Keep government out of the confessional

Archbishop Aquila

One of the most powerful moments in the sacramental lives of Catholics occurs when we walk into a confessional, lay our sins at the feet of Jesus in the person of the priest and receive God’s forgiveness. But state legislators in California are seeking to break into this sacred encounter and require priests to divulge certain sins — a development that should concern people of faith everywhere.

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus appeared to the disciples and said, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:21-23). This conferral of the power to forgive sins shows us how much Jesus loves us and wants to accompany us with his mercy.

In the confessional — or for Eastern Catholics, in front of the icon of Jesus — we experience the limitless mercy and love of Christ, who so greatly desires to be present to us in our brokenness that he gave priests the authority to forgive sins.

When we go to the sacrament of reconciliation, Jesus offers his unconditional forgiveness to those who are repentant. The sins we confess are spoken to Christ in the person of the priest and are swallowed up by his mercy. Therefore, priests are required to maintain absolute secrecy about anything revealed during confession.

The Code of Canon Law clearly states: “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” (Canon 983.1). If a priest directly breaks this trust, he is automatically excommunicated and cannot be restored to the Church, except by the Pope himself.

The California legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 360, which would require priests to disclose sins of sexual abuse that they hear in the confessional. As my brother bishop, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has stated, this is “solving a crisis that doesn’t exist.”

Archbishop Gomez notes a 2017 study by Professor Keith Thompson that shows “child sexual abuse is not a sin that people confess to priests in the confessional. Those who counsel such predators tell us that sadly, many of them are secretive and manipulative and cannot comprehend the grave evil of their actions.”

At the same time, the idea that the government can insert itself into the intimate relationship between a person and God is an example of blatant disregard for the Church’s freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Priests in the Archdiocese of Denver have been mandatory reporters of sexual abuse for years and I fully support this policy, along with the rigorous safe environment policies we have implemented. But allowing the state to intrude into the confessional cannot be accepted. I wholeheartedly agree with Bishop Michael Barber’s statement that, “Even if this bill passes, no priest may obey it. The protection of your right to confess to God and have your sins forgiven in total privacy must be protected. …I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom.”

Penitents should not have to fear confession, rather it should be a place where they encounter what Jesus described to St. Faustina as “the Tribunal of Mercy. There the greatest miracles take place [and] are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle, it is not necessary to go on a great pilgrimage, or to carry out some external ceremony; it suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to Him one’s misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated” (Diary of St. Faustina, #1448).

May God guide our legislators and our country in these times of difficulty and may he help us restore all people to their true dignity, which is inherently bestowed by the Creator and not by the government.

COMING UP: The bullies and that book 

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Immediately after news broke on January 12 that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah had written a book on the crisis of the priesthood in the 21st-century Church, online hysteria erupted — which rather underscored the prudence of a New Year’s resolution I had recommended to concerned Catholics in a January 1 column: “Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere.”  

The extraordinary venom spewed at the pope emeritus and the cardinal by more than a few commentators did not advance the Church’s discussion of the reform of the priesthood one jot or tittle. It actually retarded that urgent discussion, diverting attention from some urgent issues (including the deep roots of the abuse crisis and the meaning of clerical celibacy) by treating a serious book as if it were a partisan political tract.  

Yet the cacophony over the Benedict/Sarah book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, did serve two useful purposes: it spoke volumes about the character of the venomous, and it clarified some of the dynamics roiling the Church as the pontificate of Pope Francis approaches its seventh anniversary on March 13. 

The attack on Pope Emeritus Benedict was exceptionally nasty — and deeply ill-informed. One prominent partisan of the current pontificate opined that Benedict is “conscious barely half an hour at a time;” another wizard from the left field bleachers had it that Benedict was “incapacitated.” Neither man has the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. I spent a full 45 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict this past October 19, discussing a broad range of issues. He was quite frail physically, but in the early evening of what I assume had been a normal day, he was completely lucid, quite well-informed, eager for new information, full of good humor, and able to recall themes and personalities from conversations we had had decades earlier. The pope emeritus seemed clear as a bell, intellectually, at age 92; can the same be said for those who, relying on “reports,” dismiss him as a senile old man, out of touch with events and perhaps even reality? 

The attack on Cardinal Sarah was equally vicious and just as ill-informed. I have had the honor of knowing the Guinean cardinal for several years and, like anyone who has spent significant time with him, I have found him a man of profound holiness: a truly converted disciple of Jesus Christ whose ministry flows from his radical fidelity to the Lord. Despite the caricatures perpetrated by those who evidently fear his present and future influence in the Church, Cardinal Sarah has also struck me as a man of Christian joy, still amazed at the grace of God that has been at work in his life, and therefore able to laugh (in that robust way that only Africans can) at the human foibles of the moment. Cardinal Sarah was not laughing, however, at the claim that he had lied about the origin and nature of From the Depths of Our Hearts and his righteous, if controlled, anger confirmed what those who actually know him understand: this is an honest man.  

These calumnies against Benedict and Sarah were amplified by another absurd charge: that by discharging their minds and consciences on what is necessary for an authentic reform of the priesthood, the pope emeritus and the cardinal were somehow interfering with Pope Francis’s “discernment” after the Amazonian synod of this past October. So it has now come down (and I do mean down) to this: the partisans of openness and dialogue are now telling two of Catholicism’s most distinguished sons that their views are unwelcome; that the theological and pastoral defense of clerical celibacy is an act of disloyalty to Pope Francis; and that they should just shut up.  

These are not the tactics of advocates convinced that they have won the substantive argument and are likely to continue winning. These are the tactics of those who, fearful that time is running out, imagine that their only recourse is to resort to bullying.  

There is nothing of churchmanship in this, nor is there anything of Christian charity. The reform of the priesthood is essential for the evangelizing mission of the Church. Those who dismissed a serious proposal for such reform, in large part by vilifying its authors, branded themselves as less interested in reforming the priesthood of the New Covenant than in ecclesiastical power-games. 

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano