January 18, 2004 | Graham

Christians and secularists ought to take up the cause of the hijab

Muslim women the world over are marching in protest against the decision of the French Government to ban the wearing of the hijab in schools. Why aren’t Christians marching as well? The French government decision doesn’t just ban Muslim headscarves, but Christian symbols such as cross and crucifix as well. It equates suppression of the expression of a whole class of ideas with preserving an environment where people are free to make up their own minds without coercion. But how do you make up your own mind when you are denied a proper knowledge of the alternatives? Enforcement of a secular worldview precludes the understanding of anything but that world. This decision oversteps the mark and gives us a glimpse of the grey secular future to which the unthinking promulgation of liberal values can lead.
Not that we should be surprised. It is happening in France, a country with a tradition of anti-clericalism which, despite its reputation as being one of the two great homes of European thought, saw large segments of its population fall prey to fascism during World War II. Even now Jean Marie Le Pen’s National Front is a more enduring, popular and blatantly fascist organization than Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
While the struggle in the Middle East is portrayed by people like terrorist Osama bin Laden and politician Mahathir Mohamad as a struggle between religions, in truth the Christian religion in the West long ago stopped struggling and inverted self defence into self deference. Now Christians are more likely to stand up for the rights of other religions than stand up for their own.
When Christian groups protest against works of art such as the “Piss Christ” or the film The Exorcist they are ridiculed as being intolerant and small-minded, just as often by other Christians as by secular groups. Many Christians seem very comfortable defending the rights of other rligious groups, and even suggesting that they have equivalence with the Christian tradition, and uncomfortable defending their own. What is the point in these people’s Christianity?
The latest assault on Christianity, or at least one of its denominations, arises from the sins of a Catholic Priest, Fr Michael McArdle who apparently confessed 1500 times to acts of paedophilia but was never once reported to authorities by any of the priests who heard his confession. A legal maxim holds than hard cases make bad law, and this is self-obviously a hard case. This has been written up by the press as a failure of the church. This analysis completely misunderstands the church’s position as well as being a failure of logic.
The Christian tradition from which I come doesn’t recognize confession to a priest. Protestants believe that they can and should confess their sins directly to God without the need of a mediator. Catholics also believe that this is possible, but confession (the rite of reconciliation) is one of the defining sacraments of Roman Catholicism. Partly due to a lack of priests, and I suspect partly due to the largely “protestant” disposition of contemporary society, many Australian Catholics have been avoiding the confessional and using what Catholics call the “general rite”. This is essentially a formal part of the service where they personally and privately confess to God on their own, without confessing to a priest. When this practice was brought to the papal attention it was banned as being contrary to Catholic teaching.
Even so, in some respects the two are virtually identical. When a Catholic confesses to a priest, the priest is “in loco Deus” (my phrase so apologies if it isn’t good Latin). When I confess to God, it is between me and God. He doesn’t fill in civil paperwork and he dispenses justice in his own way and to his own timetable. Given my materialistic approach to Christianity, it is really not much different from me talking to myself. A Catholic priest is no more ready or bound to fill-in civilian paperwork and report sinners than God. And in a way the confessional is the sinner talking to himself with the priest providing an objective and external check. The justice that may be meted out for the sin is certainly not of this world, and while the priest is believed to have the ability to forgive sin and can prescribe certain acts of contrition, he can’t enforce them.
A confessor must find himself at times in an extremely emotionally taxing situation when he knows because of a confession that someone has committed a crime and may do so again, but he cannot do anything about it because his role is not to become an arm of the civil authority. In fact, were he to do so, he would breach the faith put in him when the confession is made. His position is the unavoidable consequence of believing in a spiritual authority which is all-knowing andall-powerful. Catholics ought to be prepared to assert that spiritual authority in this debate.
However, the argument doesn’t even need to hinge on that. Those who say that the confessor should be obliged to report the sinner neglect one salient fact. A confessor under that obligation would not be given the confession in the first place. Whatever priests like McArdle say now, if they had wanted to tell someone who would report them, they could have – there are police stations in most towns. They chose to only tell their confessor because self-preservation, not absolution, was their highest motive.
Logically, in the case of paedophiles, forcing confessors to tell all wouldn’t lead to more arrests because paedophiles just wouldn’t confess in the first place. What it would lead to is the perpetrators having fewer external checks on their behaviour and perhaps committing ever more crimes as a result. They certainly wouldn’t stop committing crimes. It is simplistic and mere populism to suggest otherwise.
It’s hard to believe that this sort of illogical intolerant attack could occur if Christians were prepared to defend and explain themselves. 9/11 and its aftermaths had some obvious lessons, but there are less obvious ones as well. One of these is that whatever else Muslims have, some of them have a passion for what they believe that is more virile and potent than our passion for tolerance. For our civilization to fulfill its promise there must be room for the irrational just as much as there is room for the rational. We all ought to be out there on the streets protesting for the hijab. It is a symbol for what should be good in our society just as much as the cross or the crucifix.

Posted by Graham at 11:53 pm | Comments Off on Christians and secularists ought to take up the cause of the hijab |
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