An Indictment of the Act of Confession

Posted: May 4, 2012 in Atheism, Law, Morality, Religion, Violence
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 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

I’m ignoring you, when I’m busy being Clark Kent

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?

  1. My short answer response,

    There are many people in the world who dedicate themselves to helping others. Doctors without borders folks, red cross volunteers, etc. Many people, most without super powers, all utilizing their power in ways best suited to helping those around them. A good portion of these folks do not do it 24/7 and would not even if they could. If you looked for a saint among them, you would be hard press to find one, but its not because they refuse to give up every waking second of their lives to doing this. Everyone has a limit, there is only so much “insert whatever” a person can absorb. Even superman everything all the time, he needs things to remain grounded just like the rest of us. We all need things to remain grounded, sometimes those things arent real. Sometimes those things are real only because we really want them to be. Whatever it is, it is needed.

    But if you want to define good as actively eliminating evil, to fight against suffering, then you have to also allow for the fight against suffering of self. Self sacrifice in a moment is one thing. Guy takes a bullet for you, just because he does, thats commendable. Slowing decaying overtime because you lose bits an pieces of yourself while drowning in the horrors you are trying to prevent? Thats foolish.

    There is suffering outside right now. Right this very second. You dont need spidersense, or to start asking yourself whether jesus will comes through your voice in a dark room, to fight it. You just get up and do it. As far as i know, as a believer in the opposite of most of these priests in question, you have not spent any part of your current life vowing to adher to any specific morale structure with the end result turning you into an outlet for people to seek spiritual guidance and absolution. Let us, for a minute, not argue over the legitimacy of the beliefs in question. Without any of those parameters in life, how much suffering have you fought to prevent today? While you were reading this article? When was the last time someone told you they did something illegal, like pirate something? Did you inform them that there actions were against the law? Report them for their crimes?

    Priests are not police informants, they are meant to be as guidance counsulars. They do exactly what you are trying to do hear: they illuminate a specific path of thought and hope you follow along. There are some crimes more vicious then others, true, and there are some crimes not worth the time and effort to deal with them. But they are all crimes. Asking a priest to come forward on one, is no different then the other. Perhaps there should be some uniformed standard that priests, counsulars, psychiatrists and the like are held to where they must go out and inform the police of all your transgressions. Maybe we all should. Or maybe we should realize these jobs are here for a reason and if we want to change or get rid of them, we need to remove the reason they exist in the first place.

    You cant expect to hold someone to a higher standard in one breath, and rip out their pedistool from beneath them in the next.

    Rather then all of these questions we can just sit on one particular part of this post and all go about making things better:

    There is suffering outside, right now, why dont you get up and do something about it.

    ***Reader disclaimer:

    The previous reply makes use of terms that often refer to a singular person. Please make not that this was not directed at any one special, but rather every single pair of eyes that comes across the words. Would not want to single out anyone because they take offense to being used as an example.

    Disclaimer ends here.***

    • I really should have edited my own post for errors before posting it, chalk it up to inherant desire to not second guess my own words.

    • The Riot Act says:

      A had actually included a few paragraphs covering what most of your comment box illustrates. Why should I just be focusing on the possible good priests could be doing when anyone and everyone essentially has the same obligations and there is suffering everywhere, always. I decided to delete it to deliberately receive a response of this sort.

      On the surface, of course you’re right. There has to be some mitigating balance between a full devotion to good service and self fulfillment. No one can feesibly spend their entire lives actively fighting evil, especially because the way I defined evil makes it a necessary condition for conscious living. But this discourse takes us away from the point I was originally trying to focus on, and that was the duty of people to report suffering when it takes a minimal amount of effort.
      If we want to get into actual moral philosophy, you’d have to go through Peter Singer and Derek Parfit’s books, and my own blog post would be 700pages long. I’m not that dedicated!

      Priests have this special role of hearing copious human indiscretions. If it’s impure thoughts or a stolen lipstick, then we imagine the effort to eliminate these “evils” far outweigh the benefit of correcting them. But to resign a priest to the service of child molesters’ mental health I find to be rather draconian. By saying that priests have to come forward with all crimes if they come forward with just one is to ignore that there are varying degrees of criminal activity. Are you going to maintain that littering is equivalent to rape? Clearly no, and all the law has to do is make a distinction regarding “violent crimes,” and then we can move forward. Not all suffering is equal, and maybe I clouded that up when I alluded to the superheroes.

      An example:
      If there was a job, where all the countries’ pedofiles could call up an operater and tell them all the things they did in detail, we would imagine that the operater has a certain private knowledge of a large magnitude of suffering. It would seem that by witholding that information would be a pretty severe moral crime (not necessarilly legal). It would also only take a phonecall or some computer program to account for all these crimes. No one is asking the operator (or the priests) to make citizen’s arrests. If the operater was privy to only non-violent, misdemeanor-level crimes then clearly their moral obligations are not nearly as high.

      So what’s good about the Irish law is that it covers everybody in the land. Not just the priests. But by what lights should the priests be allowed the special privledge of being the sole recepients of “evil information” without having to maintain any of the obligations to stop it? The defense of that position is not up to me to dispel, but for them to produce. They don’t get to just say, “We don’t have to because our religion says so!” The same would go for psychiatrists – “Because my profession/degree says so!” Invalid.

      • The Irish law becomes a worse example of your point by applying it to everyone. The idea of a stranger coming to a person and confessing their crimes for absolution is one thing, but when your friends start talking to you about these same acts its taking it to another extreme. The moral obligation to turn in an alleged criminal, because in most cases in Ireland you still have to be convicted ( i stress most because my knowledge of Irish Law stretches back about 4 days), and you are weighing it against moral obligations you have toward your friends and family.

        And now we begin the game were we debate philosphically about the weight of morals

        The Irish Law is pretty clear. Your brother comes to you and tells you that he took some real funky shit last night and is pretty sure he forced himself on someone, your next step better be to immediatly call the police or you are now a criminal. Let the police figure out your brothers strange trip fit and whether there is anything to it. Damn to your brother, you will not be a criminal. You have legal obligations now, so you best make sure they are your moral ones too.

        Legal obligations kind of throw whatever your moral plight is about the situation out the window. Unless of course you are one of those people who has no issue breaking the law. Perhaps not you, but hypothetical you who lives in Ireland with your hypothetical funky shit taking, rapist brother.

        I realize im playing devils advocate here, because i dont think a man ( or woman) in some garb in a dark room ( or a well light room) should be fated with providing you direction on your life in solving your sins ( or regular old problems). I feel the same way about psychiatrists. Yes in my book they are two sides of the same coin, but thats another debate entirely. State laws like this, dictating the moral obligations of the people, go too far beyond having a law that criminalizes molesting children. We live in a world where we cant even agree that should be a law. it might be the right step in the ladder, over the course of the entire life of the ladder. I just happen to think its the wrong step to be putting down. We are dealing with much larger issues by trying to define morality in a congressional level ( state or federal, foreign or domestic) and i think thats wrong.

        Not to discourse away from your point, because I understand the dedication it would take to actually see this conversation through to the end, i do feel as if the surface idea is the only idea you can measure people on. Superheroes may strain the normality of the debate, but its more because they are some super forms of the fucked up ideals that tend to drive normal people crazy with this stuff.

        Superman didnt lose his family, he lost a planet. His culture, his existence that he will never grow to know more then at a strange arms length experience. He grew up with some morally strong parents, who were debt ridden criminals by the way. Then he found out he was living a lie and really had no idea who he was, on top of being an outcast who couldnt connect with people. Out of all this, out of all the struggle with self, he decided to still his life under his Pa’s words and would figure out the rest as he went along. He may be able to juggle planets, but that doesnt mean his struggles are less human on the emotional scale.

        My point here being the same one I made in my first post still, you have to be able to juggle saving yourself in with saving everyone else. Everybody has a plate, some are bigger then others, but no ones is infinite.

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