Sunday, March 6, 2016

Is the Confessional Truly Confidential?

Over the course of history, the Catholic faith has gone through many changes. From minor changes such as trying to use words that fit the original Latin tradition better, to big changes started by some man who posted, meaning actually nailed them, “The 95 Theses” to the Wittenberg Castle door. If you are unaware, that man was Martin Luther. The main issue that these 95 points highlighted was the practice of indulgences that Luther believed were completely incorrect, and not true to theme of the Bible. In simplicity, indulgences were ways for people who have sinned to basically buy their ticket to Heaven. Although the Church did not expressly state to the public that they were basically selling themselves out to the highest bidder, Luther was able to witness this firsthand as a monk. 


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So how does the Protestant Reformation that occurred in 1517 come into play today? It is through the idea of Reconciliation within the Catholic faith. Reconciliation, defined as restoring friendly relations, in the Catholic church is known as the ability to confess your sins to a priest in the hopes of being absolved for your sins. In the times of Martin Luther, the penance, the name of the tasks the priest required you to do to be forgiven, was commonly to donate a set sum of money to the Church. However, in current times, and as a result of the Reformation, a typical penance can consist of anything from apologizing to your parents for not listening to saying ten of a certain prayer. Although how it is performed has changed, Reconciliation has always been an important facet of the Catholic faith. A perfect example of its importance to the Catholic faith is that up until recently, it used to be, and some still believe, that you are unable to fully participate in the faith service unless you have been absolved of your sins, which would require Reconciliation.

Although all of this information seems extremely pointless in a Freedom of Religion discussion, it comes into play when considering a new decision issued by a judge in Louisiana who struck down a statute that required clergy members, in this case a priest, to report suspected child abuse even if it is in a confidential confession. In a ruling that the defense claims “upheld Religious Freedom”, the judge found the priest to be not guilty. An important note to recognize in this case is that the act also included one crucial statement saying “notwithstanding any claim of privileged information”. On these issues, the case rests, and I hope to clarify.

Bringing this issue back to the whole history of Reconciliation that I previously established in the opening paragraphs, is how this law could clearly impact, and infringe upon the rights to practice religion freely. Although this may seem like a stretch, the following points should help to expand upon why. As we established, Reconciliation has been a practice of the Catholic faith for longer than United States of America has even existed. Although I have traced how Reconciliation has changed throughout the ages, there is one thing that has been uniform throughout, the Seal of the Confessional, sometimes referred to as priest-penitent privilege. This privilege, or right as many Catholics view it, simply means that anything confessed during Reconciliation, which occurs in a confessional, is confidential information. This Seal helps to enforce the idea that Reconciliation is a conversation between the penitent and God, who is present through the priest. Many view this Confidential Seal as one that can not be broken as undermining it would result in loss of trust for priests and therefore force the idea of Reconciliation, a time when you can admit your sins in the hopes of being absolved, to crumble as no penitents will feel comfortable in admitting any sins. Therefore, to establish a law that required priests to face excommunication from their faith, the result of breaking the Seal, or to be in violation of the law, I believe is a failure to recognize the religious freedom we are granted under the First Amendment.


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Although I do hold this stand, I do not believe the law, as it is written is an attack on religious freedom; however, to protect religious freedom, we must discuss the issue of confidentiality that the statute refers to. As previously stated, the statute refers to the fact that the information exempt from being reported if it is not “notwithstanding any claim of privileged information”. Therefore, this issue hinged on whether the information stated in the confessional is confidential, in the eyes of the law. As previously established, the Seal of the Confessional is a clear establishment that what is told to the priest in Reconciliation, where he is only operating as a way for the penitent to speak to God according to their faith, is confidential, and therefore privileged information, and violating this seal would result in excommunication from the Church and the undermining of a key Catholic sacrament. Moreover, the clash of politics and the Church of Reconciliation is not new; but rather, there is actually a Catholic Martyr of the Confessional who was put to death by a King when the priest refused to say what was told in confession. Through this, I believe that there is clear evidence that to force a group of faith to change their history is to force citizens to give up their religion and be unable to practice.

Even with my stance on the issue of confidentiality within the confessional, there is one key issue that needs to be addressed with this case. In reading, if you actually read about it, the Seal of the Confessional, you may notice that there is not an explicit mention of what can be said during Reconciliation. Therefore, I do not believe that it would be a violation if the priest used the time in Reconciliation to offer the child contact information for someone who is able to deal with the situation and would be willing and able to help. I believe that if the priest is willing and provides this information, that they are doing their best, within their abilities to provide the child with the right tools to handle the situation accordingly. Furthermore, the Seal of the Confessional does not apply to times when Reconciliation has not formally started, meaning the opening prayer has not yet been stated. This information means that if the priest is the only person that the child has trust in, the child can approach the priest outside of Reconciliation and ask for help. Within all of these statements, I am firmly aware that if the alleged comments that the priest told the minor to “sweep the issue under the rug” were actually said, that the minor was faced with a difficult decision, and the priest did not act as I would have hoped; however, that is an issue that can only be fixed within the Catholic faith in its selection of priests. However, we now know how to change the Catholic faith, simply break out the quill and scroll and begin crafting your own 95 theses.

5 comments:

Jim R said...

After reading the original post, I have a mixed opinion on the all the actions that the Louisiana statute should uphold.

I believe that the Louisiana pastors should confess details they learn about a person in a confessional if there is a crime involved. Without the proper authorities knowing what has happened about the child abuse case, the law of the land cannot be faithfully executed. The child abuse case can have traumatic social and medical effects on the victims if they are left in isolation. In my opinion, this is enough evidence to establish a compelling state interest in the case and to allow for the state to supersede the protection of private speech that is guaranteed in the 1st Amendment. Despite my argument for the government to perform their duties on a seemingly religious practice, the determination of when to supersede a person's private protections should be first consented between the priest and the visitor rather than have the government act as an independent authority.

The next piece is to analyze the particular method of healing, the Reconciliation by the Catholic Church. While the Reconciliation ritual symbolizes a connection between God and the parishioner, the healing process of finding an individual to let people express their opinions should not be considered by the government as supporting a particular sect. The only promotion of religion that this ritual has is to establish a mutual understanding between the people within the booth. This does not skew national, state, or local opinions of faith. However, the parishioner inside the booth is impressionable to the questions that the preacher asks. The treatment of this person by the pastor is similar to the way schoolchildren look towards their teachers for educational guidance. Their voluntary participation in Reconciliation allows for a private forum to be established and viewpoints to be expressed on the difficulties that a victim may face, even if the transgressions do not appear to be breaking any laws.

Finally, the absolution of the sins associated with a crime does not fully absolve a person of potential wrongdoing that occurred. Since the sexual abuse was a crime against another person, the abuser in the eyes of the law would still face federal punishment for breaking a secular law. By having the pastor tell law enforcement authorities the details they learn in the confessional, they allow for those that performed the wrong action to be properly brought to trial (5th and 6th Amendments) and to have their 8th Amendment rights protected (no cruel or unusual punishments).

I agree with Matthew's final point that the pastor should try to provide contact information of groups of individuals that victims can reach out to, whether they are in the church or have secular importance. This closed forum inside the confessional allows for speech to be more genuine and approach victims from either a secular or a religious point of view.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

This is a very complete and accurate presentation of this sacrament. The Reconciliation sacrament is indeed supposed to be a conversation with God, and it is also correct that destroying the privacy of this conversation would be an infringement to the Free Exercise clause. However, it seems very improbable that a young child would be able to get him or herself out of an abusive situation with just pieces of advice. Furthermore, what would prove that the priests are actually providing abused kids with practical information? We have seen during the course that the Supreme Court Justices often said that the Free Exercise clause protected beliefs but not necessarily practices, and we have also read about several cases in which they did exceptions based on attacks against the well-being of kids, particularly concerning physical integrity. I think this case should be granted such an exception.

Liz S. said...

Asking a priest to report a crime like child abuse would be undermining an extremely important Sacrament in Catholicism. If priests were forced to report crimes that were confessed to in the confessional, two major things could happen. First, many Catholics would be too afraid, possibly, to go to Confession for fear of being reported. This in theory would place a huge strain on their believed relationship with god, and could have many negative affects regarding fear of damnation or going to purgatory for not confessing to sins. Second, priests who break the Seal of Confession, as Matthew said, would face damnation. And thus forcing them to report crimes in the confessional would make them choose between the law and their faith. While this is an extremely hard case because the health and safety of children are at stake, I believe that the establishment clauses' freedom of practice should allow priests to practice as they always have. The Seal of Confession has been around for hundreds of years, and so putting that at stake would have major consequences and would be unconstitutional.

Samantha Woolford said...

I understand that the Sacrament of Confession is extremely important to the relationship between Catholics and God. However, I believe that priests should either notify the appropriate parties (should it be the parents or authorities, etc.) about crimes that are confessed. Currently, if a child comes to a priest and says that they are being abused, the priest would not be able to really help them. If a person came and told the priest they were part of a terrorist group and were going to attack another major city, then he wouldn't be allowed to tell anyone. There is a compelling state interest to protect the lives of Americans and not subject them to dangers confessed by those to priests. I will admit that I am probably biased, particularly to this, because I have three little siblings (6, 5, and 4 years old) and I would be absolutely horrified if something like this were to happen and no one did anything about it. I am also Catholic so I understand that it really goes against the religion for a priest to tell others what has been said in confession. However, there are bigger things at stake, such as the welfare of individuals.

The Synaptic Dissident said...

That is never going to happen, ever. Period. If a priest breaks the seal they face immediate excommunication only can be lifted by the Pope and even then they are stripped of all diocesan duties and put in seclusion there to do penance the rest of their lives.