Last week Auxiliary Bishop Schuster of the Archdiocese of Seattle and I presented testimony against a Washington State bill that makes it illegal for clergy to keep penitential communications private. On Friday, however, it passed the Human Services, Youth & Early Learning committee, and will now go before the rest of the state House. This is the closest any bill that attacks the sacrament of confession has come to passing since California nearly enacted a similar law in 2019.
The Church’s canon law puts violating the seal of the confessional in the highest category of crimes, on par with physically assaulting the pope. Priests who violate this solemn obligation are automatically excommunicated from the Church. Kings and military dictators have learned over the centuries that you can’t coerce priests into breaking the seal of the confessional. They’ll be martyrs, not state witnesses, if you try.
The confessional’s confidential nature does not, however, prevent priests from using the sacrament to advance the Church’s commitment to justice and child safety. Many Catholic dioceses already train their seminarians that, if they hear of abuse during a confession, the priest should encourage the penitent to repeat this information to him later outside of confession, so the priest can make a report to civil authorities and connect victims with resources to help them heal.
If a perpetrator admits abuse as part of his confession, a priest can withhold absolution (the proclamation that God forgives the penitent) if the priest suspects that a confession is insincere or that the sinner is unwilling to reform. Notre Dame law professor and canon lawyer Fr. John Paul Kimes explains, “I can say, ‘I can’t forgive your sins until you show me a sign that there’s a genuine conversion of heart. The best way to manifest that is for you to go to the police and tell them what you did. Regardless of the consequences, if you were concerned about the salvation of your soul, this is the way you show it.’”
Second, while the bills overestimate the law’s ability to coerce priests, they underestimate what their efforts will do to Catholics in the pews. If people doubt that the confessional is a safe place to lay bare their souls, they won’t come.
Third, the pending bills in Washington, Vermont, and Delaware focus on puncturing the clergy-penitent privilege, while leaving the analogous attorney-client privilege intact.
Full story at First Things.
Any priest who makes absolution conditional upon going to the police and confessing to a crime is abusing the sacrament and the penitent. Recitation of the act of contrition is the only manifestation of contrition that is needed to meet the conditions for absolution. Pope Francis has said that no priest should ever deny absolution.
“Many Catholic dioceses already train their seminarians that, if they hear of abuse during a confession, the priest should encourage the penitent to repeat this information to him later outside of confession, so the priest can make a report to civil authorities and connect victims with resources to help them heal.” THIS IS SO WRONG AND VIOLATES THE SEAL OF CONFESSION. The penitent sought Jesus and forgiveness, and spiritual justice is given. The priest should encourage the person to go to the civil authorities so that temporal justice be done; but the priest is finished when the penitent leaves. Some priests only hear behind the screen now or in traditional confessionals, not face to face to maintain the seal. All of us sinners approach God for sins and for forgiveness in the spiritual realm. The sinner then must relieve himself of the temporal punishment in the earthly realm, in his time, when he is ready, without the priest’s interference. Let the legislators without sin be the first to cast stones.
Extremely important and very true: “If people doubt that the confessional is a safe place to lay bare their souls, they won’t come.” These genius legislators think that if they’re successful with these efforts, they’ll open a floodgate of information to assist law enforcement. That’s just delusional. If they were to be successful (which is just this side of impossible, given the First Amendment), they’ll just kill off use of the Sacrament for all but legally inconsequential sins, and probably those too eventually. What will be accomplished? Worse than nothing.
When I was young, I had thought that when a criminal confesses to a priest that he committed a sin that is a serious crime, such as murder– the priest will not automatically give him Absolution, even if the murderer is contrite– but tell the murderer (or other criminal) to see him outside the Confessional, and together, notify police, and take right actions. In such cases, I thought that a priest might waited in the church, outside the Confessional, after they were done hearing Confessions– for the criminal to hopefully show up, and proceed from there. Same thing, with a penitent confessing his intent to commit a serious crime, like murder.
I know that priests always give Absolution to contrite penitents, unless there is a good reason. Maybe I was mixed up, when young, but I had thought thst priests also tried to catch a bad criminal, like a murderer, outside Confession, telling the murderer he also must see the priest after Confession– and go to the police.
There is an error in my post of April 5 at 5:32 pm. My second sentence should read, “I thought that a priest might wait in the church… ” (etc.) We had a very different society, then. There was respect for the Catholic Church and her priests, and the Sacraments. There was also more understanding and training in Christian Morality– and fear of sin and Hell. We had real neighborhoods and real communities, then, with people who all knew each other, and priests knew everyone, too, all the Catholic families and children. Priests were often involved in people’s lives, socially, and even deeper, if people had problems. They did the work of social workers, counselors and psychologists, long before those professional fields were established. And they assisted the social welfare workers with helping the poor, and assisted the police with work to help juvenile delinquents and adult criminals with troubled lives. And helped people with all sorts of other issues– alcoholism, troubled marriages, adultery, wife and child abuse, etc. We had many manly, strong, well-respected priests, long ago. And lots of vocations.
It is possible that this idea might be motivated by the 1953 movie, “I Confess”. God catches us in our criminality. He forgives us through the priest, and urges us to resolve the temporal crime, but the priest can only continue to pray once the penitent leaves the confessional. God Himself guides the person after he leaves the confessional.
In the past, before Pope Francis changed it, anyone procuring or performing or assisting in an abortion in any way, was automatically excommunicated, and could not just go to a priest for Confession, regardless of contrition. They had to see the bishop. Murder of innocent, unborn children was viewed as worse than murder of any other type. Maybe the Catholic Church needs to change its rules again, about Confession. Perhaps those who have committed serious crimes– to include abortion, murder, or clergy sex abuse crimes (child rape, etc.)– need to be automatically excommunucated,
excluded from the Sacraments, and if a priest– forbidden to perform or receive any Sacraments, and required to undergo some kind of unique Church disciplinary processes, that includes admitting to, or confessing to the crime, outside the Confessional, also– with a bishop present, and receiving unusual penances. Plus, required reporting of all crimes to police. Those are my thoughts.
In the US, priests have had the faculty to absolve the sin of abortion for many years prior to Francis’ papacy. In the year of mercy, the pope extended the faculty to all priests in the world
I guess that was up to the bishop?
Pope Francis “changed it” is reductive.
You are still automatically excommunicated for obtaining or directly helping someone obtain an abortion.
Prior to the Year of Mercy, the sin of abortion could only be absolved by the bishop, Pope Francis extended those faculties to priests.
The discipline of the Church is adequate as it is.
where is Montgomery Clift
when we need him???
O Jesus, I pray for your faithful and fervent priests;
for your unfaithful and tepid priests;
for your priests labouring at home or abroad in distant mission fields;
for your tempted priests;
for your lonely and desolate priests;
for your young priests;
for your dying priests;
for the souls of your priests in purgatory.
But above all, I recommend to you the priests dearest to me:
the priest who baptised me;
the priests who absolved me from my sins;
the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me your Body and Blood in Holy Communion;
the priests who taught and instructed me;
all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way (especially …).
O Jesus, keep them all close to your heart,
and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity.