Following sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, there is a worldwide push to end the guarantee of secrecy of confession – called “the seal of the confessional.”
On September 11, two Australian states, Victoria and Tasmania, passed bills requiring priests to report any child abuse revealed in the confessional.
Australian bishops have, however, made it clear that the seal of confession is “sacred”, regardless of the sin confessed. With regard to Tasmania’s new law, Archbishop Julian Porteous argued that removing confession’s protection of confidentiality would stop paedophiles from coming forward. That would prevent priests from encouraging them to surrender to authorities.
In the US, a California bill proposing ending priestly confidentiality regarding the abuse of minors was withdrawn in July 2019 after a campaign by Catholics and other religious freedom advocates.
Catholic confession has been formally safeguarded by the US Supreme Court since 1818. But therapists, doctors and a few other professionals are required to break confidentiality when there is an immediate threat of harm. Priests are not.
Why is confession so important in the Catholic Church?
The act of confession
Catholics believe Jesus gave his disciples the power to forgive sins.
In John 20: 23, Jesus says to his apostles, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
This belief extends to priests in “the rite of penance and reconciliation”.
This ritual usually occurs in a “reconciliation room”. It is in this private place that the priest, in his role as “confessor,” meets face to face with the “penitents” who will confess their sins.
After making the sign of the cross and welcoming the penitent, the priest reads a passage from the Bible that speaks of God’s mercy. The penitent then says, “Bless me Father for I have sinned” and recounts – out loud – the specific sins committed.
Afterwards, the priest may ask questions to make sure that the confession is thorough. He then gives “absolution” – a “release” from the guilt of sin.
Absolution is not automatic. The penitent must perform “an act of contrition”, in which they say that they are “contrite” or sorry for their sins. The penitent also promises to do their best not to sin again.
Before dismissing the penitent, the priest gives a “penance” – usually in the form of prayers – that the penitent needs to perform to “reconcile” with God.
History of penance and confession
The present rite of penance and reconciliation dates from 1974. This was almost a decade after a worldwide gathering of bishops at the Second Vatican Council that reformed many traditional Catholic practices.
In the centuries before the change, penance and confession were much more demanding.
In early Christianity, those who committed serious sins – like murder – publicly entered the “order of penitents.” These penitents underwent years of public prayer and fasting before rejoining the community.
Because it was so difficult to repeat the process for serious sins if committed again, many Christians waited until old age to perform penance and be assured their place in heaven.
Some of the penances were severe, such as making a barefoot pilgrimage to a distant holy place or walking to church on one’s knees. From the 11th century onward, going on Crusade to the Middle East – the Holy Land – was also considered a penance that could erase a person’s sins.
For these reasons, penance gradually emphasised the basic act of confession itself, and prayers took the place of harsher penalties.
The importance of confession
Today, confession is still associated with the older process of going to a confession box and listing one’s sins anonymously from behind a screen.
That was my first experience of penance in the 1970s as a seven-year-old Catholic boy. I was also taught that I could not receive the bread and wine of communion without confessing my sins. This teaching still remains in force.
But regardless of how frequently Catholics go to confession, the freedom to confess – in confidence – is central to the Catholic worldview. And all Catholics of my generation have a confession story – a story that can be either comforting or traumatic.
The debate over confession isn’t just an abstract issue for Catholics. It’s something very personal.
Mathew Schmalz, Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.