Pedophilia and the Limitations of Science and Law

Morality is what ultimately underlies the concept of law. Many critics of the B4U-ACT conference have voiced concern that changes to the next DSM will lay the groundwork for undermining U.S. criminal law on pedophilia, but I believe Americans will see clearly the invalidity of that approach. We don't regard it as a form of mental disorder to engage in armed robbery or assault, but we punish those deeds as criminal acts nonetheless. We agree that they are morally wrong: they inflict harm on others and are to be deterred and punished. The same is true of pedophilia; the act itself is wrong.

The path toward decriminalizing sodomy was never a good analogy to pedophilia, because with homosexuality it's the moral character of the act itself that people are widely disagreed upon. Among Christians and Jews, different denominations have adopted different doctrinal positions. The "reasonable man" can agree, moreover, that even if he thinks homosexuality is wrong, it doesn't inflict actionable harm if it involves only consenting adults. It may be wrong, but that doesn't mean the laws of men have to take an interest in it.

Pedophilia, on the other hand, involves a child: a legally non-consenting victim. As with armed robbery, we are in wide agreement that pedophilia does inflict harm. There may be political radicals who deny that armed robbery is a moral offense, but we don't let their minority proposition govern our civic arrangements any more than we are bound to let the advocates of pedophilia temper our community response to that practice.

We're not afraid to be absolutist in either case, nor do we require the blessing of science on our conclusions. Indeed, we are unembarrassed to tell science to take a hike, if its deliberations produce principles that our wisdom tells us humans cannot live by. I am confident in a matter such as this that no preexisting convention between criminal law and the definitions of the DSM can override the good sense of the people. If it comes to a conflict between the two, it's the convention that will fall.

There is no issue like pedophilia to remind us that law is not a clinical, therapeutic project, it is a moral one. This in turn reminds us that we cannot remake mankind with law; we can only punish him with it. Law is a blunt instrument, and giving something over to it means subjecting that thing to law's irreducible logic. There is no redemption in law; there is only coercion, exaction, and the prescribed passage of time.

That's what the B4U-ACT activists are getting at with their concern about criminal laws on pedophilia and the absence of institutional sympathy and tolerance for pedophiles. But they are looking for these things in the wrong place. No human institution is empowered to redeem a pedophile: to behave as if he never hurt anyone and give him chance after chance until his psyche is clear of its obsessions. Only God can deal with us that way. He enables us to forgive and sympathize on an individual basis, but proposing that approach as a form of institutional compassion is a fool's errand. Few of us could justify demanding it of other people and their children, especially considering that pedophiles have some of the highest recidivism rates among sex offenders.

For something like pedophilia, only God's literal redemption and grace can do the work of erasing the evil and hurt. Science cannot even recognize the latter categories; it is simply inapplicable to the situation. Human schemes of criminal punishment are limited and flawed, extending only to coercion and deterrence. They cannot change the heart.

As sad and uncomfortable as it is to look into a topic like pedophilia, we can be grateful for the timely instruction it offers us in the limitations of human arrangements. There are certain things only the invincible grace of God can do, and correcting pedophiles without condemning them is one.

8/28/2011 4:00:00 AM