Christian norms in a post-Christian society

The onslaught against Christian norms of behavior – not to mention Christian theology – is becoming a drumbeat of intolerance.  The tragedy is that, in some cases, Christian theology and disciplinary norms have lent themselves to conduct that is simply intolerable, and have thereby become their own worst enemy when it comes to defending them.  It becomes a matter of the rule of faith versus the rule of law.  It’s the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.

My thoughts on the matter were sparked by an Australian article about how the confessional became an emotional and spiritual haven for a priest to continue his sexual offenses against children.

On the one hand, we have the Catholic Church maintaining it will make no change in its protocol about the sanctity of the confessional. And it maintains that, despite the fact that – as just revealed by the Criminal Justice report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – it has presided over cases like the one in Rockhampton where Father Michael McArdle was forgiven no fewer than 1500 times by 30 of his fellow priests for raping children in his care.

“I was devastated after the assaults, every one of them,” Father McArdle affirmed in a 2004 affidavit, quoted in The Australian on Tuesday. “So distressed would I become that I would attend confessions weekly. [After every confession], it was like a magic wand had been waved over me.”

Now, as not a single one of those priests called the police – sanctity of the confessional and all that – McArdle continued his atrocities for decades, devastating the lives of ever more children.

And, on the other hand, we have the Catholic Church waving a flag upon what it sees as the moral high ground, warning the rest of us of what will happen to society if we vote for marriage equality. And its warnings include the dangers to children of gay couples.

I ask this seriously. How long can we, as a society, BEAR this?

There’s more at the link.

The author deliberately conflates the confessional seal with faith-based arguments against same-sex marriage, which is not the same thing.  Nevertheless, the question remains:  how long, and to what extent, can a secular, post-Christian society permit and/or tolerate Christian views, and vice versa?

In the case above, the opposing arguments are a head-on clash of legal and moral cultures. The rule of law generally states that one cannot hide one’s knowledge of a crime.  By doing so, one becomes an accessory after the fact of the perpetrator’s previous crimes by not revealing them, and (arguably) an accessory before the fact of the perpetrator’s subsequent crimes by not providing information that the authorities might have used to prevent them from occurring. On the other hand, the confidentiality of the relationship between a penitent and a minister of religion (sometimes referred to as ‘priest-penitent privilege‘, which dates back to the earliest systems of Canon Law), is still recognized in most Western secular legal systems as a qualifier to the law of evidence.  In most such jurisdictions, a clergyman cannot be compelled to testify concerning sins (which may or may not be crimes according to secular law) revealed to him by a penitent who has approached him in his capacity as a minister or pastor, and is therefore not guilty of concealing a crime if he does not discuss them with police.

Priest-penitent privilege has, in the past, generally been accepted as overriding the accessory provisions of the rule of law.  Whether or not that will continue is a matter of serious debate in the legal profession at this time, and the outcome is not certain.  It’s not the only faith-based issue creating serious concerns within systems of secular law.  Let’s look at a few examples from recent headlines.

The Ontario government in Canada recently passed the ‘Supporting Children, Youth and Families Act, 2017‘.  According to one article, it:

… gives the state more power to seize children from families that oppose the LGBTQI and gender ideology agenda, and allows government agencies to effectively ban couples who disagree with that agenda from fostering or adopting children.

. . .

Bill 89 … adds “gender identity” and “gender expression” as factors to be considered “in the best interests of the child.”

At the same time, it deletes the religious faith in which the parents are raising the child as a factor to be considered, and mandates child protection services consider only the child’s own “creed” or “religion” when assessing the best interests of the child.

Again, more at the link.  The article, written for a pro-faith audience, is naturally very concerned about the denial of religious freedoms that this is claimed to represent.  Breitbart claims that “Some Christians have reacted strongly to the new bill, calling it a violation of parents’ primordial rights to educate their children and a direct assault on Christian beliefs.”  It’s easy to understand such a reaction . . . but at the same time, the reality is that the legislation is the product of a post-Christian society, in which faith-based norms are no longer dominant.  Neither side is willing to consider that the other may have a point.  The arguments are based on diametrically opposed world views.  There is no possibility of reconciling them, short of one or both sides making concessions that are anathema to their beliefs and perspectives.

Such laws also directly and immediately impact which social services providers are permitted to handle foster care, adoptions, etc.  In recent years, several major US cities – even entire states – have effectively forced the Catholic Church to shut down its adoption services, due to legislation banning ‘discrimination’ against same-sex couples.  The Church does not regard such relationships as satisfactory parenting environments, for theological and other reasons, and therefore will not provide adoption services to them, which directly conflicts with secular law.  To avoid that conflict, many otherwise suitable couples of faith have now been denied access to faith-based adoption services.  (Similar situations have arisen overseas, for example, in Northern Ireland.  Recently, the harrowing story of how British [secular] foster care authorities forced a child of Christian origin into foster care with Muslim families, and the difficulties that resulted, has aroused controversy.  It’s far from the only such case.  Note that the authorities have refused to apologize, and will not make any public commitment to any considerations of faith or belief when planning further such placements.)

I can’t pretend to have any easy answers.  As most of my readers are aware, I was a Catholic priest.  I believed in and supported (and still do) the priest-penitent privilege and the seal of the confessional.  Nevertheless, when I read articles such as that one from Australia, I can absolutely and fully understand the outrage of the author.  If I were in his shoes, I’d probably feel precisely the same way.  It’s similar to the reactions of Church authorities and ‘organization men’ to the priest child sex abuse scandal some years ago, about which I’ve written at length.  They could not understand that their blinkered, head-in-the-sand approach would no longer suffice in a post-Christian society.  Civil and political society, long since secularized, are simply no longer prepared to cut the Church any slack when it comes to conflict between secular and religious belief.

When it comes to a situation such as that described above, where the seal of the confessional was clearly and inescapably a major factor in the perpetrator getting away with his crimes for decades, affecting dozens (possibly even hundreds) of innocent victims . . . how is it possible to defend that faith-based right, in a non-faith-based, secular, post-Christian society?  I don’t know.  In secular human terms, I can’t defend it.  It’s as simple as that.  In the eyes of society, and (I submit) even in the eyes of most people of faith, the right of innocent children to be protected from sexual predators overrides and supersedes any claim to religious exemption or protection.  How can it be otherwise?  Don’t ask me.  I don’t have a magic wand, that I can wave to come up with all the answers.

I offer these thoughts as a starting-point for my readers to discuss the issue.  Please let us know your thoughts in Comments – but please, do so with respect for those who may not agree with your position.  Insults, accusations and dogmatic insistence will generate more heat than light, and won’t advance the discussion one iota.



  1. I understand about the sanctity and seal of confession yada yada.
    As a layperson, though, I can't understand something – how in the world can a priest in his role of hearing a confession, confer forgiveness for unrepented sins and crimes like this child molester?

    How could the the right thing for the priest (hearing the confession) to do, be anything other than telling the sinner "if you repent, and turn yourself in for what you've done, then you'll have forgiveness". The "Church" may have its rituals for confession etc but common sense would make it clear that a confession and repentance isn't real, without confessing to the legal authorities too.

  2. I will talk about the Ontario law from my perspective. I live here in Ontario and I have seen lots of stories about this from numerous sites. The issue is that the current party in power (Liberal) has been making numerous changes similar to this. It doesn't help that almost all the social services are also steering towards this all in the name of being more "inclusive".
    There was a scandal (quickly buried by most of the MSM) where the former deputy minister of Education was caught and charged with possession of child pornography. He was instrumental in writing the original Sex Education standards that were implemented after his arrest. The current Premier was the Minister of Education when this was happening. You had to look for it 18 months later, but the man had his trial and was convicted of the charges.
    Then there's the parents who were arrested on suspicion of possession of a handgun in the family home and the head of the Board of Education was on record saying that teachers are "co-parents" of the children. Turns out that there was no firearm at all in the home and there were no apologies issued by the police, board of education or children aid services.
    This is the current environment here in Ontario. Where the government is not only extremely secular, they think it's their duty to enforce these secular standards on everyone no matter the situation.

  3. What Thomas said.

    Every confession includes a penance. (The sacrament was called "Penance" when I was growing up.) If you confess a sin of that magnitude to a priest in the confessional, he simply tells you that your penance is to turn yourself in to the authorities. No penance, no forgiveness. It's as simple as that.

    And as to the article; 1500 times, to 30 different priests? Says who? The priest that committed the crime? Sorry, but I have my doubts. Just because someone says it, does not make it so.

  4. This is where the church needs to step and have these priest prosecuted.

    It's unfortunate the Catholic church gets a bad rap about child molesting (secular public schools don't have a great record and probably worse), but this is why some in the public are skeptical.

    The church needs to turn these priest over to authorities.

  5. The quoted description of the Canadian bill is, at best, wildly overdramatic. Per the full summary, it replaces references to religion with the more generic term 'Creed', which is inclusive of atheism and other beliefs that are not recognized as religions; it expands protections for First Nations children; it strips out specific mandates that Catholic children not be placed with Protestant families and vice versa (instead relying on generic mandates that a child's creed should be taken into account); and it generally expands the rights and protections of 16-17 year olds under the terms of the act. It also increases the accountability of orphanages and similar organizations to the government.

    It appears far more motivated by Canada's poor treatment of First Nations than anything else.

  6. the priest has no way of knowing if the confesser is penitent.
    that is known only to God.
    we are Orthodox. confession is not made in a box, but in the open, although private. the priest knows exactly who he hears.

    a priest in this archdiocese was found to have been molesting boys.
    the metropolitan archbishop immediately called the fbi.
    the priest was defrocked and ,last i heard, was living in florida with a monitor on his ankle.

    addressing the issue of teachers being 'coparents', it is just that the camel, having had his nose accepted, is now almost entirely in the tent.
    the 'state' is meant to be the people, not a separate entity.

    the evil one, like lenin, his minion, suborns the children. then he has the whole nation sewn up and in his foul smelling pocket.
    if people would turn off the cell phones and televisions and tear the earbuds from their aural orifices, and pray, then God will intercede.
    my hope for that is about zero.
    we cooperate in our own destruction.
    it was ever thus and the end of all civilizations is inevitable. something rises to take their place.
    the remains of some of these empires are found buried in deserts or in jungles but many have left little trace.
    the Bible tells us that one day the destruction will be so great that those who survive swear not to war ever again.

    human nature, fallen in eden, cannot be denied no matter how political movements [league of nations, united nations] kick against it.
    only the intervention of God Himself can overcome the devil.
    God will intervene if we repent and call on Him earnestly.

  7. Roy – Weekly confessions over three decades. Rotating priest appointments. Do the math.

    These priests should have been defrocked decades ago. That they weren't, and that the Church still defends them, shows a deep and enduring rot at the heart of the leadership.

    Forgiveness is for God, justice is for men. Luke 17:2.

  8. Hide behind the confessional walls if you like but my question to the priest would be What would Jesus do? Spare the confessed or the child? I think that should be an easy answer for any moral person.

    You can forgive the sin but not the crime.


  9. The proposal to change the laws of evidence to remove the Catholic confession from special treatment is a proposal from a Federal inquiry into institutional responses to historic sexual abuse of children. It is not (yet) a proposal from any of the State legislators, and it's a State matter. It’s made up stuff. FitzSimons is well known for it.

    The proposal is bad law, because how will the prosecutors ever find out? If confession is private, then the only possible informant would be the offender/penitent. The informant has zero credibility. We already know that all serial sex abusers are liars, including to themselves. It's like a jail-cell confession to a fellow prisoner, only worse.

    Convicted sex offender/liar: “I told the Priest in confession and he didn’t turn me in, it’s really all his fault!”

    Priest (under the law now): “I took an oath to never talk about what is told to me in confession, I can’t talk about it, I can neither confirm or deny.”

    Priest (If they change the law and the Church accepts the change and changes its doctrine and releases Priests from their vows): “No, he didn’t ever tell me that, he’s lying (again/still).”

    Where’s the prosecution in that? If you can’t ever get a successful prosecution, why have the law?

  10. Re the child sex scandal . So much surprise and consternation expressed when the pedophile priests were exposed. What a crock I was a child in Los Angeles in the middle 50's. The children on the streets knew catholic boys sucked priests. No secret the children knew, could the adults have been so blind?

  11. David Lang writes:

    a question to all those who are calling to eliminate the secrecy of the confession.

    Are you equally willing to eliminate the very similar client-lawyer secrecy?

    If not, why allow one and not the other?

  12. There is no basis in scripture for the seal of the confessional. That's an added on extra. At no time did Jesus ever say, Do what you like then say you're sorry and all is hunky dory. He said Go and sin no more. He also said better a man have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into a pond than he harm even one of these children. Anyone who thinks Jesus would nod and wink and so Hey man, it's all good to one of these evil paedophile priests, or any one of their brotherly co-conspirators and enablers, is dreaming. The history of the Catholic church is rife with corruption and actions directly contradicting Jesus's example. Ditto many, if not most, other Christian churches. Remember, Jesus also said, Not everyone who calls me lord, lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven.

  13. @mark leigh: I think very few people knew of the problem back in the middle '50's. I'm sure some priests must have been offenders, as they must have been at all times in history; but I'm also sure most Catholics in the pews would never have suspected it, and would probably have rejected it indignantly if they were told. It was a more innocent age, overall, IMHO . . . but then again, naivety was more widespread then, too.

    @Unknown at 1:25 AM: You make a good point. I think the difference is that one is based in faith and Canon Law, which has carried over to civil law. The other is civil law from the start. That's why it's easier, in a post-faith society, to attack one, but not the other. YMMV, of course.

    @Anonymous at 3:43 AM: There's not much basis in Scripture for a lot of what we do today. That's because the Bible, as we have it today, did not exist until the fourth century AD, when the New Testament was formally codified. Jesus left behind a Church, not a Bible; and it was the Church that pronounced judgment on the books written (or allegedly written) by the apostles and disciples, included some in the NT, and discarded others. Thus, to say that something has no basis in Scripture, is to ignore the fact that the New Testament itself is a product of the Church, which predates it.

  14. @Unknown at 1:25 AM: There is basis in the Constitution for attorney-client privilege, namely the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The privilege exists so that attorney and client can talk freely; without that protection, it would be impossible to have effective counsel. I myself have been surprised when things my clients withheld came up, and they weren't even things that could bring my client harm–my client was just embarrassed. Imagine the tendency to withhold information if it actually could be harmful.

    The priest-penitent privilege is weaker, though it might be inferred from the First Amendment. That said, an argument against is that for forgiveness to be granted, the sinner must do his penance. If the Catholic church would make confession to secular authorities for crimes a mandatory provision of penance, an argument could be made that removing the privilege doesn't violate the First Amendment because if the penitent fails to turn himself in, he's not really acting within his faith.

    It's sticky no matter how you slice it. Even without removing the evidentiary privilege, though, the Church could do a lot to clean its own house by not engaging in cover-ups. It may not expose the confessional, but when it learns of problems through other means, it should investigate thoroughly and defrock (and cooperate with authorities) immediately, not shuffle the offender off to a new location.

  15. Wow, these are some great comments. Lots to consider.

    Peter, Thomas' point obviously struck a nerve. IS there anything stopping a priest from withholding absolution for a penitent until they confess to civil authority? I can absolutely see that it's not smart or feasible to REQUIRE this, as it then obligates the church to the state and vice versa, but this seems like it might be easier on priests who chafe at the bit when it comes to seeing the right thing done.
    Granted, also, this is a very passive response, as well.

    That being said, does this violate any part of canon law?

    I also very much liked what Deborah Harvey mentioned too, about face-to-face confessions, which I'm sure many folks don't know that Catholics DO have, as well. I've only gone once, myself, and it was much more difficult but far better.

  16. Paul, Dammit! asked: "IS there anything stopping a priest from withholding absolution for a penitent until they confess to civil authority?"

    Yes, there is. You see, the seal of the confessional applies to BOTH priest AND penitent. Neither is allowed to break it. Therefore, if the priest were to insist that the penitent had to reveal his sin/crime to secular authorities as a condition of absolution, he would be requiring the penitent to break the seal of the confessional. He can't do that.

  17. David Lang writes:

    ok, if attorney-client privilege isn't the right comparison, what about doctor-client privilege (especially for psychiatrists)?

  18. that privilege requires psychologists to report crimes of certain natures, and to report if the client is a danger to themselves or others.

  19. Peter, How does the penitent confessing to secular authorities, break the seal of confessional? Seems inconsistent with Matthew 5:24 (first go thy way and be reconciled with the brother…). I think Thomas (further above) has the right of it. But I also realize I don't fully understand what the Seal of Confessional means to you. What exactly is (are the bounds of) the Seal of Confessional? -DaveR

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *