Stepping outside his immediate brief, Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, saw fit to share penetrating psychiatric insights with his BBC audience.
According to His Grace, paedophilia is an ‘illness, not a criminal condition’. People become paedophiles, he explained, because they themselves were abused as children. So when a pervert presses his attentions on a little tot, both are victims and neither is a wrongdoer.
The Archbishop then vouchsafed the information that he personally knows at least two priests who abuse children because they themselves were abused. (What does ‘at least two’ mean? Three? Thirty? Or does it just mean two?)
‘Now don’t tell me,’ thundered the prelate, ‘that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that. I don’t think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished. He was himself damaged.’ In other words the criminal act hurts the priest as much as it hurts the child he’s brutalising.
Predictably, this spirited defence of perversion has drawn criticism from the usual liberal quarters, along the lines of ‘I myself was abused as a child by a priest, therefore there is no God.’ The critics are positively glowing: here’s another bullet to fire at Catholicism and, more generally, Christianity and, even more generally, faith.
This is a wrong line of attack. Recounting over and over again the suffering of an abused child is manipulative, touchy-feely sentimental and, even worse, superfluous. Any decent person will know anyway that statutory rape, which is the legal term for sex with a child, is a heinous crime. Nobody with a modicum of moral sense needs to have his heart’s strings tugged to know that the perpetrator ought to be locked up, with the key thrown away.
The Archbishop’s problem isn’t that he’s a bad lawyer. Nor is he ‘ignoring the child’, as one of his critics said. It’s that he’s ignoring the fundamental tenets of Christianity. In other words, Cardinal Napier is a bad and ignorant Christian, and it pains me to say this about one of the 115 men who’ve just elected the new pope.
At the heart of Christian morality lies the doctrine of free will, and it applies to crime as well. A man may be severely provoked to commit evil deeds, and the provocation may indeed come from an inner urge. But such an urge does not trump the ability to make a free choice between good and evil – it can’t turn a human being into an automaton whose buttons are pushed by an invisible and irresistible force.
If there is one scriptural phrase that sums up this divine property of man, it’s John 8: 32: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ Much of Christian moral philosophy flows out of this one sentence.
If we accept as a given that God loves us, that indeed God is love, then we must find it hard to explain how such love could have been expressed by turning us into puppets, or else pre-programmed robots. God’s is the absolute freedom, but if we are truly created in his image, ours has to be at least a relative one. Only God can be totally free, but that doesn’t mean man has to be totally enslaved.
All this comes from the theological primer, and you’d think that one of the world’s senior clergymen would have graduated to more sophisticated sources. Alas, the primer still seems to be very much needed.
His Grace ought to know the difference between a criminal urge and a criminal act. He may even be right that this particular urge is caused by the criminal having suffered similar abuse as a child. Personally, I’m not sure about this but, devoid of Cardinal Napier’s superior knowledge of psychiatry, I’m prepared to concede this point.
Similarly, a man whose parents beat him up as a child may, as an adult, feel the urge to punch strangers. This psychological quirk is understandable and may even be excusable. But it doesn’t absolve the chap of criminal culpability if he actually attacks people. It’s debatable whether or not people are responsible for their inclinations. It’s indisputable that they are responsible for their acts.
Cancer, diabetes, MS are diseases – one either gets them or not, and there’s little one can do about it. Even assuming that there’s nothing a paedophile can do about his desires – and this assumption is at best suspect in a man of God – he can still choose to control himself. If he chooses not to, he’s a criminal, not a patient.
Pope Francis has his work cut out for him if men like Cardinal Napier find themselves in positions of influence. The immensity of the task facing His Holiness will, one hopes, overshadow his concern for the ownership of a little rock whose name presumably means ‘lousy wine’ in his native language.