Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Private" Confession

Saturday after Easter 3
April 24, 2010

The Lord be with you

Like everyone, I suppose, I had an immediate negative emotional response to the revelations about sexual miss-conduct among the ministers of the Roman Catholic Church. Though I am not Roman Catholic, I recognize that such revelations “tar” the image of all Christian churches. The accent in the news that I have heard depict the way things were handled by the Roman Catholic Church as a cover-up. Thanks to this slant, I also had an immediate negative emotional response to how the Roman Catholic Church handled information. In all of this I suspect that I am quite typical of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

However I have had a chance to ponder a little bit about this sad chapter in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. Some questions have arisen in my mind. I thought I’d share them on my blog.

When a person confesses a sin to their pastor, they do so with the understanding that this confession is confidential. The pastor listens, offers guidance from the Word of God, and if the person is repentant, absolution. The person should have no fear that their sin will be pointed out in next Sunday’s sermon or appear on the nightly news. For example, John Doe should not have to worry about his pastor saying in Sunday’s sermon, “Lusting in ones heart, like John Doe does, is just as much a sin of adultery as that committed by the hookers downtown.” John should also not have to wonder if his pastor will call his wife up right after he leaves the office, or that his sin will become the topic of conversation among the church staff or civic club to which his pastor belongs.

Sins of the past often have an ongoing impact on the lives of people. Maybe something done in a person’s youth continues to dog the conscience of an adult. In such a case the Christian should be able to come to their pastor, confess their past sin, receive council according to the Word of God, and absolution. They should not have to worry about their past sins being exposed.

When a person confesses to their pastor, it is as if they are praying to the Lord in that it is strictly confidential. One difference is that they can expect guidance from a mature Christian pastor that is tailored to their specific situation. They can get real help.

What if there was a sign on the pastor’s office that read, “All minor sins will be kept confidential, all major sins will be made public. The pastor gets to decide what a major or minor sin is.” Who would come to such a pastor seeking his guidance?

Returning now to the accusation of sexual miss-conduct against some Roman Catholic priests; one thing the news is not telling us is how this or that official came to know that this or that priest was engaged in sinful sexual practices. Was it in the context of private confession? If so, do the “rules” that apply when a member of the laity confesses to his pastor not apply when a priest confesses to his Father Confessor? Does concern for those sinned against trump concern for the sinner? Does public opinion concerning this or that sin determine what sins should be made public? Does civil law determine what Church practice should be? If people (even pastors) cannot confess their sins, receive guidance and absolution, from their pastor (or ecclesial supervisor) to whom can they turn?

These are not easy questions to answer, especially for those in the pastoral office. No matter how they are answered, there is real impact on the ministry, on people’s trust in their pastor.

I do not wish to exonerate anyone who has used the office of the holy ministry to victimize others. I also do not wish to suggest that I think the ecclesial authorities in the Roman Catholic Church acted in the wisest fashion, or in keeping with the Christian Faith. All I am saying is that there are real and important considerations which the national news outlets are not dealing with. In fact, I do not think they are capable of honestly and equitably dealing with some of the issues. They are issues, though, that every pastor has to consider as soon as someone comes to him and says, "Can I talk to you privately?".

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert


  1. John, you raise a lot of good and thoughtful questions. In the cases that have been in the news we are not just talking about sinful sexual practices. We are talking about felonies. If there is evidence that a crime has been committed, then yes, I do believe that evidence needs to be shared with the authorities. Not shouted from the rooftops, but put into the hands of those who are responsible for protecting the public.

  2. I received the following e-mail concerning this post: "I read your posting on confidentiality, and it is an interesting moral issue. Obviously if a priest confessed to his superior, that would be the same as a congregant confessing to his pastor. Maybe none of this would have ever come out had the victims as adults not told what had happened. The Catholic church has certainly received much criticism for the way in which they handled these situations, but perhaps their hands were tied, so to speak. Certainly thought-provoking. Hazel"

  3. Hi Dave. Thank you for the comment. In the US “the Federal government defines a felony as a crime punishable by death or imprisonment in excess of one year. If punishable by exactly one year or less, it is classified as a misdemeanor.” (Wikpedia) If we use the legal felony-misedmeanor distinction to guide what is shared with the authorities and what is kept confidential, then a cheating spouse would be safe, but someone selling majuania, or transporting stollen items across state lines, or making moonshine, or an illegal alien, or even someone who vandelises Federal property (like grafittie) could not count on confidentiality. The felony-misedeamonor distinction seems to add complecatoins to me.