on the confessional

As many of you are aware, I was once a catholic of the Roman variety.

There’s currently a debate that has arisen once again concerning stuff that people say in the confines of the rite of reconciliation.  It always comes up when discussions about the Catholics allegedly covering up confessions of serious crime turn up in society and the media, such as this royal commission into child sexual abuse.  The greater and probably largely ignorant public say they should.  Unfortunately, the discussion is simplistic and doesn’t really go into the whole point of why the confessional is supposed to be confidential.

So, let me step back a bit while I attempt to nuance this discussion.

Everyone has secrets.  Let’s face it, we do.  We’re all hiding stuff from each other.  The greater majority of these are vague, mundane, or otherwise irrelevant, like that you had a secret crush on so and so.  It might be embarrasing if it came out, but hey, you’d get over it.  However, if people with power or influnce knew other deeper secrets, then knowledge can be used against, to villify you, to pre-judge you, to smear you even though your faults came at a time when you were young, unwise, or whatever, but now you have repented.  The unfortunate reality is that this world is unkind to anyone with the faintest with of smear.  Just think of anyone who’s done time.  If your repentance is real, you deserve the grace and fellowship that God offers to those who repent from those who call themselves his people.  And yet none of us would willingly allow a paedophile who’s done his time to live next door.

And thats why the confessional is sealed.  To prevent abuse of power over the heavy-laden but repentant.

Thing is, the church is a community of sinners.  The reason catholics do their confession in boxes is because only priests can dispense divine forgiveness.  So while I respect the adherence to privacy within a pastoral relationship – the congregation doesn’t need to know all your secret inner conflicts – we protestants confess to each other, in the congregation.

Now, back to the Catholics.  I don’t know what their protocol is regarding this stuff.  My experience, however, means I know that when you confess, the priest dispenses a ‘prescription’, generally x our Fathers and y ave marias or whatever.  If someone is seriously penitent, then the priest should, in my opinion, ask that someone cannot ‘complete the transaction’ until they have handed themselves over to the police.  This ain’t the middle ages where the church was essentially a parallel legal administration.

So, I guess I have something to say to everyone.  To the broader public – would you like your confidante to spill your secrets in public?  To Catholics – take repentance seriously.

Comments are closed.