You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest

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The Adelaide Advertiser reports the Anglican Church of Australia has lifted the veil of secrecy between priest and penitent, no longer requiring its clergy to maintain the seal of the confession.

I expect many people will be surprised and some upset by this development. Not least of all the writers of mystery thrillers who will see one of their favorite plot devices disappear.

Alfred Hitchcock used this motif in his 1953 picture I Confess. In the film a priest, Montgomery Clift, hears the confession of his gardener, who has just killed a shady lawyer. A police inspector, played by Karl Malden, investigates and comes to suspect the priest — who may have been blackmailed by the lawyer. The killer plants evidence in the priest’s room and our hero is arrested and brought to trial.

The Quebec jury finds Clift not guilty, but a mob assembles outside of the court house and threatens him. This proves to be too much for the killer’s wife, who shouts that her husband the gardener was the killer. The gardener tries to kill the priest, but is himself shot and fatally wounded by the police. The film ends with the killer dying in Montgomery Clift’s arms after he gives him absolution. Classic.

Without the seal of the confession, Hitchcock’s story makes no sense and is much less fun.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic understanding of the priesthood and the sacrament of confession a la Hitchcock has been applied to this Advertiser article about Anglicans. The reporter has used Catholic language and Catholic assumptions to report an Anglican story. While they share a common heritage, haberdashery and vocabulary — Anglicans are not junior Catholics with the addition of women — they have different doctrines. Confession is one of them.

The lede states:

Church leaders have unanimously backed a historic change that starkly sets Anglican policy against that of the Catholic Church, which maintains that “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”, and creates grounds for a major rift between the nation’s two most powerful Christian bodies.

About 250 members of the Anglican Church, including bishops and clergy representatives, voted to amend the 1989 canon on confession at the General Synod in Adelaide on Wednesday. The Christian convention of strict secrecy of confessions is believed to be more than 1000 years old.

The article cites the local Anglican archbishop who favors the change, while the layman who proposed the initiative notes priests should be required to report instances of child abuse and other crimes: “it seemed to me that protecting children and the vulnerable takes precedence over the confidentiality of confessions.”

The details of the charge are:

The existing law says the confession of a crime is to be kept confidential unless the person making the confession consents to a priest disclosing it. But the new policy will allow priests to report serious crimes if the person making the confession has not reported the offence to police and director of professional standards. These crimes include child abuse, child pornography or other offences that would lead to a jail term of five years or more.

The article closes with comments from the Catholic archbishop.

But Australia’s most powerful Catholic, Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, insisted that priests who hear confessions of child sex abuse must keep quiet because “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”.

The article is nicely crafted and well laid out. However it suffers from the handicap of thinking private confession or auricular confession in the Anglican sense is the same thing as private confession in the Catholic sense. Private confession in the Catholic Church takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation followed by absolution.

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Honest teen meets an orthodox Catholic priest

Two decades ago, while I was serving as the religion writer for The Charlotte News (the afternoon newspaper that later merged with The Charlotte Observer) I heard about a fascinating event in a major local parish.

It seems that at the end of a confirmation class, one of the teen-agers told the youth minister that he simply did not believe some of the doctrines included in the vows that he would be asked to recite as part of the sacramental rite. He could not, in effect, affirm the authority of the Episcopal Church and its teachings. Did that really matter?

The youth minister said it certainly did matter and advised the young man to withdraw from the confirmation class.

At that point, something interesting happened. The teen was fine with this, but his parents went totally ballistic and proceeded to lead an effort to get the youth pastor fired. I heard about this through back channels because my wife and I were attending a nearby church.

I told my editor that this was a really interesting story because it symbolized the whole plight of mainline churches in our society today. Would these churches, under any circumstances, stand their ground and defend the doctrines that had been given to them by generations of earlier believers and saints? I thought this was a highly symbolic event and, in particular, I was struck by the fact that this teen was more being more honest about his beliefs than his parents and some of their friends.

The bottom line: Is there any connection between accepting the teachings of a church and becoming a professed, sacramental member of that body? Did the vows in the confirmation rite have meaning or could one merely speak the words with fingers crossed and that was that?

The editor just didn’t see the point.

Well, clearly, that was before Facebook and denying the divinity of Christ is not as important, in the long run, as rejecting your church’s teachings on the sacrament of marriage. Consider this news out of the Midwest.

BARNESVILLE, Minn. – If you want to be a Catholic, you have to be 100 percent Catholic.

That’s the lesson one family here learned after their 17-year-old son was denied confirmation after the priest at the Assumption Church here found a pro same-sex marriage post on the teen’s Facebook.

The decision by the Rev. Gary LaMoine to deny the religious rite of passage for Lennon Cihak in mid-October shocked his mother, who said her son has gone to church every week and volunteered around the community in preparation for his confirmation this year.

“You kind of know the Catholic beliefs, but I never thought they would deny somebody confirmation because you weren’t 100 percent. I guess that’s what shocks me,” Shana Cihak said.

It helps to know that the mother’s version of this story — the hook for the first news story — is somewhat different from the account given by the Rev. Gary LaMoine and, it appears, her own son. More on that in a minute.

The key is that the parents have backed their son’s right to be confirmed. It also appears that some of the other members of the confirmation class clicked the “like” button on the pro-gay rights Facebook message. The other kids, it appears, were confirmed. The story went on to add:

… (Now) the family is not allowed to participate in Communion there, Doug [Cihak] said, and he’s worried as to how far the sanctions will go, expressing concern about being able to be buried alongside his parents.

Still, Doug insists he’s not mad at LaMoine, calling him just a “messenger” of the church. The same could not be said for his wife, who said she doesn’t plan on returning to the church ever again, her son nodding in agreement.

The son, meanwhile, stressed that he is still a Catholic. The goal in the future is to find a parish with a priest who is more, well, flexible:

“I don’t want the church to be put down. I don’t want the Catholic religion to be put down,” he said. “It’s just the way the priest has things running. He’s so strict. He won’t loosen up about things.”

Meanwhile, a Catholic wire service has the priest’s side of this:

…Fr. LaMoine, the pastor of Assumption Parish in Barnesville, told LifeSiteNews.com that there were other concerns that contributed to the decision to delay Lennon’s Confirmation, and that the final decision was made by Lennon himself, not the priest. According to Catholic teaching, Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation that confirms Catholics as “mature” Christians. It is usually administered to young teens.

Fr. LaMoine said that his conversations with the Cihak family began in early October, when he sent a letter to Lennon’s parents, Doug and Shana, encouraging them to start coming to church to support their son.

The priest told LifeSiteNews.com that he only discovered Lennon’s gay marriage post by accident on October 25, the day after having a two-hour meeting with the family. During that meeting the priest had brought up the fact that the Cihaks were not coming to church, as well as “other matters” that the priest said, “I can’t get into here.” No mention was made of Lennon’s views on marriage during that meeting.

The following day Fr. LaMoine’s secretary, who is Facebook friends with Lennon, chanced upon the controversial post and alerted the priest to it.

In other words, it appears that the family has been having issues with the church, or at the very least this priest, for some time. This incident is part of a larger picture.

Now, it also appears that this one teen-ager is not alone. This story has legs, because the priest has informed members of the parish — via letter — that at least one of Lennon’s friends backed him up in rejecting the church’s teachings on marriage.

In the letter, addressed to the parish of Assumption Church at 307 Front St. N., the Rev. Gary LaMoine says “a couple of candidates chose not to enter into full communion with the Catholic community because of their disagreement with the teaching of the Church concerning marriage.” … LaMoine says Lennon voluntarily withdrew from the program after LaMoine saw the photo and challenged him on why he was “rejecting a central teaching of the Church.”

But even if Lennon hadn’t withdrawn, LaMoine said he wouldn’t have confirmed him, he said on Friday.

“We just simply couldn’t do it no matter what, given what was out there,” LaMoine told The Forum in an interview. “He could be confirmed, but he’d have to change his mind about some things, and I don’t know if Lennon is going to do that.” …

Lennon is drawing support online. Since its inception on Thursday, the “I Support Lennon Cihak” Facebook group had garnered just under 1,000 “likes,” as of 8 p.m. Friday. The teen tweeted on Friday evening: “No matter how much negative feedback I get, I will ALWAYS support the #LGBT community … Support what you believe in!”

So what’s my point?

My point is that I still think this is a valid story for news coverage, in large part because of the parents’ opposition to their church’s teachings and their anger at church leaders attempting to defend centuries of Christian doctrine on these matters. Sure, the Facebook wrinkles are timely, but the essential questions in the story are both ancient and modern: Should people be honest when they take sacramental vows?

Whatever your stance on the actions of these parents, and their candid son, that’s a fascinating question. Should Catholics be Catholics? That issue is worth some coverage.


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