One of the things that has been a constant in the Pontificate of Pope Francis is his encouragement of the faithful to the Sacrament of Confession.
Don’t be afraid to ask God for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving us. God is pure mercy.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) August 25, 2013
The Sacrament of Confession is one of the most powerful graces of the church. It doesn’t matter how horrible the sin is or even if you spent a lifetime in the most horrible sins. The Sacrament of confession allows one to wipe the slate clean, as one priest put it: Forgiven, Forgotten, Forever!
A basic tenet of Confession is the confessional seal a priest can not under pain of Excommunication divulge what is revealed in confession (although the person receiving confession may choose to do so). This is critical particularly with serious sin. People in general do not like to admit mistakes in trivial matters. How much harder must it be when you are dealing with horrible and embarrassing sins, sins that have been weighing people down for decades, sins serious enough to cause damnation?
And that’s why this story is so important:
The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that a priest must testify in a case about what he heard in a confessional — an order that would result in automatic excommunication and damnation, according to the doctrine and canon law of the Catholic Church:
This has produced a statement from the archdiocese that says in part.
A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal. Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him. If necessary, the priest would have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty and violate the seal of confession and his duty to the penitent.
This is not a gray area in the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved for forgiveness to the Apostolic See in Vatican City, Italy.
In this case, the priest acted appropriately and would not testify about the alleged confessions. Church law does not allow either the plaintiff (penitent) or anyone else to waive the seal of confession.
Canon Law is very explicit on this:
Can. 983 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.” The punishment for breaking the seal is explicitly noted in Can. 1388: “A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae [by the commission of the act] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.”
There is one oddity here, while the diocese says the seal can NOT be released even at the request of the penitent several online Catholic sources say otherwise including Simona Fisher at the National Catholic Register:
However, a penitent may give a priest permission to talk about what was confessed. The penitent may release him from the seal.
and Fr. William Saunders at Catholic Education.org
However, a priest may ask the penitent for a release from the sacramental seal to discuss the confession with the person himself or others. For instance, if the penitent wants to discuss the subject matter of a previous confession — a particular sin, fault, temptation, circumstance — in a counseling session or in a conversation with the same priest, that priest will need the permission of the penitent to do so. For instance, especially with the advent of “face-to-face confession,” I have had individuals come up to me and say, “Father, remember that problem I spoke to you about in confession?” I have to say, “Please refresh my memory,” or “Do you give me permission to discuss this with you now?”
Or if a priest needs guidance from a more experienced confessor to deal with a difficult case of conscience, he first must ask the permission of the penitent to discuss the matter. Even in this case, the priest must keep the identity of the person secret.
This is a rather important thing to clarify, is the ability of the penitent to release the seal limited to conversation with themselves or conversation concerning advice concerning the sin? You will note in Fr’ Saunders example even with the release the priest can’t give the identity of the penitent.
It’s worth noting that the civil suit in question is being brought by the family of a penitent who wants the priest to corroborate the testimony of the penitent herself concerning a person unconnected to the church that supposedly abused her. The priest is not accused of abuse here but the civil suit names both the late alleged abuser, her confessor and the church as defendants:
The petitioners claimed Bayhi was negligent in advising the minor regarding the alleged abuse and failed his duty as a mandatory reporter in compliance with the Louisiana Children’s Code. It also holds the diocese liable for failing to properly train the priest regarding mandatory reporting of sexual abuse of minors.
As this case has been through the courts for years it’s logical to assume that the Diocese interpretation is correct, after all if there was any confusion concerning it the family could have requested clarification from the vatican as this case has been going through the courts for years and was ruled on by a lower court (which upheld the confessional seal).
So what is going on here? I have a thought.
I think the purpose of the suit over the confessional seal wasn’t so much to get the priest to testify, but to ensure he did not.
Let’s assume for a moment that if the priest testified and confirmed that yes indeed the girl confessed as she stated. This would actually tend to excuse both the Diocese and himself. Not only would any advice he gave would be subjective but as he is specifically forbidden to act upon any information he received under his obligation under the confessional seal he can not be considered negligent for said action even if he was able to discern who the person confessing was.
And of course such testimony would cover the Diocese as well as they certainly couldn’t:
#1 Train him based on events they didn’t know about
#2 Train him to violate the confessional seal.
However consider what a jury might think if the priest doesn’t testify in fact fights all he way to the supreme court to avoid it.
That might cause a civil jury to think that he and the Diocese has something to hide and given the history of the abuse scandal that would likely not be hard to sell to a jury. (And for that ease the Church bears full responsibility as their cowardice in being more concerned with avoiding scandal than promoting righteousness led to that state).
But in order to get this effect they would have to demonstrate an attempt to get the priest to testify, thus they launch the suits in hopes of getting the Diocese to settle to avoid a possible bad result and if that didn’t get the desired settlement the expectation of defeat would still produce the ability to imply the refusal of the priest to testify meant he had something to hide.
Victory in that confessional seal suit however is a disaster for the civil case.
You must remember any penalties the priest would be subject to are civil rather than criminal. With only cash at risk If a priest chooses to go to jail for contempt rather than testify suddenly instead of looking like a person trying to hide something he becomes a person willing to go to jail when he doesn’t have to, for the sake of principle.
The plaintiff of course might have hopes that the US Supreme Court might reverse Louisiana but I have to believe that our friends on the left will be doing all they can to win this case for the sake of upending the sacrament.
And that’s the irony here, the goal is money and the path to that goal seems to be the destruction of the sacrament and it’s reputation.
Which I think will serve the left just fine.