On Notre Dame, the seal of confession, and Esmerelda

Here’s some good news:

The French Senate voted to approve plans to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral and added a clause stipulating that it must be restored to how it was before the fire.

No greenhouses, no swimming pools, no holograms, no disco balls, just back the way it was, because the way it was was good. Even though the dreadful fire helped me remember that all temporal things will pass, and that Jesus is the remedy to all loss of every kind, I’ll be as glad as anyone to see good old Notre Dame restored. 
 
We’re certainly in need of some good news, some restorative news. As someone pointed out on Twitter, you know things are going poorly when America turns to a TV show about Chernobyl for escapism. 
 
As always, good news is where you can find it. As the never-ending misery of the sex abuse scandal never ends, but just keeps compounding and compounding, I’ve thought more than once: How good it is, how weirdly restorative, to be reminded so clearly what really matters. Jesus matters. The sacraments matter. The Gospel matters. Works of mercy matter. Everything else, no matter how entrenched and enmeshed it has become with our experience our faith — anything at all can become a distraction from what our faith truly is. So as painful as the 21st century has been, it’s also been clarifying, painfully restorative. It strips away the things we want so we can see clearly what we really need.
 
That’s what kind of century it is, not only in the Church. This is the year when a Texas woman, Teresa Todd, was driving along a road at night when, NPR reports, a young man ran out and pleaded for help for his sister, who was dying of dehydration and exhaustion. Todd stopped and let the man and his sister, Esmerelda, and their companion rest in her car while she texted a friend, who is legal counsel for the local U.S. Border Patrol, for advice on what to do next. 
 
Todd is now under federal investigation for human smuggling. Her phone was confiscated for 53 days, because of what she did.
 
“I feel like I did the right thing. I don’t feel I did anything wrong,” Todd said. And she is right. She was simply performing a basic corporal work of mercy. But her own government is telling her that, in order to be a good citizen, she should have kept on driving. They’re telling her it was wrong to stop and see what she could do for someone who was begging for help — that Americans obeying American law don’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who we Americans are.
 
 
This kind of law is clarifying. It’s the kind of law you cannot in good conscience obey — not as an American, not as a Christian, not as a human being. These laws help us remember who we are. The politics around immigration is just a distraction, and has nothing to do with your actual obligation when you have a live, dying human being named Esmerelda in front of you. 
 
There’s more. This is the year when laws that threaten the seal of confession may pass from rumor to reality. And dozens of priest and even, hallelujah, more than one bishop, have come out and said, “I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom.”
 
The proposed law is clarifying. It gets us to remember who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. Sometimes good times muddy the waters. Sometimes peace clouds our vision. So we have to have some restorative hard times to clarify things.
 
Can you not get me wrong, here? There are some things more cut and dried than others. Priests can never ever ever break the seal of confession under any circumstances. There’s no nuance, at all. Immigration is more unwieldy, and when we talk about how to manage it, sometimes good people come across as harsh and opportunists come across as merciful. It’s rare that it’s so black and white as a dying person directly in front of you begging for help. And the roof of Notre Dame is . . . a roof. Just a roof.
 

But as I said, good news is where you find it. It’s good practice to ask ourselves, “What would I do, if it were me? What should I do, and why?” If Notre Dame were remade into a temple to modernity, what would it do to my faith? If my son were a priest facing arrest, what would I tell him to do, and why? If Esmerelda’s brother staggered out in front of my car, what would I do?  Would I stop

This is what we’re talking about, when we talk about freedom of religion. It’s not the freedom to give political speeches in church, and it’s not the freedom to be tax exempt. It’s not the freedom to pass the laws we, as religious folk, think ought to be passed. It’s the freedom to follow Christ and to obey his commands, no matter what the cost. 
 
The truth is, we do have religious freedom. We always will. It’s just that we might be sent to jail for exercising that freedom.
 
And that is clarifying. 
 
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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.

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.