their sins, if not for their own psychological benefit, but for the sake of their souls, then presumably they would do so even if they knew this might mean incarceration. The priests would be dutifully helping the child molester, his soul, and the potentially molested children.
Unless, of course, the allure for the child molester is the ability to confess without having to fear Earthly retribution. When we take our focus away from the priest, and on to the child molester, we can see how this would be a dream come true. A sexual offender can save their souls, release their psychological guilt, and continue molesting children.
Let us also consider for a moment the dynamics of confession and absolution. It seems to me, that while we envision the most deviant of us to be emotionless and malevolent, it is probably true that those who commit crimes involving child abuse, sexual predation, and murder are probably remorseful to some degree. If it helps you to swallow this, at least imagine that some of these offenders might seek to ease their own guilt through means like confession. We can see that in prisons the vast majority of inmates are religious. And almost by definition through the Abrahamic faiths, religion entails a corollary between behavior now and punishment or reward in the afterlife. If for no other reason, this is enough motivation for some offenders, namely sexual offenders, to be concerned about their well being in some manner.
The inexorable question then arises: to what end does confession reduce overall suffering?
A thought experiment:
Smith molests a child. He feels a very secluded and private pain and guilt about having done it, though at times he feels as though he cannot control himself when he feels the urge to do it again. His impulses over come him. He cannot find consolation anyone else, for fear of his own well being. His guilt is not so strong as to subject himself to the horrors of the American (or Irish) penal system. He seeks out a means of catharsis through his faith. Smith attends mass and approaches the confessional booth. There he admits his sins to Father Jones who, having endured the agony of hearing this powerful confession, advises Smith to seek out help. It is important, says the priest, that Smith realizes he is committing a grave sin and the eyes of God always see him, and will be with him. Father Jones then says that the man has already taken the first step towards absolution by admitting his sin and realizing what he is doing is wrong. God looks kindly upon those who realize their faults. Jones assigns many prayers of repentance to Smith and dismisses him.
Are we then to rely on the remorseful conscience of a man who already can not control his deviancies, with the prospect of divine revelation? I should certainly hope not.
If Smith commits the crime again, even if it is only once, is Father Jones now complicit? Does his position as arbiter of moral matters demand that he be culpable of a crime? Is he an accomplice?