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).

More than just a headline – Pope Francis’ asks forgiveness

h=300Pope Francis is making headlines again, once more following an in-flight press conference on his return from a papal visit abroad, in this case to Armenia. The headlines generally follow one format: “Pope asks forgiveness from gays” or some variation thereof. While this is essentialy correct, the Holy Father’s complete answer is more nuanced and different from what more than a few readers will conclude from the headlines.

From the translation provided by the National Catholic Register comes the relevant part of the answer to a question about how the Church is said to have marginalised homosexual people in the past:

“I will repeat what I said on my first trip. I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally. One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior … Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no? … But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well … this is what the catechism says, a clear catechism. Then there are traditions in some countries, in some cultures that have a different mentality on this problem. I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness — like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) — must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times — when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners! — Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families …”

It is clear that Pope Francis said a whole lot more than that the Church must ask forgiveness. He starts from what the Catechisms says, and so places his comments within the larger doctrine of the Church: this is not something new that he is saying, but the Church has consistently taught that people should nto be discriminated against for their sexual orientation, that they must be respected as human beings and that the Church has an obligation to accompany them pastorally. In short, she is to treat them as she treats all human beings, starting from their innate dignity.

The Church has failed in this in the past, and sometimes still does, just like she did and does in regard to women and children who are exploited, or the victims of war and nationalism. For this, Pope Francis, says, the Church, meaning all Christians, must ask forgiveness, for it is contrary to what she is tasked with.

While the Church must always be open to accept all people regardless of gender, sexuality, race, occupation or whatever other characteristic, the story does not end there. The Church is more than just people and has a message to convey, a teaching, a relationship with a Person. And everything she does must stand in the light of the encounter with this Person, who is God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This includes how she relates to the people she welcomes.

A second interesting part of the Pope’s answer is that he says “one can condemn”. And what one can condemn is not people, but “political behaviour”, since “certain manifestations are a bit too offensive”. One can wonder what exactly is meant here, but I have seen some commenters see this as a condemnation of pride manifestations and similar. That may be so, but it could also be more general and refer to various sorts of behaviour stemming from one’s sexual orientation which could be offensive to others. The problem is then not so much about homosexuality, but consideration of the other’s thoughts and feelings. As Pope Francis says, this has little to do with the problem of marginalisation. One can disagree, even be offended, without pushing away the person one disagrees with or is offended by. Sure, it is hard, but, to mention a cliché, it is what Jesus would do. He did not shun his opponents. He entered into dialogue, challenged them to change their thoughts and behaviour, but never because he did not respect their human dignity (on the contrary even).

And then he repeats that earlier line, which caused so much debate: “The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?” It is important to not make the same mistake as many people do with that line from the Gospel of Matthew (7:1), which is not simply a commandment not to judge, but rather a warning to remember that judgement goes two ways. Pope Francis describes a rather specific situation in which we should be careful not to judge: a person in some situation that is either objectively sinful or disordered, in this case someone who is homosexual, but who has the desire to do what is right and is seeking the Lord. The second part is important. Of course we should not refrain from judging actions committed by a similar person which are directed against his own or others’ wellbeing or his relationship with God, especially not when that person has no desire to do what is right or to find God. These latter conditions, good wil and seeking God, are frequently overlooked, and people are content with claiming that Pope Francis has said that we are not to judge homosexual people. Like he suggested before, the Church is not in the business of judging people, but actions. But, the Pope has insisted time and again, the Church, and therefore all Christians, are to accompany people who are of good will and seek God, not condemn and marginalise them. For, as Pope Francis also reminds us, we are all sinners, we all have our obstacles that sometimes make it hard to live according to the ideals the Church holds up.

In closing, Pope Francis’ answer is not revolutionary in that it contains any new teaching. It does, however, emphasise a different approach, a recognition of where we run the risk of failing to follow the example of Christ. Only then can ways be mended, and that, in the end, is what a Christian life is about.

Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/Pool photo via AP

“There is nothing worse” – Bishop Wiertz on sexual abuse

Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.

Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.

abuse maastricht wiertz

“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.

Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.

It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.

You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”

Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s  reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.

Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.

For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.

Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?

It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.

This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.

It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.

May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”

Photo credit: ANP