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 shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.