Which comes first: church or state?


Debate and discussion swirls around the announcement by the Prime Minister of a Royal Commission into child abuse. The terms of reference are yet to be delineated, although we do know it won’t just be about the Catholic church, but will encompass all kinds of child abuse located in institutions and systems.

One of the arguments that initially confused me has been about whether Catholic priests ought to be compelled to report child abuse that is disclosed to them during confession by another priest. Confession is an ancient and very important part of Catholicism. My confusion arises out of my concept of faith versus religion.

Faith is both a practice and a belief. Religion is a practice. This is why one can mount scientific arguments to show that religion is wrong in its assumptions, but no scientific evidence could confirm or disprove faith. Faith tested by scientific evidence is no longer faith, it’s simply a bad theory in terms of its definition and an even worse one in terms of available proof.

But belief that is tested by hardship, suffering or a desire for insight is more of a faith. The belief (not hope) that the universe will provide the right person at the right time to speak to about a problem is a common belief even amongst agnostics. A child who trusts a playground bridge to not collapse under him is not only performing a psychological task but also exercising faith of a kind. The person who finds the courage to speak up about a bully is not necessarily acting in self-interest, this might also be argued to be another kind of faith.

There’s even screwed-up faith, that general urge of most humans to worship that sometimes becomes fanatical shopping or obsessive competitiveness. The urge to worship beauty is sometimes manifest by owning it rather than regarding it with wide eyes and then letting it go.

But that is enough of us lay humans.

The humans who have chosen to live lives of faith – priests – know perfectly well the difference between the material / scientific world and the world of worship, faith, humility of spirit and relationship to God. When a priest argues that other priests should not be reported for confessing acts that constitute abuse of a child, he is saying he wants to save their reputations (or, by extension, the reputation of the church).

Let none of us make the mistake of thinking that the state can come between a priest and his God. He already has a contract with God that he will commit his life to doing God’s work, mostly related to protecting and healing the poor and the vulnerable. (Leave aside the hypocrisy of child abuse in that circumstance).

There is nothing another person or the state can do, including jail or even death, that should be capable of violating a priest’s commitment to God. If his commitment to God and his faith is broken by actions of the state, one could say his commitment was not really there in the first place or that he had chosen the wrong profession.

There is no law which prohibits Catholic religious practices in jail. His confession can be heard by a visiting priest. He can seek and be given absolution. He can take communion.

The secular humanists, atheists and otherwise distracted commentators have be caught hook, line and sinker. The secular world is seeing the issue through their lens: that being found guilty of and going to jail for child abuse is pretty close to the worst thing that could happen to a person.

But to a priest of true faith, that would surely be a minor thing compared to burning for eternity in the fires of hell.