A truly draconian law in the offing

Montgomery Clift in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film on the inviolable seal of Confession, “I Confess”.

At the very heart of freedom is freedom of religion – and at the very heart of religious freedom is freedom of conscience.

The Irish Government has just published a piece of draft legislation which places a time bomb in this very heart, and if the legislation is enacted it will blow a people’s freedom to smithereens.

Is that first assertion too much? No. Every freedom which has been won for mankind, by mankind, over millennia of our history shows that where freedom was truly won it was won essentially in the context of a freedom of religion and the right to freedom and integrity of personal conscience. Freedoms won by forces hostile to religion – the freedoms won by the French Revolution, the freedoms won by the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution – have invariably ended in tyranny and have never succeeded in establishing authentic freedom until they have recognised the need for freedom of religion and conscience.

In contrast with the tyrannies which emanated from those struggles for freedom you have the greatest freedom of all, that won by Christians through centuries of persecution by the slave-owning and humanly deluded powers of the ancient world. In more modern times you have the great freedom won by the enslaved races of the 18th and 19th centuries, a struggle driven above all by a Christian consciousness of injustice. Accepted, history is more nuanced than this, but nevertheless the core truth is undeniable. Without recognition of the inviolability of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, the pursuit of freedom will be fatally flawed and will promise only tyranny.

The Irish government, seeking to deal with the problem of protecting children from abuse by adults, has now gone down this very path. In its proposed legislation it not only ignores freedom of religion and conscience but directly denies it head-on. It is promising to penalise and imprison any Catholic priest who does not report to the relevant secular authorities a sinful act for which a penitent sinner seeks the forgiveness of God as promised to him, as he believes, by the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is not stated explicitly in the draft but will be the inevitable outcome if the legislation is enacted.

Ominously the Irish Times reports today, “The Department of Justice was unable to confirm last night whether priests will be legally obliged to report serious offences against children to gardaí (police) that are disclosed during Confession.” That is a lame and disingenuous kicking to touch. This issue has been in focus for several months now and a number of government ministers have gone on record saying that the so-called sacred seal of confession no longer stands as a legal entity. Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the mandatory reporting requirement would apply to priests hearing confession. Some priests have already proclaimed their defiance in defence of the freedom of conscience of those who come to them as penitents.

In this proposed legislation the State has effectively invaded a sacred realm of the religion of Christians and has countermanded that power which Christian believers understand to have been given by Christ when he said, “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”  What the State does not recognise in this whole matter is that while the same act may be both a sin and a crime, these two things have to be resolved in separate ways and in separate fora. A Catholic person accused, convicted and condemned to death for murder, innocent or not, may go to Confession before his execution. The priest who hears that confession might, by revealing all he had been told by the penitent, redeem that person’s reputation. Even to achieve that justice, he may not do so. The two realms are absolutely separate and the priest’s silence about what was confessed must also be absolute.

By invading this realm of conscience in this way the Irish State has now taken away the freedom of a sinner to get the absolution promised by God because it has radically changed the terms and conditions for that absolution – that is, the secrecy given to the act of confession by the wisdom and teaching of the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as that sinner’s religious faith leads him to believe.

Let there be no doubt about it. This is a draconian law, posturing as a necessary law under the shadow of the crimes of child abuse with which Irish society, among others, has been plagued for over 40 or 50 years. It is also a bad law, penally hostile to the practice of the religious faith of the majority of the citizens of Ireland. The fact that a draconian executive is not running the country – although some might dispute that – is irrelevant. For nearly 300 years the Roman Empire had penal laws against Christians in place. For most of that time Christians were free to practice their religion but periodically the executive power of the time deemed that they were bad citizens by practising their faith and moved murderously against them. The pattern has been repeated many times throughout history whenever and wherever laws of this type came into being. Ireland beware.

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