Comments: Anglican Catholic Future: Statement on the Seal of Confession

Judging by the full statement from Anglican Catholic Future casuistry appears to be alive and well. Medieval hocus pocus aside, protecting the vulnerable from abuse and potentially criminal activity is a moral imperative.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Sunday, 8 November 2015 at 3:32am GMT

Trust cannot be built unless there is full confidence in the seal of the confessional by the laity.

Posted by Pam at Sunday, 8 November 2015 at 8:42pm GMT

No, Rod Gillis, reaching out to sinners and offering them the prospect of salvation is always the imperative for the church. Secular society has its own moral imperatives, but they should never primarily be ours. There is a veritable army of counselors, psychologists, lawyers, welfare agencies, and the punitive apparatus of the state dedicated to the important work of "protecting the vulnerable from abuse and potentially criminal activity." Augustinian Christians can be grateful that such organs exist, even if only as a necessary evil. But the church has an entirely different function. If you wish to put it in stark terms, it could well be argued that from a Christian perspective abusers and criminals are far more important to us than victims.

Unfortunately, I have a strong suspicion that you think sin, salvation, and repentance are all so much "medieval hocus pocus" - a phrase in which some of us might still recognise and affirm the words "hoc est corpus."

Posted by rjb at Monday, 9 November 2015 at 7:10am GMT

Pam, medical confidentiality isn't absolute, yet patients trust their physicians; attorney-client privilege isn't absolute, yet ... well OK, insert lawyer joke as appropriate, yet criminals are able to mount a defense.

I see no reason whatsoever why the church, and only the church, should be free of reasonable restrictions on confidentially. Hocus pocus is about all we can appeal to, and I'd rather not.

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 9 November 2015 at 10:51am GMT

As a Priest in the Catholic tradition of the Church and a Psychotherapist, I take issue with the comments of rjb. It would seem to me that claiming those organisations that seek to protect the vulnerable as a 'necessary evil' is perverse and leads me to question if the tradition you are coming from is in fact an 'unnecessary evil'. As a therapist, confidentiality is at the heart of everything we do, to the point where we do not even identify our clients to our supervisors. That said, it wholly right and justifiable for a Priest to echo those same words we begin any therapeutic relationship with; 'everything you say will be kept in the strictest of confidentiality unless I have a concern that you or anyone else you tell me about are at risk of been hurt'.

Posted by PS at Monday, 9 November 2015 at 2:02pm GMT

@ rbj: Let me allay your suspicions. Sin, salvation, and repentance are central to an adequate theology. I'll add to that the possibility of redemption for all. Notwithstanding, the notion that a failure to protect the vulnerable from known victims of abuse in order that the abuser may not die in a state of sin is indeed a form of magical thinking.

Your rejoinder is an example of special pleading and false dichotomies, e.g. "Secular society has its own moral imperatives, but they should never primarily be ours." The Christian church has reacted to an epidemic of criminal abusers among the ranks of its clergy, not in the first instance with a categorical condemnation of the of the moral evil inflicted on the victims; but has reacted instead by shaming and blaming victims while engaging in a conspiracy, at times criminal, to shelter perpetrators. Humility, which is a virtue, might be in order with regard to the Church's comparison of itself to secular society. What irony, unintentional I'm sure, when you state, "... from a Christian perspective abusers and criminals are far more important to us than victims."

What needs to change is the starting point of the conversation. The terrible moral harm done to children and vulnerable adults, setting people up for lifelong trauma from addictions to PTSD is tangible and widely understood. What is the moral responsibility to victims of abuse when abuse becomes known? Under what conditions should abuse be reported? The conventional categorical "seal of confession" by contrast is based on speculative theology, much of it from a bygone era. Moral dilemmas regarding the seal ought to flow from considerations of preventing harm, not the reverse.

In an Anglican context I doubt we are talking hundreds of anonymous penitent's streaming into the confession box. The more likely scenario is a penitent who takes the initiative with a priest who is well known to her/him.

The rubrics for the Reconciliation of a Penitent in The Canadian Church state, "The secrecy of a confession of sin is morally absolute..." However, religious leaders may have a duty to report. On the legal duty to report in a jurisdiction here, for example, see:

Posted by Rod Gillis at Monday, 9 November 2015 at 2:31pm GMT

Anglo-Catholic as I am, and also a priest of ACANZP; I would like to point out that there is another way of practising penitence and absolution - contained in the liturgy of the Eucharist of our Churches of the Anglican Communion.

As a prequel to the reception of the Blessed Sacrament, the congregation is invited, carefully, to make confession of their sins. The priest is then authorised to prnounce absolution.

If one can live, quietly, with one's conscience in this situation, then sincere penitence will surely guarantee absolution.

Most communicants have not committed such severe sins as would every time require the specific ministry of private confession to a priest. The Church, in her wisdom, provides this perfectly acceptable alternative.

There is such a thing as ostentatious piety!

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 2:22am GMT

James Byron, if trust is important in a pastoral relationship (and I think it is) then confidentiality will be important as well. If it's not a matter of breaking the law, but is a matter of a very personal nature, then I would expect that matter not to be shared.

Posted by Pam at Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 8:28am GMT

Father Ron makes an important point in his post when he notes the general confession with absolution by the celebrant in the Eucharist. The same applies to morning/evening prayer of course.
This is a reminder of the differences that exist on this issue between Anglicans and Rome. See:

Our situation differs not only with regard to the availability of general absolution; but the practice of individual private confession is not a statistically normative Anglican practice. There are widely different theological views about the nature of penance as a "sacrament". Indeed, what would be the basis in Anglican theology for a claim that failure to confess a "mortal sin" to an Anglican priest imperils one's salvation?

Posted by Rod Gillis at Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 3:05pm GMT

Thank you, Rod, for giving the link to the Roman Catholic rules re personal confession to a priest.

Obviously, Anglicans have no such embargo on the validity of the general Confession and absolution. The gates of Mercy, in this case, would seem to be wider for Anglicans than our fellow religionists.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 9:53pm GMT

@James: medical confidentiality isn't absolute, yet patients trust their physicians

Actually James they very frequently do not. As soon as there is any prospect of confidence not being absolute they back away even if that means suffering severe physical illness, mental breakdown or suicide.

People approaching counseling when told at the first meeting that confidentiality is limited never attend again even though it would be useful to them and their family.

Especially where Children's Social Services have been involved due to issues with one partner if the other partner develops a mental or physical health problem they find themselves unable to trust their physician because doctors have already been involved in Child Protection or Child in Need conferences; they are frightened that if as the second adult they have problems that their children will be taken into care. In the absence of guaranteed medical confidentiality they try to cope by themselves.

As someone who has been in good mental and physical health, never committed a criminal offence and never had cause to mistrust authority you cannot see why confidentiality needs to be absolute. However in the attempt to pretend as a society we might possibly one day, somewhere, protect one more child I absolutely guarantee that today's absence of guarantees of confidentiality succeeds in destroying many more, children included.

Those in physical, mental or spiritual pain find it difficult enough to trust without society promising that to do so must involve church or state mandated publicity and punishment. In such circumstances keeping one's own confidence becomes the only option no matter what may follow.

Maybe I'm biased after 25+ years of listening to and praying with people who hurt but are frightened of getting help? Even ignoring the possibility of forgiveness and salvation in Christ simple humanity requires that those in pain should be able to seek confidential help from priests, counselors and medics. Otherwise our over-sensitive consciences are demanding a grave price; but from other people, not ourselves.

Posted by Peter D at Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 11:08pm GMT

@ Peter D, "Otherwise our over-sensitive consciences are demanding a grave price; but from other people, not ourselves." Unless of course, you are on the receiving end of information that could save a child or other vulnerable person from trauma that is physical, psychological or even spiritual. So much for over sensitive consciences. So much for anecdotal information.

Like anyone else who has spent 35 years in parish ministry, I agree that there are a lot of people out there who are hurting and afraid to seek help. I would add on the basis of the same experience, that there are people out there looking to have their destructive harmful behavior to others rationalized, and are willing and able to manipulate clergy types in the process.

"In such circumstances keeping one's own confidence becomes the only option no matter what may follow." Are you willing to explain that to the terrorized child on the receiving end of abuse?

Posted by Rod Gillis at Tuesday, 10 November 2015 at 11:52pm GMT

Peter D, even if your assumptions about me were correct, since this issue rests not on my subjective feelings, but on what's objectively reasonable, they're irrelevant to the issue at hand and I'll not explore them here.

We can, I take it, agree that people abused because a priest didn't warn the authorities about an imminent danger will also be hurt. That being so, tightly-drawn exceptions to the seal of the confessional can be justified on the same grounds as used to justify limitations on attorney-client and doctor-patient privilege: protecting people from imminent danger.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 11 November 2015 at 6:33am GMT
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