The Australian Child Abuse Royal Commission & the Redefining of Religious Liberty

This week, the Australian government announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse across religious, state, sporting and community groups. Whilst the scope of the Royal Commission is wide, attention by the media has been strangely focused on abuse within institutions run by the Catholic Church. The most recent development in this vein have been calls by politicians, both progressive and conservative, (including a number of prominent politicians who try to pass off as the "staunchly Catholic" type), for the seal of confession to be dispensed with in cases of child abuse. The rationale behind these calls, broadly speaking, is that the welfare of abuse victims are in the public interest, and because they are in the public interest, it overrides any sacramental peculiarities of the particular religious body.

Whilst there can be no doubt about the importance that must be given to the welfare of abuse victims, the emotions that this issue would rightly generate may nonetheless prematurely paper over the nuances of a number of serious civic concerns. With this in mind, there is a serious need for attention to one of these nuances, namely the discursive underpinnings for demands by such politicans to use civil law to what is essentially an element of the worship life of the Church. More specifically, it is necessary to cast attention on the implications to the concept of religious liberty if the breaking of the seal of confession is to be legally sanctioned. The Muslim commentator Waleed Aly has today hinted at this issue in The Age, but this post would go further by focussing on how this most recent demand regarding the seal of confession is symptomatic of a wider trend towards the narrowing of the scope of religious liberty.

Protests of religious liberty as a response to this most recent move by the politicians presume that religious liberty is some kind of naturally given and morally neutral category. But, as an interview with historian David Sehat on volume 114 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal suggests, "religious liberty" is never neutral, natural or stable. Instead, "religious liberty" is a civic category and thus the result of constant definition and redefinition by the civic body. What constitutes "religious liberty" therefore is the avoidance of state interference in religious affairs, though what that may entail is completely subject to the imperatives of the state. 

Furthermore, as Ryan Messmore pointed out on the ABC Religion and Ethics portal, the scope of "religious liberty" has in recent decades been gradually narrowed. Whereas once "religious liberty" was taken to mean the freedom of religious bodies to act out on one's religious convictions in the public square without state interference, the concept is now taken to mean only the freedom to engage in worship within the confines of religious institutions, away from the public square, without government interference. This is also becoming known as the "freedom of worship", which is increasingly becoming the discursive substitute for "religious liberty". 

What may be missed in the demands for the breaking of the seal of confession so that the public interest is served is the point that, in these calls by the representatives of the state, the state is engaging in a further narrowing of "religious liberty", negating even the notion of freedom to worship without state interference. In demanding the breaking of the seal of confession, the state is inferring that it has the authority to dictate the ends to which one of the elements of the Church's worship is directed. More specifically, the implied right by the state to demand the breaking of the seal of confession is not possible if it was not accompanied by an implied right for the state to direct worship towards state ends. Thus, Christians resorting to the "religious liberty" defense in response to calls to break the seal of confession will ultimately have no civic defense from the state, as Aly suggests. 

It will be interesting to see how the inquiries by the Royal Commission unfolds. As justice is rightfully meted out, however, something that should also be constantly flagged is the extent to which citizens would allow the state to control what little is left of the private sphere. For if one recognised confidence in the private sphere can be forced to become undone in this instance, there will be little that can prevent the undoing of other kinds of confidences (e.g. those between doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, husbands and wives etc) in other instances. As an ancillary, what should become apparent to Christians is that the reliance of the distinction between the private and public sphere is a weak grounding for both the practice and defense of their faith (which in modern contexts will always be situated in the private sphere). As the computer analyst Clay Shirky once argued, the private sphere is quickly shrinking and being substituted by a expansionary secular public panopticon (a process facilitated by the consolidation of social networking).  The grounding of the practice of faith then, should not be the private sphere of a civic social landscape, but the public sphere of a distinct public, namely the Body of Christ.

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