PAUL COLLINS. Breaking the Seal.

Recently we’ve seen a slew of articles in the media, both informed and otherwise, on the question of the seal of confession. Already a couple of Australian governments have acted to enforce mandatory reporting on priests when sexual abuse of children is mentioned in confession. Federal Attorney General Christian Porter told his state and territory counterparts in early-June that his government is working toward developing a consistent approach for all jurisdictions. In passing, Porter correctly pointed out that legally the seal of confession was never absolute under Australian law, but was generally respected. What is also clear is that the Australian bishops aren’t going to accept mandatory reporting of confessional material. We seem to be plunging into a church-state conflict with priests heading-off to jail.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good, old-fashioned church-state stoush. Just a couple of weeks ago I described Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention in the Archbishop Wilson resignation affair on PM as ‘a little bit like King Louis XIV telling the Vatican what to do.’ Who does he think he is? 

However, a fight over the seal of confession would be an entirely different and utterly fruitless exercise.

Late-last week the Australian bishops met in Melbourne and their president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, told AM that the bishops don’t regard mandatory reporting ‘as a choice between child safety and the seal of confession,’ because ‘legislating against the seal of the sacrament would in fact not make children any safer.’ He described the legislation as coming from ‘a purely hypothetical world’ adding ‘It could be drafted only by those who haven’t the slightest idea of how the sacrament works on the ground.’ Clearly, the bishops aren’t going to budge because they know the Vatican isn’t going to budge.

Actually, Coleridge is right and mandatory reporting of confessional material is much ado about nothing. What it does is make the public feel that Catholicism is being pulled-into-line and put in its place. Governments respond to this kind of public pressure. 

If, like me, you’d tried to explain this stuff in some twenty-five live radio interviews over the last two months, then you’d realize just how ill-informed the public discussion around this issue actually is. But there is a way out of this impasse. And if the Australian bishops have any sense at all, they’ll adopt it. 

For Catholics individual confession to a priest isn’t the only way in which the sacrament of reconciliation can be celebrated. In fact, confession only became widespread in the eleventh century and the obligation of the priest to maintain absolute confidentiality only became general with the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

In the early church only murder, apostacy (denying the faith) and adultery were subject to the church’s penitential discipline which required public admission of guilt and public penance. That’s why many people—particularly powerful people—put-off baptism so they wouldn’t be subject to this draconian system. The ‘daily sins’ were seen as forgiven in the celebration of the Eucharist. There is still a penitential rite at the beginning of Mass.

By the sixth century the public system had collapsed and its wasn’t until the Middle Ages that confession to a priest emerged, although it wasn’t until the sixteenth century counter-reformation that confession as it is today emerged due largely to the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the period following it. The confessional box—Graham Greene called it ‘the upturned coffin’—appeared at this time.

What we’re seeing now is the collapse of the old form of confession, just like the sixth century. This is where the opportunity lies for the Australian bishops. Because there already is another form of the sacrament of reconciliation, what is called the third rite with general absolution. This was widely practised in Australian parishes in the 1970s to the 1990s. It involved the parish community coming together in the weeks before Easter and Christmas with a generalized confession of failure and sin by the whole community in a worship service with a general absolution. There was no individual confession at all. 

It was very popular, not because it was ‘easy’ as reactionaries claimed, but because it symbolized the communal nature of human failure and it recognized that the actual celebration of the sacrament was the symbol of Christ’s forgiving presence, not the individual priest.

It was only abolished when a rump of bishops and a tiny group of ultra-reactionary laity persuaded Rome to come down heavily on the Australian church and stamp-out general absolution as a ‘pastoral deviation’ in late-1998. 

The result was disastrous. Nowadays hardly any Catholics go to confession. That is why Coleridge is right when he says governments ‘haven’t the slightest idea of how the sacrament works on the ground.’ It doesn’t.

There is a way out. The bishops need to re-introduce the third rite with general absolution while discouraging—even forbidding—the use of confession to an individual priest. If there is no one-on-one confession, then mandatory reporting becomes a non-issue.

The bishops don’t have to run to Rome to get permission to do this. The third rite is permitted in extraordinary situations, and God knows we’re in an ‘extraordinary’ situation in Australian Catholicism right now. This would remove children from exposure to vulnerable situations, it would stop paedophiles using confession as a way of salving their consciences, and get priests out of the firing line on mandatory reporting. 

All we need is leadership. Please bishops, we’re asking you, for once stand-up for the local church. Take the pastoral initiative and bring back a community celebration of God’s forgiveness. You’re dealing now with Pope Francis, a man who understands and encourages you to take the lead. We’re depending on you.

Paul Collins most recent book is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (New York: Public Affairs, 2018).

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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