The End of a Privileged Place

The End of a Privileged Place August 28, 2017

catholic-archbishopA recent article in “Countercurrent News” regarding the ongoing scandal of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic church in Australian reveals both the insidious nature of anti-Catholic propaganda and the very real issue of what privilege religious institutions should have in a modern nation state that guarantees freedom of religion.

First the anti-Catholic propaganda. The article intentionally misquotes Archbishop Denis Hart to make it sound as if he doesn’t support reporting child abuse. In fact, as the article later makes clear, what Archbishop Hart is willing to go to jail for is the privileged nature of communication in the confessional, a privilege which covers far more than just admissions of having been abused or having abused.

And this gets us to the heart of the issue. The Roman Catholic Church, with almost all Christian churches, make a claim in the name of freedom of religion to set at least some parts of religious life apart from the laws of the state. Besides privileging the confessional we could note a refusal to follow laws guaranteeing equal access to and provision of health care, anti-discrimination laws in hiring, equal access to same-sex couples to marriage, and others. In other words, it isn’t just the Roman Catholics who in the name of freedom of religion want to be exempt from the law. We United Methodists claim the same privileges, as does almost every other religious organization in the US.

It just happens that only the Roman Catholics have “the seal of the confessional” as a longstanding matter of religious practice. Other churches have tried to claim the same kind of privilege, but cannot generally show that it is essential to their religious practice. But the guarding of religious privilege isn’t just a Catholic thing, and no religious institution has the standing to engage in self-righteousness in this regard.

However, and here the Australian case is relevant, the Roman Catholic church also has a very long history prior to the rise of the modern nation state. And in that history it enjoyed a tradition of functioning as a separate realm of jurisprudence above or at least apart from the law of the state. Equally noteworthy is that only the Roman Catholic Church, among all Christian churches, actually now controls a state within which it can, and has, sheltered fugitives from the law of other states.

The result has been that long after other churches have knuckled under to state laws regarding the reporting of pedophilia the Roman Catholic church, wherever it could, sought to maintain a separate realm of law, sometimes defiant of state law. I was a personal witness to this in Austria, a country whose Roman Catholic leadership was unstinting in its exercise of privilege within the Austrian government on behalf of protecting pedophile priests, bishops, and archbishops from secular law.

There, as in the US and Germany, and now Australia, it was public outrage, and public outrage alone that forced the state to renegotiate, if not absolutely impose a new relationship between church and state. The bleating excuse of freedom of religion simply could not any longer protect the pedophiles.

In a situation of increasing encroachment by the state on church privilege Archbishop Hart is saying is that he refuses to renegotiate or submit. He refuses to bend to a state whose power challenges and will overthrow what he regards as the law of God.

Of course he forgets that if the Roman Catholic church had remained true to its own stated principles that matter would never have arisen. It was the failure of the church to act against its own criminal element that brought this matter to a head. The public outrage was justified, and the diminution of Church privilege fully justified.

Still, those of us tempted to cheer the impending fall of this last corner of religious privilege need to pause. The modern state, however democratic, is also totalitarian. It reaches into every corner of every citizen’s life. But unlike the church, which you can leave voluntarily, the state cannot be escaped. Now, not even by fleeing into the arms of the church. Not even by fleeing into your own home. There is no sanctuary from the invasive power of the modern state.

Moreover the Church, however much it protects its privilege, still believes that human lives can be redeemed. At least here in the United States that is an idea that our government, and indeed most of our citizens, have given up. The lives of those children whom the state so diligently protects, it will with equal diligence destroy utterly when the age, or crime, is right. No crime admitted in the confessional is as vicious as our bloodthirsty public bent on self-righteous revenge.

So before we jeer Archbishop Hart, or cheer for the Royal Commission that will soon sweep away the privilege of the confessional in Australia, we might remember what is at stake. Because it hasn’t been just the Church that burns heretics.

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