The President of the United States has never asked God for forgiveness. Our social media mobs never grant it. America seems to have given up on redemption. Some things are no longer considered sins, but the sins that remain have become unforgivable.
In the early 19th century, Americans observed national days of fasting, humiliation and prayer in which they would “confess and bewail [their] manifold sins and transgressions”. Nowadays, when we observe a national day of prayer, we blandly “turn to God in prayer and meditation”. Without becoming more righteous, we no longer feel a need for repentance.
We often imagine that forgiveness is incompatible with justice. I write this on the feast day of St Maria Goretti, a young Italian girl who forgave her brutal rapist, and thereby led him to God. A friend of mine once overheard a group of Catholics expressing outrage after a priest discussed her story in a homily. “She never should have forgiven him,” they said. “It’s immoral!” This view is shared by countless young progressives who rightly abhor certain sins but wrongly imagine that those sins must never be forgiven.
It is in this context that one must understand California’s recent attack on the Sacrament of Confession. In Confession, absolution is freely given for acts that society no longer believes are sinful as well as acts that society no longer believes are forgivable. Sincere penitents are absolved not only of impurity and sabbath-breaking but also of rape, murder and child abuse. Progressives suspect that the Confession and absolution of unforgivable sins inhibits justice.
Under California’s proposed law, which was withdrawn on Monday, priests would be legally required to report acts of child abuse disclosed in confessions by clerics or church employees. A similar statute has been proposed in Chile, and another has already been enacted in Australia. These laws ask the priest to do something that he simply cannot. When he hears a confession, he stands in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, before the penitent. When a Catholic confesses his sins to the priest, he is telling them to God. The priest has no right to disclose the contents of that conversation.
Nor would such disclosure be likely to reduce child abuse. If abusers knew that their confessions would be reported to the authorities, it is very unlikely that they would offer them. They would thus be removed from the influence of priests who would be urging them to desist from evil (what the Church calls a “firm purpose of amendment”) and to turn themselves in.
California’s law did not require priests to report incidents of murder, rape of adults or other similarly grave sins. It focused only on child abuse. This selective concern rests on the idea that the Catholic Church is a uniquely dangerous place for children. But this is a baseless assumption, supported only by prejudice. A 2004 study commissioned by the US Department of Education found that nearly 10 per cent of public school students suffered sexual abuse from their teachers, ranging from sexualised comments to rape.
California’s law has done damage without being enacted. The debate over it has been an occasion for the same kind of smearing that occurred after an anti-Catholic mob burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834. When the Mother Superior was called to testify, the defence attorneys interrogated her about Catholic confessional practices, a ploy they knew would appeal to lurid stereotypes about Catholic secrecy. The Mother Superior noted that “the subject of auricular Confession had nothing to do with the present case”, but the judge let the questioning proceed. As Patrick Carey, a historian at Marquette, has noted, highlighting the eccentricity of Catholic confessional practices was “part of the more general attempt to discredit the [Catholic] witnesses”.
We live in a post-Protestant society, one that has discarded everything that was admirable in Protestantism while retaining the errors and bigotries. Our elites no longer confess Christ, but they still hate Catholics. In their eyes, Confession is still the “master key to popery”, still “the modern Sodom”, still the Catholic practice they instinctively attack.
President Trump was recently asked what he thought about “Western liberalism”. He amusingly thought the question referred to California, not to the beliefs shared by elites across Europe and America. But there was something apt in Trump’s mistake. California is now a one-party state, in which the broader liberal consensus goes effectively unchallenged, and so has been taken to extremes. It is now common to label every challenge to liberalism as fascist, Leninist, or both. People who recoil at the prospect of cruel and intolerant ideology should reflect on what happens when liberalism goes unchallenged, as it increasingly does in California.
It is no accident that liberalism attacks the Catholic practice of Confession. It recognises in Christianity a coherent, compelling challenge to its view of the world. In response to these attacks, Christians should not merely plead for tolerance. They should point out that they have a truer idea of justice, progress, and solidarity than today’s liberals and progressives do. One of the main differences is embodied in the very practice now being challenged. Christians believe in forgiveness, while their most determined opponents do not.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things