Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).

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The middle ground between the cardinal and the Jesuit – the pastoral duty of the Church

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, published on Friday, is a clear-headed and factual explanation of how and why the Catholic Church relates to people with same-sex attraction the way she does, but also how she fails to relate to them. Because, like Fr. James Martin SJ says, to name but one person who looks at the issue somewhat differently than the Church as a whole does, there is room for improvement in this matter.

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There are two lines of thought to consider here which, I think, are represented pretty well by Cardinal Sarah and Father Martin respectively. On the one hand, there is the unchanging teaching, outlined by the cardinal in his article, taking seriously the message of Jesus Christ, who invites us to a high but achievable standard, to the fulfillment of our human potential and calling. On the other hand, there is the concern voiced by many people that the Church is harsh, even discriminatory in this teaching or, more often, in the way she translates it into daily practice. Fr. Martin often speaks about building bridges towards people with same-sex attraction, and Cardinal Sarah also acknowledges this when he says that the Church must “determine whether [she is] reaching out effectively to a group in need”.

BvUyZbwkI am not joining into the Catholic social media tradition of bashing either Cardinal Sarah or Father Martin for their positions or approach, even though I find myself agreeing with the Cardinal more. But that’s no excuse to attack anyone.

The Catholic teachings regarding sexuality, relationships and sin are well-developed and deserve to be taken seriously. The same is true for the pastoral obligations the Church – meaning all of us Catholics – has towards people who, for whatever reason, fail in living up to those teachings. We have no excuse to discriminate, express hate or loathing towards anyone. When people feel they are being hated or discriminated against, we must take their feelings seriously. In the first place by listening, followed by examining if we make a mistake, and if so, what mistake. Both Cardinal Sarah and Father Martin would agree with this, I believe.

If we take Jesus and His word, the foundation of the teachings of the Church, seriously, these must be the framework and basis of everything we say and do. Jesus would eat and speak with sinners – so should we. He would also explain what they should change in their lives. We are called to exercise that same respect. Father Martin says we should build a bridge – to sit and listen. Cardinal Sarah tells us to be rooted in the teachings of Christ – to admonish and teach. Both sitting and teaching are expressions of the respect due to every person.

Photo credit: [1] PA, [2] Fr. Martin on Twitter

In new directive, Church ignores plight of coeliacs. Except it doesn’t.

eucharistIn a letter released yesterday by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Church once again emphasises what can and cannot be consecrated during Mass. In essence, the bread must be made of wheat and the wine must be real wine, with at least some fermentation having taking place. The bread, the Congregation explains, must also contain gluten, even if just a small amount “to obtain the confection of bread”.

Two things struck me in the reactions to this letter in (social) media. One, many assume these are new rules, and two, people with coeliac disease can’t receive Communion. Both assumptions are untrue.

As the authors of the letter emphasise, “the norms about the Eucharistic matter are given in can. 924 of the CIC and in numbers 319 – 323 of the Institutio generalis Missalis Romani and have already been explained in the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum issued by this Congregation (25 March 2004)”.  The regulation they now present anew are not new, but have been standardised in the Code of Canon Law and various instructions. This new letter is simply a reminder to bishops that bread must be bread and wine must be wine (and not cake and lemonade, for example) – after all, that is what Jesus used at the Last Supper, and He specifically follow His example.

People who suffer from coeliac disease, and who are therefore unable to digest gluten, are in no way barred from receiving Communion. In many cases, they can receive bread with a small amount of gluten, and for those who can’t, it is perfectly possible to receive only the Blood of Christ. He is, after all, completely present in both bread and wine.

It is a shame, if not unexpected, that media outlets take this letter and present it as something it is not, ie. as something new instead of a reminder of established regulations.

Christus vincit! An Easter wish

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As ever, while Lent sometimes seemed to creep by, the holy days of the Easter Triduum passed in a whirlwind of events, activities and emotions. From the intimacy and promise of the Last Supper, via the agony in the garden and the horror of the Lord’s Passion, all the way to the unimaginable wonder of the empty tomb.

“Do not be afraid!
I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.
Come and see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples,
‘He has been raised from the dead,
and he is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him.’
Behold, I have told you.”

What we thought was an ending, what we still too often think as a conclusion, is in fact the very opposite: Jesus is risen, and thus something new begins. We have not reached the end of a story, but began a completely new one.

The tomb is empty, Christ is not there. Let’s not linger where life ended, but go forward to the fullness of life, victorious over death.

A blessed Easter!

“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

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Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

Prayer, charity and the sacraments – Bishop Hoogmarten’s letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, published on 27 February, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt outlines the main ingredients for a fruitful Lent: prayer, charity and the sacraments (especially the sacrament of Confession (which is certainly not limited to general celebrations)).

11-Mgr-Hoogmartens“Dear brothers and sisters,

On 1 March it will be Ash Wednesday. That day’s liturgy reminds us that we – with our qualities and flaws – are all mortal people. We will be invited to reflect on our finiteness: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return”. The liturgy also provides another formula for the imposition of the ashes: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. Lent is indeed a time of repentance and internalisation, and a special time of sharing and solidarity. Lent must become a time of strength. With this letter I want to invite and urge you to this.

In the first place, Lent asks us to focus on prayer. For many people today, that is not easy. And yet, many are looking for the inner peace that can only be received through prayer, and so from God. Of course the liturgical assembly is also an important form of prayer: there, we pray with others out of the rich tradition of the Church. But for a Christian, personal prayer is also very important. That can be done by praying a simple prayer, or by reflecting on a few psalms, like Jesus did. Praying can also be done without words, in front of a candle or an icon, or by simply repeating, “Lord, have mercy”. A prayerful heart makes us – with the words of our theme for the year – not wanderers, but pilgrims.

Lent also requires us to have more attention for our love of our neighbour. It can’t be that a Christian would only say, “Lord, Lord” and not concern himself with his neighbour, the sick or people with problems around him. Lent asks us to live more soberly and have an eye for people in need or poverty. The Lenten campaign Broederlijk Delen helps us to realise that concern on a worldwide scale.  But at the same time that wider world is also very close. As Christians we – even more than others – should dare to contact the stranger in our neighbourhood. Wasn’t the great Moses of the burning bush a stranger himself once, looking for a new country out of Egypt? Originally, the entire people of God were a people on the run.

Lent also invites us to greater loyalty to the sacraments in which we are reborn. For lent, I especially invite you to join in faith in the celebration of the Eucharist, that is with a heart for all the gestures, words and prayers which bring us together there. A faithful participation in a penitantial service is also part of the experience of Lent. At the World Youth Days – like last summer in Krakow – I noticed that this service especially touches young people. It is certainly useful to take part in a penitential service at the end of Lent, in a general confession somewhere in your federation or deanery. It opens for us the path to God’s mery. Without that – as Pope Francis taught us in the Year of Mercy – we can not live as Christians and as Church.

Dear brothers and sisters, I gladly wish you a good Lent. He teaches us to first seek the Kingdom and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Everything else will be given to us.

Wishing you a blessed Lent.

+ Patrick Hoogmartens, bishop of Hasselt”

False truth – Cardinal Burke’s non-banishment to Guam

c4xamg0xaaa0zi6I am rather surprised that articles like this one, which explains why American Cardinal Raymond Burke has been dispatched to the Pacific island of Guam, are even necessary. The cardinal has of course been on the receiving end of much criticism because of his outspoken orthodoxy, his questions regarding the writings of Pope Francis and of course his part in the dubia published by him and three other cardinals. But, although some of his critics would like to pretend it to be true, his recent departure for Guam is nothing like a Stalinesque banishment to Siberia.

Reality is far different. As one of the Church’s highest-raking experts on legal matters (he was Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura from 2008 to 2014), he is on a two-week mission to lead the investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse against Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Agaña, the archdiocese covering all of Guam. Cardinal Burke has not been given any permanent appointment in the archdiocese, so he is in no way being sent far away from Rome and the Holy Father (besides, his frequent travels assure he’s probably rarely at home). Agaña doesn’t need any new appointments in the wake of the allegations against Archbishop Apuron anyway: in June of last year all his duties were taken over by Archbishop Savio HonTai-Fai, the Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of People, who now serves as Apostolic Administrator of the archdiocese; and in October erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes of Detroit was appointed as Coadjutor Archbishop, undoubtedly set to succeed Archbishop Apuron once most of the dust has settled, partly by the efforts of Cardinal Burke.

Disagreeing with Cardinal Burke is one thing (and I don’t think his approach is the right one in all matters), misrepresenting the truth is another. Guam can be a testcase of how the Church under Pope Francis deals accusations of sexual abuse against a high-raking prelate, and a necessary one too. Our personal opinions and need to mock must take backseat to that.

Photo credit: Junno Arocho Esteves (@arochoju) on Twitter.