The topic was mentioned on here recently about the Irish government’s plan to introduce mandatory reporting of child abuse, with particular reference to the duties of priests as regards what they learn in confessions. I’m not going to wade into the particular reasons our Taoiseach (the Irish prime minister), Enda Kenny, got so upset or the triggering cause for the situation here in Ireland, nor am I going to address this topic from the legal or practical or political or social or secular viewpoint; if you wish, you may read some references as to why we don’t yet have mandatory reporting and all the to-ing and fro-ing over its introduction at various news gathering sites. Also, a little clarification: “abuse” is taken generally to mean “sexual abuse” but there are, as the “Children First” guidelines define it, at least four broad categories:
“Because children can be abused in a number of ways, sometimes at the same time, it is not always easy to categories it, but four broad definitions can be considered and may be briefly summarised as neglect; emotional abuse; physical abuse and sexual abuse.” These are the guidelines currently being considered for translation into statutory law.
Okay, I’m going to bite the bullet and talk about the hardest of hard cases: suppose someone (man or woman) goes to confession and tells the priest “Last night I raped my daughter (or son).” If I may quote what Donalbain said in a comment: “Should a priest inform on a criminal? How is that a hard subject. Of course they should.”
Well, I’m taking the Catholic Church side that no, they shouldn’t. (I told you this would get me stoned for blasphemy.)
To swerve aside just a little, let me direct you to the last time this topic was dealt with in the popular media; the 1953 Hitchcock film ”I Confess”. It’s an overwrought and even at times lurid treatment, but the bones of it are accurate: a priest is accused of a murder; he knows the real murderer because he heard his confession; but he can’t defend himself because he is bound not to break the seal of the confessional.
The Code of Canon Law puts it very succinctly:
Can. 983 §1. 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.
A priest is supposed to die before he breaks the seal. That sounds melodramatic, no? I instance you the case of St. John Nepomucene. An extract from the handy Wikipedia article on him: “John of Nepomuk is a national saint of the Czech Republic… (O)n March 20, he was tortured and thrown into the river Vltava from Charles Bridge in Prague at the behest of Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia. Later accounts state that he was the confessor of the queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge the secrets of the confessional. On the basis of this account, John of Nepomuk is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, a patron against calumnies and, because of the manner of his death, a protector from floods.”
You can believe that was the reason or not, as you like, but the fact remains (again, to quote Wikipedia, which sums it up nicely): “Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others… In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage the penitent to surrender to authorities. However, this is the extent of the leverage they wield. They may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities themselves.”
So why do we hold such an outrageous opinion on what Donalbain and others would consider a “no-brainer” question?
Because a priest is not an accountability partner, and confession – the Sacrament of Penance, if you’re my vintage, or Reconciliation if you’re post-dinosaur – is not merely a confidential chat or counselling session. It’s one of the Seven Sacraments which we believe were directly instituted by Christ Himself (in this instance, we take Him at His word in John 20:22-23: “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”) It is not that the priest himself by any virtue or power on his own part forgives sins, but that when he pronounces absolution, God acts through him to really, actually and objectively expunge sin.
What is the function of the priest in confession, then? It’s not just – as in some popular Protestant misconceptions – to give us Papists a blank slate to run out and do whatever we like six days of the week, then on Saturday wipe it all clean until we can get back to sinning on Monday. To quote the Catechism on this:
Can. 978 §1. In hearing confessions the priest is to remember that he is equally a judge and a physician and has been established by God as a minister of divine justice and mercy, so that he has regard for the divine honour and the salvation of souls.
That’s the second and just as important function: physician as well as judge. Mark 2:17 “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”, Luke 5:31 “And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance”, Matthew 9:12 “But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
And in order to exercise that function, absolute confidentiality and discretion is needed. Depending on where you go to confession, you may nowadays be back to the ancient practice of face-to-face confessing your sins, where you and the priest see one another (the older version, where the screens in the confession boxes meant no one saw anyone, is still around and frankly, I’m glad because no way under heaven I’d say what I have to say to anyone looking me in the eye) – anyway, you can say all the nasty, horrible, wicked, embarrassing, grubby little details of exactly how far you fall from the ideal and exactly how pathetic you are as a follower of Christ, and be absolutely, completely assured that no one else will ever hear about it. No sharing with his buddies at a diocesan retreat bull session about “Hey, guys, ever hear this one before?” No ratting you out to your spouse, your employer, or The Man. Not even if you give him your permission to talk about what you confessed. In hard cases, he may phrase your example as a hypothetical or give an abbreviated account to a superior or the bishop (e.g. in the case of what we call “reserved sins”) but even if the Secret Police break his door in at three in the morning and haul him off to the interrogation centre where they put a gun to his head, his lip is supposed to stay zipped.
I can’t remember where I found it, but I did read on a Catholic blog a while back an anecdote about a saint (a nun who was having visions of Jesus) and, when she asked a priest advisor for guidance as to whether these were true or deceptions of the devil, he gave her a test: next time, ask Him what you said in your last confession. Next time she had such a vision, she did exactly that. She then recounted to her advisor what the answer was : “I do not know; I have forgotten your sins.”
And that convinced the priest her visions were genuine.
Because when you confess, with sincere remorse and repentance, and are absolved, your sins are wiped out. They are no more. They are forgotten, lost, done away with, destroyed by the grace of the sacrament which is the grace of Jesus Christ. That is why this is not just an easy, unproblematic question of “Of course you turn the perps into the relevant authorities”.
Let me give you an example: consider Gilles de Rais.
Ever heard the story of Bluebeard? Gilles de Rais is considered the inspiration behind that tale. The real story is even worse (yes, even worse than corpses of murdered wives hidden behind locked doors). Fifteenth-century French nobleman, soldier, former comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc (yes, that Joan of Arc) and child rapist and murderer. First, the factual treatment, thanks once again to Wikipedia (warning: if you go to the article, the details of one of the rape-murders are distressing, to say the very, very least):
The precise number of Gilles’ victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes.
Long story short: Gilles was eventually found out, had both a church and secular trial (after voluntarily confessing before he could be put to the question by torture) and was condemned to be hanged and burned with his accomplices. That’s not the point.
This is the point. Taken from the novel dealing with Satanism in contemporary (as it was in 1891) Paris, Là-Bas by the 19th century French fin de siècle (and ultimately Catholic revert) novelist J-K Huysmans (again, a warning for content if you decide to read this book because of its depictions of Satanism, Black Masses, historical atrocities, current – at the time – sexual mores, heterodoxy/occultism associated with the Western Esoteric Tradition and gratuitous insulting of Americans. As a side-note – because we’re getting too serious here – a reason why novels of the “Left Behind” ilk don’t impress me; for real depravity, you need a liturgical church with a long history of the eccentric, the odd, and the downright nuts! Okay, dropping the bad attempt at humour and going back to a serious point) and the 1971 book on the case, The Trial of Gilles de Rais by Georges Bataille as cited in the Wikipedia article, seems to confirm the main points as described below:
He divulged every detail. The account was so formidable, so atrocious, that beneath their golden caps the bishops blanched. These priests, tempered in the fires of confessional, these judges who in that time of demonomania and murder had never heard more terrifying confessions, these prelates whom no depravity had ever astonished, made the sign of the Cross, and Jean de Malestroit rose and for very shame veiled the face of the Christ.
Then all lowered their heads, and without a word they listened. The Marshal, bathed in sweat, his face downcast, looked now at the crucifix whose invisible head and bristling crown of thorns gave their shapes to the veil.
He finished his narrative and broke down completely. Till now he had stood erect, speaking as if in a daze, recounting to himself, aloud, the memory of his ineradicable crimes. But at the end of the story his forces abandoned him. He fell on his knees and, shaken by terrific sobs, he cried, “O God, O my Redeemer, I beseech mercy and pardon!” Then the ferocious and haughty baron, the first of his caste no doubt, humiliated himself. He turned toward the people and said, weeping, “Ye, the parents of those whom I have so cruelly put to death, give, ah give me, the succour of your pious prayers!”
Then in its white splendour the soul of the Middle Ages burst forth radiant.
Jean de Malestroit left his seat and raised the accused, who was beating the flagstones with his despairing forehead. The judge in de Malestroit disappeared, the priest alone remained. He embraced the sinner who was repenting and lamenting his fault.
A shudder overran the audience when Jean de Malestroit, with Gilles’s head on his breast, said to him, “Pray that the just and rightful wrath of the Most High be averted, weep that your tears may wash out the blood lust from your being!”
And with one accord everybody in the room knelt down and prayed for the assassin. When the orisons were hushed there was an instant of wild terror and commotion. Driven beyond human limits of horror and pity, the crowd tossed and surged. The judges of the Tribunal, silent, enervated, reconquered themselves.
…“Tell us, Durtal, how the people acted when Gilles de Rais was conducted to the stake.”
“Yes, tell us,” said Carhaix, his great eyes made watery by the smoke of his pipe.
“Well, you know, as a consequence of unheard-of crimes, the Marshal de Rais was condemned to be hanged and burned alive. After the sentence was passed, when he was brought back to his dungeon, he addressed a last appeal to the Bishop, Jean de Malestroit, beseeching the Bishop to intercede for him with the fathers and mothers of the children Gilles had so ferociously violated and put to death, to be present when he suffered.
“The people whose hearts he had lacerated wept with pity. They now saw in this demoniac noble only a poor man who lamented his crimes and was about to confront the Divine Wrath. The day of execution, by nine o’clock they were marching through the city in processional. They chanted psalms in the streets and took vows in the churches to fast three days in order to help assure the repose of the Marshal’s soul.”
“Pretty far, as you see, from American lynch law,” said Des Hermies.
Let me give you another quote, this time from Chesterton’s “The Chief Mourner of Marne”, The Secret of Father Brown, 1927 (emphasis mine):
“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”
“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”
He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.
“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”
“The dawn,” repeated Mallow doubtfully. “You mean hope – for him?”
“Yes,” replied the other. “Let me ask you one question. You are great ladies and men of honour and secure of yourselves; you would never, you can tell yourselves, stoop to such squalid reason as that. But tell me this. If any of you had so stooped, which of you, years afterwards, when you were old and rich and safe, would have been driven by conscience or confessor to tell such a story of yourself? You say you could not commit so base a crime. Could you confess so base a crime?” The others gathered their possessions together and drifted by twos and threes out of the room in silence. And Father Brown, also in silence, went back to the melancholy castle of Marne.”
What is the point of these fictional excursions? I want to drive the point home, as heavily and bluntly and plainly as I can, that this whole matter of the seal of the confessional is mystically entwined with the title of this post: forgiveness.
As Christians (never mind Catholics or denominationalism) we believe there is no unforgivable sin.
Yes, before you jump in here with “But! Mark 3:28-29! (“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin”) – they’re still arguing over what, exactly, constitutes the Unforgivable Sin and what it consists of in so many words.
And yes, undeniably, Matthew 18:5-6 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Better, infinitely better. But if you do, what then? If you sincerely repent, if you receive (however your tradition or denomination gives or denotes it) the forgiveness and grace of Christ, what then?
We can’t say that Gilles de Rais is in Hell. (We can’t say of our own knowledge that anyone is in Hell; Hitler, Stalin, anyone you like: if they repent and are accepted by God even at the ultimate last dying breath second, they’re saved). If his repentance was sincere (and God alone is the Judge here who reads all hearts and knows the unsearchable depths and abysses of the human mind), we can say he’s in Purgatory. If your tradition doesn’t hold with such Romish corruptions as Purgatory, you have to say he’s in Heaven, every bit as much as the repentant thief on Calvary. What is the difference between Judas and Peter? Judas believed he was unforgivable.
I’m not expecting to have convinced you why the seal cannot be broken. If you ask me how on earth I can remain in communion with a Church that makes unrealistic and unnatural demands and limitations such as this, I say to you: I can’t go anywhere else.
I joke that if I weren’t Catholic, I’d be Buddhist (Tibetan, because I’m not smart enough for Zen and because their tradition is so similar in practice and forms that early European visitors to Tibet were convinced they were lock, stock and barrel copies of the RCs), but that’s not so.
Catholicism or atheism: those are my two alternatives. Like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.”
And don’t forget, for non-believers, such a thing as the Christian notion of forgiveness is a dreadful, shocking, scandalous disgrace that immediately puts them off even considering such an unworkable, pie-in-the-sky and pusillanimous philosophy which is so opposed to the harsh facts of the real world. Hitler who massacred millions can get away with it? What kind of crazy talk is that? How is that fair? To forgive the unforgivable. The scandal of forgiveness, as it has been called.
That’s what it is all about. That’s what we’re talking about: not laws or even justice, but forgiveness. What Heather King says in her latest post, if you pardon me while I steal the words of someone who gets it much, much better than I do:
When the Prodigal Son came home, he wasn’t sincerely remorseful–not yet. He was tired and ashamed and hungry, just like I was when I finally landed in rehab. It’s AFTER they lay a feast for you that the remorse comes. The joy, yes, but also the true repentance.
You keep wanting to say, Really, a feast? Yeah but don’t forget I was a total whore, and God says Yeah, I know, put on this beautiful robe. And you say, Really? Because I’ve spent the last fifteen years on a barstool, squandering every gift you ever gave me, and God says Yeah I was there, look, just for you! These very cool jewel-studded sandals. And you say Really? Me? Because I’m hateful, judgmental, envious, slothful, prideful, fearful, a liar, a cheat and a thief, and I may not even believe in you, and God says, Well no doubt, and let me have your hand, I’ve been dying to give you this golden ring.