“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”
These opening words of confession to a priest constitute a sublime act of humility that marks the lives of so many Catholics. However, that act of trust and healing is threatened by a third party, the State, which may soon have the right to listen.
The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) deplores such a possibility and is urging its friends and supporters to protest. For the second time in three years, the legislature of New Hampshire is considering a bill that would force priests to report to the State confession secrets involving child abuse.
With this measure, New Hampshire will be the first state to require breaking the seal of Confession. It would force priests into choosing between jail or excommunication the penalty the Church imposes on those who break the seal. It would force faithful Catholics into sacrilege, since the Church requires that the penitent’s confession of all serious sin be integral. It would open the floodgates for breaking the seal under any other pretext deemed suitable by the State, thereby shaking the faithfuls’ trust in the sacrament.
Dissident reformers supporting the measure, however, seem to ignore such (soul-ripping dilemmas) issues and appear intent upon changing the Church. Priest, who already report abuse outside confession, will now be forced to break a priest’s most sacred trust, the Seal of Confession. Many priests say they will go to jail rather than betray this trust.
AN ATTACK UPON THE SACRAMENT
It should be noted that such a measure has no precedent in American law. Even secular professionals enjoy confidentiality with their patients and clients. In the United States, the government always considered what has been said between a priest and a penitent in confession as sacred and inviolable. It was rightly part of the guarantee of religious freedom.
Indeed, priests throughout the history of the church have been pressured to reveal confessions. Saint John Nepomucene (1340–1393), vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague, was a martyr for the Seal of Confession when he refused to reveal to King Wenceslaus IV the contents of the queen’s confession.
Confessors under Communism and Nazism suffered prison, torture, and execution rather than break the sacramental seal.
However, in a highly-emotional climate of hype, liberal reformers inside the Church have taken up the banner and in the name of “protecting the children” call for reforms that go far beyond healthy and much needed moral measures. They want to change the very nature of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Orders themselves.
The cry to break the Seal of Confession shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Sacrament of Penance. Legislators and officials, many of whom are not Catholic, rely on shoddy theology proposing solutions with only a superficial knowledge of Catholic issues. Others have politicized the issue by maintaining that the Sacrament of Confession with its Seal is just another senseless rule instituted by a male hierarchy to control the faithful!
Another disturbing aspect of the bill now being discussed is that there is no evidence at all that eliminating the Seal of Confession would significantly help protect children. Beyond episodic cases, there are no credible studies to indicate that forcing priests to break the seal of Confession will stop child abuse.
Moreover, the priests themselves would be subject to injustice since because of the Seal, they would not be able to defend themselves since they cannot use the knowledge gained in the confession even to save their own lives or reputation, or to refute a false accusation. They cannot even say what they did not hear in confession.
AMERICAN TFP CAMPAIGN
Responding to the efforts to violate the Seal of Confession, the American TFP’s Church Shall Prevail Campaign is asking friends and supporters to speak out and make their opinions known to legislators. This is not just a state issue but a national issue. New Hampshire is the battlefield where the future of the confessional is being decided.
Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., invited Catholics to join the TFP’s campaign. Recalling past attempts to break the Seal, Bishop Vasa encouraged members, stressing that “your assistance and participation now will assure that this unjust and shortsighted attack on one of our Sacraments will once again be repelled.”
The American TFP’s protest is yet one more step to respond to the scandals and the democratic reforms that threaten the Church. Structural and systemic changes like eliminating the Seal are exactly the kind of reforms foreseen in the TFP’s book, I Have Weathered Other Storms.
The state had absolutely no business inside the confessional. The Seal must be absolute, between the priest, the penitent and God. American Catholics must unite and react to keep it that way.