A war of words has broken out between the Victorian Government and the Roman Catholic Church. The Premier is bidding to outlaw the seal of the confessional while Catholic hierarchy is defending it as sacrosanct.
First of all, I need to note an important correction to the Premier’s statement. Most ministers of most churches are required to report suspected child abuse, according to the rules of their own denomination. Indeed, mandatory reporting is practiced by Baptists across Victoria (and indeed, around the nation) and we want this to be the case. Even if it was not mandatory, we would still report suspected child abuse. It makes no sense not to do so.
Canon law states that”The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”
Any priest who breaks the seal is automatically excommunicated from the church. Only the Pope can overturn this.
Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli has come out and said that he would prefer to go to jail than break the seal of the confessional. While saying that he would encourage an offender to go to the police, he wouldn’t break the seal if they refused to do so.
At the moment I think both Archbishop Comensoli and Premier Daniel Andrews are missing the mark.
On the one hand, I commend Daniel Andrews for taking further action on this terrible issue. And yet his rhetoric about putting ‘children first’ rings a little hollow. There are those in the community who are concerned for all children and aggrieved by the fact that vulnerable children become hay in politicking. The Premier’s record demonstrates that he often puts ideology first. For example, he ensured that an amendment to the Abortion Law Reform Act was defeated, a step which would have protected children from late-term abortion. Also, the rebirth of the birth certificate bill puts children at risk. In 2016 he introduced an amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act which would have stripped religious organisations, schools, and churches, of their freedom to insist that employees adhere to the doctrinal and ethical convictions of their religious institution.
At the same time, the issue of child sexual abuse has exposed a theological flaw in Catholic dogma, as well as a moral one. The Confessional grew out of an inflated and unbiblical notion of the priesthood. One could enter into a long discussion here about the historical and theological premises the lay behind the seal of the confessional, but in short, this is not a practice encouraged by or mandated in the Bible. Indeed, it clearly conflicts with the teaching of the New Testament Church.
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5).
No priest can absolve another person’s sins, let alone their own. We can certainly confess our own sins to those whom we have offended and to ask for their forgiveness. There is a place for corporate confession to God. But no priest can represent God and absolve another’s sin. We can listen to others and offer advice, but we cannot stand as Divine judge over a person and officiate Divine forgiveness or judgment.
As a member of the community who is not Roman Catholic, one of the things that continues to concern me is how Archdiocese’s rhetoric continues to signal the wrong message; namely that they do not truly take child sexual abuse seriously. As a father of three children, this sickens me and makes me empathise with those who no longer trust religious institutions. I wish to say that the real Jesus is safe and good, and many churches are safe and wonderful places to investigate and come to terms with the greatest realities of life. But this immense positive is often lost in the face of due public scrutiny of institutions who have failed our children.
The Conscience and the Government
As I consider the debate, there are broader questions that should not be ignored. We mustn’t overlook for example these two further considerations: the conscience, and the role of Government. The conscience of individuals is important, even when we disagree with their religious views. The conscience is, of course, not God or infallible The Bible acknowledges that the conscience can be seared as with a hot iron (1 Timothy 4:2). However, we should be slow to stamp our own conscience on others.
We must also be wary of Government intrusion into religious practices. Do we really want Government dictating what are and are not valid religious convictions? I am not supporting the Roman Catholic Church’s position; I find it reprehensible. But neither do I believe it is right or healthy for the Government to interfere with a church’s traditional teaching. The issue is further complexed because Daniel Andrews is right in suggesting that religious leaders are not and should not be outside the law. In my view, both Mr Andrews and the Catholic Archbishop are throwing speech bombs at each other rather than working toward a solution.
A potential solution
Perhaps the most sensible solution that I have seen thus far comes from the words of a progressive Muslim, Waleed Aly. I don’t think it’s foolproof by any measure, but at least it is an offering in the right direction In 2018, writing for the New York Times, Aly rightly notes that a law, such as the one being proposed today, will fail because the consequences facing a priest who breaks the confessional are far greater than those imposed by the State. In addition, given the nature of the confessional, it is unlikely that those sealed revelations made by abusers will be uncovered by authorities.
“the royal commission reported on testimony from several priests who said, in the words of one, that a priest hearing confessions “has always been required to have at least ‘moral certitude’ of the penitent’s contrition and purpose of amendment before granting absolution.”
Accordingly, the commission’s said that “a priest can defer granting absolution until the act of satisfaction” has been carried out. For example, the report says, a confessed abuser would not be forgiven by a priest unless he reports himself to the police. Several priests told the commission that this is exactly what priests hearing confession should do.
This approach is far more likely to curtail reoffending than any attempt to compromise the institution of the confessional. It certainly addresses the commission’s finding that the easy availability of absolution contributes to reoffending. It would increase the likelihood that abusers will go to the authorities since it is the only way they can receive forgiveness.
And since keeping the state out of the confession booth wouldn’t require priests to commit an excommunicable offense, it is far more likely to be applied than a law that extends mandatory reporting into the confessional booth.”
Waleed Aly has offered an alternative, which may work. This position will remain distasteful for many Christians because it upholds a practice that undermines the sole and sufficient mediatorial work of Jesus Christ. This is an unnecessary tradition and one that gives false assurances to those who make use of the confessional. The confessional remains a box in which a man presumes the role of God. At yet, could Aly’s proposal allow conscience to be preserved and hold back undue Governmental interference into religious doctrinal matters?
I am calling on the Melbourne Archdiocese to re-evaluate their unsound and unethical practice of confessional seal. And I call on the Government to work harder to provide a workable and important solution to protect our children. Indeed, much good has come from this evil in recent years and I pray that we continue on this road.