One of the most important ideas of world religion is freedom of choice and personal accountability. This idea, that all of us are responsible for our actions and cannot offer excuses when we act immorally, is one of the most important contributions of religion to society. It is a fundamentally empowering belief. It says that each of us has the capacity to control our actions and be the people we want to be notwithstanding the society into which we are immersed. The idea of personal choice means that even in Nazi Germany you can have an Oscar Schindler and even amid the oppression of the Chinese you can have a moral giant like the Dalai Lama.
It is also an idea that runs fundamentally against the grain of accepted thought. Freud believed that we were far less masters of our own mental household than we would otherwise suppose. An animalistic Id will rear its ugly head whenever we try to suppress it. Likewise evolution demonstrated our kinship with animals over any unique humanity and our subjugation to laws that provided for the survival of the fittest. More recently, genetic predisposition and biological determinism argue that factors beyond our control govern our choices.
But countering all these attempts to portray freedom of choice as an illusion is world religion that insists, across nearly all denominations, that human beings are possessed of a soul that can rise above circumstance. We are at all times empowered to make choices. Viktor Frankl argued in his opus, Man's Search for Meaning, that every freedom can be taken away from a human being save one: the choice to react to what is being done to him. He says that even in the hell that was Auschwitz, there were those who shared their last morsels of bread with dying brothers.
We are capable of acting morally even when others do not. The Klan member in the 1960s south, who argues that his racism was due to his upbringing, is not absolved of his evil because we believe he was also endowed with a moral conscience and innately knew that certain things were wrong. If he blows up a church with African-American girls in it, he will be held accountable and no argument blaming his upbringing will be accepted as a defense.
Without this belief of personal responsibility world religion becomes an absolute farce. If people cannot choose to do the right against any and all pressures than religion, ethic, and morality have no meaning.
I therefore find it astonishing that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has now published a report arguing that the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests which, the report claims, peaked in the 1960s, was the result of the overall social and sexual deviance of that period. The report, produced by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues that the high incidence of sexual abuse by priests reflected the growing aberrance of American society in general during that period, including "drug use and crime, as well as changes in social behavior, such as an increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce."
Good G-d. Are they serious? Will we now reverse one of the central claims of religion that people, whatever their environment, can and must choose to do the right thing?
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger took responsibility for his affair, saying, "I understand and deserve the feelings of anger and disappointment among my friends and family. There are no excuses and I take full responsibility for the hurt I have caused. I have apologized to Maria, my children and my family. I am truly sorry." Are we to expect that politicians who were once body builders understand the need to take personal responsibility for their actions, but priests do not?
I sincerely hope that notwithstanding the issuance of this report, the church will make it crystal-clear that they are in way exonerating any immoral behavior on the part of errant priests and that whatever sexual license was being practiced in the environment that surrounded them, it in no way mitigates the seriousness of these crimes.
The world needs a robust Catholic church. The church does immeasurable good throughout the world, running more hospitals, schools and orphanages than any organization on earth. But the degree to which the Catholic church can continue to be a moral voice is directly dependent on the degree to which it proclaims unequivocally that at all times and at all places we are all expected to act in a G-dly manner and do the right thing.
Shmuley Boteach, 'America's Rabbi,' was voted the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium, and is the author most recently of 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' (Basic Books) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.