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Why Even Secular People Should Defend the Seal of Confession

A few days ago, Sandro Magister wrote an article on his widely followed blog Settimo Cielo entitled “Worldwide Attack against the Seal of Confession: Either Prison or Excommunication.”

He was referring to the pillar of Catholic doctrine on sacramental confession, which holds that what is said by the penitent in the confessional — including whatever the penitent says about his own life — remains forever secret, because the priest represents Christ and he may reveal nothing of what is said to him, on the pain of excommunication. But this question also concerns the ministers of other religions.

Magister listed a series of facts. On July 13, in the State of California, “the latest attack was thwarted” against the seal of confession: a proposed law that had already been approved by the state Senate was withdrawn by order of the state committee for public safety (after the protests of 140,000 letters, 17,000 emails, and hundreds of phone calls).

Prior to this, the international criminal court had rejected the requests of France and Canada that were going in the same direction.

In 2016, it was the supreme court of the State of Louisiana that defended the right of “a priest, a rabbi, or duly-ordained minister” not to reveal what he had come to know in confession or “another sacred communication.”

The explosion of cases of sexual abuse has made everything more volatile. The problem arose in 2011 in Ireland, and again in 2014 in relation to an entity of the United Nations.

The first case directly attacking the seal of confession took place in Australia on June 7, 2018, when a law was unanimously passed “which requires Catholic priests — and analogously ministers of other faiths — to violate the sacramental seal when they become aware of sexual abuse committed against minors. The law came into force on March 31, 2019.”

So wrote Magister, who then revealed a fact that was as yet unknown concerning the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In Italy, a sentence from the high court of cassation (n. 6912 on January 14, 2017) “has established that a priest called to testify in a penal process concerning sexual abuse incurs the crime of false testimony if he refuses to say what he has learned in confession apart from the sins committed by the penitent, for example if someone has told him that they have been sexually abused, not that they have committed an act of abuse.”

Andrea Bettetini, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of Milan and at various other foreign schools, has written about this sentence (and in general about the attacks on the seal of confession) in the latest edition of the Catholic magazine Vita e pensiero.

Obviously, there is great alarm in the Church, as proven by the June 29 document of the Apostolic Penitentiary (approved by Pope Bergoglio) “on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal.” But should only the Church be concerned?

The reader may think this matter concerns only priests (or ministers of whatever religion) and their faithful.

Indeed, in the present climate of secularization, with the atmosphere produced by the sexual abuse scandals, many will believe that the abolition of the seal of confession is a just measure that takes away a “privilege” that has enabled cover-up and impunity to fester.

They may not be reflecting much on the fact that the guarantee of confidentiality of confession can actually help a crime to be revealed and pave the way for the eradication of evil.

But above all, they are ignorant of the fact that the defense of the sacred space of the conscience by the Church is historically at the foundation of the modern liberal State, of the secular nature of the State, and of what makes Western civilization better than other civilizations.

This was demonstrated by a great historian who passed away in 2016, Paolo Prodi (see photo), the brother of [former Italian prime minister] Romano Prodi. The synthesis of his long research may be found in the conference he gave on November 29, 2005 at the Fondazione Collegio San Carlo on the topic “Between Law and Conscience: The Transformation of Obedience from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.”

Paolo Prodi.

Here is the summary:

The central thesis which I would like to present is that liberty and the state of modern law are the fruit of a two-fold legal system which has very deep historical roots. The Western city was able to develop because of and to the extent to which the distinction between the sphere of the sacred and the sphere of power permitted not only the growth of an institutional separation between State and Church, which made possible the secularization of the political realm, but also the development of a two-fold level of concurrent norms — moral norms and positive norms — and two distinct seats of judgment over human actions: as a sin and as a crime, as disobedience to the moral law and disobedience to the positive law of the State. This dual belonging of Western man makes him in some way inclined to a path of liberty with respect to other civilizations which appeared previously on the face of the earth, in which the relationship of belonging was so to speak total: political and sacred at the same time. The hypothesis which I have sought to develop in the last few years regards the reason that constitutional laws and the market developed only in the West (in the sense of a mechanism which cannot be reduced to a simple exchange of goods but which implies the concept of fides). The thesis is that what happened took place because, in substance, only in the West was there a foundational dualism by which man never entirely pertained to only one obedience, to one system of norms, but was always in a state of tension between distinct juridical systems, distinct authorities, distinct powers.

Thus the (liberal) secularists ought to defend the seal of confession just as much as believers, rejecting the right of the state to take over the space of conscience and the sacred.

It is no coincidence that the rabbi Jacob Taubes wrote after World War II:

Understand what I wanted from [German conservative jurist and controversial intellectual of the Nazi regime] Carl Schmitt — I wanted to show him that the division between earthly power and spiritual power is absolutely necessary, and that without this clear distinction, the West will breathe its last breath. I wanted him to understand this, against his totalitarian concept.

Editor’s note: This article, first published in Libero on July 28, 2019, is translated here by Giuseppe Pellegrino and published with permission. It can be found in the original Italian at Antonio Socci’s blog.

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