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Why Catholic church attendance is falling off

By Peter Bowden - posted Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop, Peter Comensoli, recently declared that he would rather go to prison than tell authorities about child sex abuse he learns of during the sacrament of confession.

It is an incredible statement, for it not only puts the Archbishop above the law, but it shows that Commensoli places his religious beliefs above a level of common human decency.

Victoria’s new legislation is designed to implement the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. The recommendation stated that religious leaders, teachers, social workers be required by law to report child abuse to abuse to authorities. The royal commission also recommended that there be no exemption for Catholic confession.


Commensoli’s distancing of the church from the normal values of everyday people would be one of the reasons why catholic church attendance is falling off, not only in the US but in Australia as well. And more so in Catholic France.

The reasons of course, are obvious. The clergy abuse scandal is world-wide, extending even to the remote Pacific islands. Archbishop Anthony Sablan Apuron of Guam was convicted in a secret Vatican trial in 2016 and suspended. The culture of sexual abuse devastated that West Pacific Catholic community.

But this writer believes that the cause behind the decline is deeper than the issue of clerical abuse. It is the increasing divergence between the practices of the church and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Most of us will have some exposure to those teachings. We would be aware of two of the greatest: The Sermon on the Mount, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The first gave us the eight beatitudes, but the parable enjoined us to look after those who had been hurt or injured, an injunction which most of us obey. “Go therefore and do likewise” was Jesus’ injunction (Luke 10 .27).  This directive, to care for those who needed help, was first recorded some 3000 years ago by King Solomon in Proverbs 3: 27: “Never walk away from someone who needs help.” He was possibly then only recording a belief that is basic to the development of cooperation in the most primitive of tribes, and  eventually, the human race.

Not so Commensoli. He would rather leave the perpetrator of sexual abuse go free than report him to the authorities. Some of these abuses have been horrific.

The sanctity of the confessional was adopted by the Catholic Church at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215, attended by almost 500 bishops and 900 abbots. This Council defined the eucharist host as the actual body and blood of Christ, a miracle in which not even all Catholics believe.  The Council also required Jews and Muslims to wear distinctive clothing. It was presided over by Innocent III, who was the pope who called for the crusade against the Albigensians. This was a blood-thirsty crusade against a people that could only be described as good. They believed in two gods – that of good and evil – a belief that this writer believes has a high degree of empirical support. Several hundred Cathars or Albigensians were burnt at the stake.  Innocent III had also organised the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the sack of Constantinople in1204. This attack was a Crusader victory with much destruction and killing. The weakening of Constantinople was one contributor to the eventual conquest of the city by the Turks in 1453. The split between Eastern and Western Christianity also was a result.

This writer is not quite clear on why the Catholic church instituted the seal of the confessional. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae asserted that the seal may not be violated, giving two reasons: the seal is divinely instituted, and the seal prevents scandal. Aquinas lists the arguments against maintaining the seal, which were thirteenth century variations on why the Royal Commission rejected it, and then gave his responses. In summary, they are:


The priest should conform himself to God, whose minister he is. But God does not reveal the sins which are made known to Him in confession, but hides them. Neither, therefore, should the priest reveal them.

if the priest could grant such a permission, this would seem to palliate the wickedness of bad priests, for they might pretend to have received the permission and so they might sin with impunity, which would be unbecoming.

 Jesus did forgive sinners. But it was done in public and the sin was well known. One was of a woman “known in the city to be a sinner.” (Luke 7:37) whose sins Jesus did forgive.

 The practical reason, it would seem, and more self-serving reason, was to ensure that the activities of bad priests were not made public. That may include Pope Innocent III. Arguably the most powerful pope in history, his reign transformed many aspects of the medieval Catholic church and European history. Created Pope before he was ordained, he spent much of his career in expanding the papal states and in temporal conflicts with European royalty. 

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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