So once again in Australia we see the inner workings of the Catholic Church being dissected by an audience that has little understanding of, or care for, matters of faith. Interestingly while commentators are usually quick to point out perceived trespassing by the Church into the domain of the State, there doesn’t seem to be quite the same concern about calls for the State to come wandering into the inner sanctum of the Church. With a Royal Commission having being called into the sin of child sexual abuse, the latest target is – somewhat ironically – the very sacrament that exists to forgive sin, confession.
The criticism stems around the thousand-year-old Church law which binds priests to never disclose anything that they learn from penitents during the course of the sacrament. This confidentiality between priest and penitent is the oldest kind of confidential communication that exists. It has been upheld by priests down the ages and around the world regardless of where they may sit on the theological spectrum. It doesn’t take much logic to consider why the seal of confession is essential to the integrity of the sacrament. Without anonymity people would simply not pursue sacramental forgiveness. While some might respond ‘who cares’, the truth is confession has a greater potential for effect on the citizens of a nation than a hundred Royal Commissions.
The sacrament of confession is easily mocked, especially by those who went once as a child but never came to understand its value in the faith of an adult pursuing a life of virtue. The sacrament involves the full disclosure of serious sin to a priest who, ordained to act in the person of Jesus Christ, becomes in one sense the channel of God’s forgiveness. Now of course Father X has no more power to personally forgive sin than I have power to fly, which is why when he says “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” the “I” is referring to the direct forgiveness of Christ through the instrumentality of that particular priest.
For those millions of faithful who make regular use of the sacrament they can attest to its healing and strengthening capacity. From a faith perspective the healing comes from the grace of God which is reestablished in the person who has deliberately walked away from what they knew to be true and good. Confession is not as much about God ‘forgiving’ the person as it is about the person acknowledging their fault and ‘seeking forgiveness’ from God and those they wronged. If a person is presenting for the sacrament then, with true sincerity of heart, might it not be reasonable to think that they may open to dealing with whatever deeper issues lie within?
And confession is not some Catholic trick that enables a person to gain forgiveness on Monday, sin on Tuesday and roll back into the confessional on Wednesday completely unrepentant. The priest gives absolution on the basis of sincere resolution by the penitent that he will do his best – with God’s grace – to sin no more and carefully avoid occasions of sin. If someone goes into a confessional and confesses to child abuse (or any sin) with their lips but holds in their heart no genuine desire to reform their life, there is no forgiveness by God even if the words of absolution were uttered by the priest.
Those who make genuine use of this sacrament are those who are sincerely trying to better their lives and become more Christ-like in thought, word and deed. To do this requires a life change on the part of the penitent which is why the priest will give a penance. It may be some simple prayers but in the case of a more serious offence it may include instruction to seek professional help or to turn oneself over to police. An authentic confession must involve restitution made to God, people or property depending on the particular sin. Besides, what do we expect Father X to do, jump out of his side of the confessional and run in to handcuff the penitent on the other side of the grill? And if we expect priests to become law enforcement officers will they also need to report thefts and murders and the dark thoughts of those who confess they desire to inflict any sort of misery on others?
The willingness to confess ones sins is the start of an openness to change. Secular society mistakenly thinks that genuine change will come through more police, laws and commissions. All these have their place but lasting and real reform comes though an encounter with a healing reality beyond oneself and that is confessions most powerful gift to the world.
The State should go ahead and conduct a Royal Commission – for child abuse is something that cannot be tolerated – but the sacraments of the Church should be respected for the positive role they play in offering genuine healing and the strength to pursue a better life. The failure of a few does not give the State the right to impose itself upon the Church’s sacramental system and turn priests into mandatory reporters. Such a discussion only descends into a religious bias which cares little about dealing with the real problem of abuse.