Supreme Court will not hear confession confidentiality petition

confessional

By Ib Rasmussen (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not good: U.S. Supreme Court will not hear Baton Rouge Catholic confession case.

Backstory: A young woman is going to testify in a civil suit against the Diocese of Baton Rouge. She says that, when she was a girl, she revealed during confession that a member of the parish (who has since died) was molesting her, and that the priest told her she should hush it up.

Every priest who hears something during confession is morally obligated not to reveal what he heard during that confession. So if this woman testifies that he told her not to speak about her abuse, he may neither confirm nor deny that she said what she claims she said, or that he responded the way she says he did; and he may go to jail for refusing to testify.

So the diocese asked the federal Supreme Court to consider their petition to prevent her from testifying about what was said during the confession, and to prevent the priest from being compelled to respond to her testimony. Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the diocese’s petition.

I previously didn’t understand why it was dangerous for the woman to be allowed to testify about her confession, because I erroneously believed that a penitent may release a confessor from the seal of confession. I thought that she would simply have to give her permission for him to testify, and that he would then be free to confirm or deny what she said in the confession; but this is not so:

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.

If a penitent wishes to discuss something he or she revealed during confession, he or she must have the conversation again, restating the issue outside of the sacrament. That is the only way that a confessor may morally discuss the topic that was confessed: if he hears the information outside of the seal of confession.

The young woman is, of course, still free to have a second conversation with the priest, and the priest would then be free to testify about that second conversation; but what is at issue is what happened in the original conversation, years ago.

Please note that there is no reason to believe that the young woman is lying about what she told the priest or about what he told her. The diocese is not trying to impugn her reputation, and we should not assume that its goal is to protect a guilty priest. The point is that the seal of confession is there to protect both the priest and the penitent. If the seal of confession may be legally violated, it would prove disastrous both for priests and for penitents, who have both always understood that what they say in the confessional is known only to themselves and to God. Jen Fitz explains, with her usual clarity and concision, why the seal of confession is vital for the safety of both the priest and the penitent.

If the woman’s testimony is allowed, then priests will constantly be in danger of having to remain silent in the face of accusations against them. I could make up any dreadful story about what happened inside a confessional, and a priest would not be able to defend himself. They would have to choose between going to jail and endangering their own souls by betraying their vows.

A well-trained confessor can find a way to get help for someone who has been victimized. It is not necessary for anyone’s safety to destroy the long-standing legal respect for the seal of confession.

It was a beautiful confession.

PIC crying kid with running nose

[T]he priest said what this particular priest always says: “Thank you for that beautiful confession.” He says this when I have a long and sordid list, or a short and sordid list, or when he can barely understand me because my nose is running from the sordidness of it all. The point is, I am not aware of ever having made a confession that any normal human being would consider “beautiful.”

But the confessional is not a normal place.

Read the rest at the Register. 

At the Register: Some Questions about the Seal of Confession

As far as the state is concerned, the statutory respect for the seal of confession is intended to protect the penitent, not the confessor (although an unscrupulous confessor could certainly take advantage of the privilege in order to protect himself, if he did something wrong in the confessional). As far as I can tell, the same is true as far as Canon Law is concerned: the seal of confession is there to protect the penitent, not the confessor.

However, a penitent may give a priest permission to talk about what was confessed. The penitent may release him from the seal.  And this is why the recent legal case in Louisiana doesn’t quite make sense to me.

Read the rest at the Register.

At the Register: An Army that Intends to Win

The Bishop reminded the confirmandi that it wasn’t that long ago that they received a cross of ashes on their foreheads, signifying to them that this day is fleeting, this life is fleeting. We will all someday die. Then he reminded them to take note of the new cross that was on their foreheads as he spoke. This was cross made of sweet, spicy chrism, a shining cross which has something new to say: You were not made for death.

Oh, I had forgotten! Just because that is where we are headed, that doesn’t mean it was the original plan. And it doesn’t mean it’s the final word. Being confirmed means you are part of an army that intends to fight, an army that is ready to die if necessary — but you are part an army that intends to win.

Read the rest at the Register.

I can’t resist adding a picture of my lovely daughter with Bishop Libasci and my mother-in-law, who looks a lot more like my daughter’s mother than I do!

Confessions from the Confession Line

So many people are being received into the Church this Easter! Congratulations, my new brothers and sisters. I’m so glad you’re here. Your new faith is wonderful, and soon you’ll see how liberating, how illuminating, and above all, how much sense it makes!

That is, unless you’re going to confession. Oh, not the sacrament itself. The sacrament of confession is the greatest thing in the world, next to Cadbury eggs. Um, and the Eucharist. There is nothing better than going into a dark box all laden, dirty, and bruised with sin, and coming out lighthearted, clean and healed. Magnificent!

But the confession line. Oh, the confession line.

I love my parish. But oh lord, I hate going to confession there. It’s hard enough to hurl the kids into the van, examine my conscience in a way that even resembles thoroughly, and, when I arrive at the quiet church, to control the ragged panting of a fat old mother who can never remember that confession is at 2 and not—NOT!!!—2:30.

It’s hard enough, I tell you. But what makes it almost unbearable is what happens while we’re waiting in line. Here’s a typical scene: It’s a few minutes before 2:00. I open the door and scan the dim church for anything resembling a line. What do I see? An amoeba-like blob of penitents in the pews. Their formation is line-like here, but unintelligible there. Who is first? Who is last? Are some of them just praying, or what?

The old ladies twitter among themselves; the few solitary college guys are sitting with patient endurance, just itching to be gallant and wholesome at a moment’s notice. Kerchief-and-Denim-Skirt Lady is whispering furiously at her floppy sons, who are flopping around the pews; and the old men lean on their canes, openly glaring at the world.

“Well,” I think, “I don’t know what the order is here, but I’m clearly last.” So I tiptoe over to a fellow with a bristly beard and a posture of equal parts humble piety and pure rage. He sits far from the rest of the gathering, so I whisper, “Excuse me, are you at the end of the line?”

And he bellows back, in the voice of the reformer, “I am at the FRONT of the line. Confession will be HERE, starting today.” And he gestures at a brand new confessional, which I honestly had no idea was even there.

Everyone’s head pops up. Beard Man is first? This confessional? Starting today? Line? Nobody knows what’s going on. The muttering begins. A few people slide uncertainly around on the pews, trying to assert their places. No one wants to lose their spot; but on the other hand, this is hardly the time to be pushy. No one wants to have to say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I knifed an old lady for cutting in line.”

Cheerful Practical Mom Type takes over, though, and sets things aright. It looks like she’s got everyone straightened out, and no one is even mad—but then the worst happens: Slowly, painfully the door swings open again, and a dark silhouette heaves into view.

It’s the Oldest Old Lady of Them All.

She has a walker AND an oxygen tank. All eyes are glued to her as she shuffles and groans on her wretched pilgrimage down the center aisle. Maybe she’s headed to the Sacred Heart altar for a quick prayer? Is she? Oh no. She’s headed for the confessional—straight for what most of us have now agreed is the beginning of the line. One medium-old lady hisses to another, “She doesn’t know where to go. WE’LL tell her.” My blood runs cold.

Finally, the priest appears. Walking more briskly than a man with his workload has any reason to walk, he zips down the length of the darkened church, snaps on a few lights, and a sunny smile cracks his face as he faces the crowd of penitents. “Good afternoon, everyone!” he says. “Thank you for coming. Now, about the seating.”

OH, HALLELUJAH! a nearly audible mental chorus responds. For we are broken. We are a shattered people. We came to be healed, but here was only more darkness, more confusion, more tangled webs of resentment, malice, uncertainty and despair. About the seating! This glorious man, this prince among priests, HE will show us the way. He will tell us where to sit, and then we will know if we are first or we are last. He has come to save us.

“The seating,” he continues. “Here’s what I’d like you to do, is just … just move back a bit. We don’t want to sit too close, because then we can hear each other. So, don’t worry, you can keep your places—just move back a bit. All right? All right.”

And he disappears into his box.

Ah, to be a priest. Ah, to have nothing but the petty cares of a thousand souls, a dozen antiquated buildings, an order of nuns, a bishop, a soup kitchen, and a million ministries and classes and organizations and charities and fundraisers and whatnot.

Is he overworked? Is he underappreciated? Is he living the life of a martyr? Pish tush. A priest knows nothing about true suffering, and this is why: At least he always knows where he’s supposed to sit.

 

****

[This post first ran at the Register around this time in 2011]

At the Register: Why we can’t have baptisms during Lent

Hope this helps.

At the Register: Gay Man Refused Last Rites?

Or something else entirely?  His story stinks to high heaven, and if the priest has another one, I doubt he’s free to tell it.

Link doesn’t seem to be working for everyone.  If you can’t access the story through the link above, you can cut and paste this:

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/simcha-fisher/gay-man-refused-last-rites

Emergency baptisms: who, why, and how

Here’s a dreadful little story:  Russian couple faces jail time after taking their injured baby to be baptized instead of treated.

A couple in St. Petersburg, Russia is facing charges for failure to assist a person in danger after taking their injured baby to church, instead of the hospital.

The two-month-old baby had sustained a head injury in a minor car accident, Russian news outlet RIA Novosti reported, despite the fact that he was in a car seat. He died by the time he was in the priest’s hands.

The parents took him for an emergency baptism because “otherwise he would be denied the Kingdom of Heaven,” the parents told authorities, according to Fontanka.ru.

Please note that this is an extremely short story with almost no facts in it.  Did the parents realize, or could they be expected to realize, how badly injured the baby was?  How much time did they lose by stopping at the church?  Would it have made any difference if they had gone straight to the hospital?

Whatever the answer to these questions, it’s a good opportunity to review few facts about infant and emergency baptism:

Almost anyone can perform a baptism.  It is preferable to have a priest or deacon perform a baptism in a church, but if there is an emergency, anyone with the right intention — that is, anyone who wishes to do what the Church does when she baptizes — may perform a baptism.  This means that if your baby is in the ER, you can do a baptism in the hospital sink, or with a bottle of Aquafina.  It also means that a pagan nurse who doesn’t know anything about baptism, but is willing to respect the beliefs of the parents, can licitly baptize a baby.

This is how you do it:  Pour plain water over the person’s forehead while saying the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

We don’t actually know what happens to babies who die unbaptized. Baptism is necessary for salvation.   Yet the catechism says:

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,”64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

The Church fully expects us to care for the immediate physical needs of people around us.  Again, we don’t know the details of the story above, but in general, life-saving medical procedures should not be postponed!

One final note:  emergency baptisms are for when someone is in danger of death. “I don’t think my daughter-in-law will ever get around to scheduling a baptism” or “My neighbors are wiccans and someone needs to care for their poor baby’s soul” do not constitute emergencies, and sneaky baptisms performed on children on the sly are not licit.