I am changing my mind on Confession

The debate has been going on for some time about the seal of Confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) in the Catholic Church. There have been calls to make it obligatory for priests, if they are told in the sacrament that the penitent is sexually abusing a minor, they must inform the authorities. This is a difficult one, since the seal of confession (the requirement that a priest can never reveal what he hears in confession) is one of the most serious obligations for any priest, and if that is compromised in any way it undermines the sacrament as we have known it.

Over recent years I have given many media interviews, arguing with conviction that this cannot change.  Now I am beginning to think differently. The situation within the Church over clerical sexual abuse is so serious, and the Church’s credibility so damaged, that I am not sure we can hold to this position any more.

At a conference in Australia, responding to the results of the Royal Commission investigation into sexual abuse of minors, Professor Des Cahill of RMIT university had the following to say:

“Professor Cahill said that the image of religion had been severely damaged by the child sexual abuse crisis, and that the Royal Commission had demonstrated that many religious institutions were not in good shape. He described the Australian Catholic Church as ‘a shipwreck’ and described the performance of the Australian Catholic Bishops in taking almost nine months to formally respond to the Royal Commission as ‘appalling and abysmal’. Professor Cahill said deep cultural change was needed in the churches, going beyond professional standards and child safety mechanisms. He argued that the Catholic Church would need to completely rethink the sacrament of reconciliation in light of the Royal Commission’s findings, its theology and praxis of priesthood, and its theology of gender and sexuality. He also called for the conference to adopt a wider focus than child sexual abuse, to include the abuse of vulnerable adults, including seminarians, novices and the sexual assault of female religious by priests.”

That paragraph makes great sense to me. The Church is now in such a state that we have to think in new ways, and be open to radical, and previously unthought of change.

A friend of mine in Australia, the writer and commentator on religious affairs, Paul Collins, made a suggestion for a way Church authorities could deal with the Confession issue. A good few years ago the Vatican approved three forms, or ways of celebrating, the sacrament. One is the traditional way of a one-to-one with the priest, usually in a confession box; one is what we call ‘general absolution’, where the absolution for sin is celebrated with a gathering of the believers without individual confession. The other one, known as Rite 2, was a sort of a compromise between the other two. General absolution was fairly common practice in the Church in the seventies and early eighties, but John Paul ll put an end to it.  Paul Collins’ proposal is that for the foreseeable future the Church should decree that General Absolution would be the only permitted way to celebrate the Sacrament, – and in this way side-stepping the problem of the seal of confession.

I think it is a good idea.