What Happens if Sacramental Confession Ceases to be Secret?

What Happens if Sacramental Confession Ceases to be Secret? September 10, 2014

Why are some secrets worth dying for?  The Jesuit Post blog has an excellent piece up on the case from Louisiana headed for the Supreme Court. If you read nothing else, go read that.  Regular readers will recall I commented on similar lines in my review of I Confess earlier this summer.

They say hard cases make bad law.  Hard cases also force us to think seriously about what makes good law.  Let’s look at possible outcomes if the Supreme Court rules that priests and penitents can be compelled to testify about what they said and heard in confession.

Scenario #1: Penitent Talks, Priest Stays Silent

Result: Priest goes to jail for contempt of court.  We find out what the penitent wants to tell us, and the penitent can lie with impunity because the priest isn’t talking.  Heaven gets a martyr, the courts get a bunch of worthless testimony.  Not exactly a win for the legal system.

Scenario #2: Priest Talks, Penitent Stays Silent

If a priest (and anyone else who happens to have overheard, such a translator or passerby) has a solemn obligation not to break the seal of confession, the penitent has a right to do so as well.  Keep in mind that if you the penitent want to discuss matters openly, all you have to do is say, “Father, as soon as you’ve absolved me, I need to re-discuss this with you outside the sacrament.”  Depending on the urgency of the situation, Father will either discuss immediately after ‘go in peace’, or invite you to make an appointment at a better time.

But imagine Father sells his soul to the courts and blabs on you.  He stays out of jail.  You get to be interrogated about what you thought was a confidential conversation.  If you don’t satisfy the courts, you go to jail.  Keep in mind that you may have confessed any number of things that have nothing to do with the case at hand, and which are no one’s business but your own.  Father Chatty may have fabricated your half of the conversation.  He may have exaggerated.  He may have inferred things you never said.

Scenario #3: It’s all public.

So your sins aren’t that bad.  Not go-to-jail bad.  You decide to come clean and please the courts, what’s the big deal?  But you did confess to filching a few office supplies (no, really, you didn’t have anything to do with the embezzlement ring your boss was spearheading, just some Sharpies and too many paper clips), committing two impure acts, and being reckless with the toddler.

Father tells the whole truth, you tell the whole truth, and the court is suddenly very curious.   Where were those impure acts committed? With whom? Thinking about what?  Is this habitual?  Have you ever done this in front of the children?  And what about that ‘recklessness’ with the toddler?  So you’re telling me you went to confession because you let the baby ride his tricycle without a helmet?  Really?  You went to confession for that?  Are you sure you weren’t confessing something else, that doesn’t sound like a mortal sin.  Father, is that a mortal sin?  What are typical situations in which a parent confesses under those general terms?  When someone says ‘reckless’ what do they usually mean? Father, did you not ask for more detail?  Why not?  Were you not concerned about the safety of the toddler?  Why did you not report the family for investigation?

But children are in danger!

Will requiring priest or penitent to disclose what is said in sacramental confession improve public safety?  No. It’ll just cause people to stay away from confession.  For honest priests, of course, it means that every confession heard is another chance to maybe get to go to jail for not telling all.  We have heroic priests, so there will still be opportunities to confess.  But who will go?

Would you really go to confession if you knew that Father had to tell on you if he heard anything the state deemed doubtful?  Would you really go to confession if you knew that even though Father Taciturn had kept his mouth shut thus far, plenty of other priests had testified against their penitents?  A few brave ones among the devout might be willing to give up the world to gain back their soul, but most of us would probably just hope our private act of contrition was perfect enough to get us into purgatory.

End result: No evidence to be had.  If people aren’t willing to discuss something outside of the sacrament, the moment confession becomes a matter of public record, they simply aren’t going to seek the sacrament.

We the people lose freedom of religion and get a hefty dose of police state in exchange.   The courts, meanwhile, gain nothing.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

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