Does it surprise anyone that a major effort to break the seal of confession of the Catholic Church is happening in what used to be the “great” state of California?
It doesn’t surprise me and I have lived here long enough to consider myself a Californian, despite that I was born and raised on the East Coast.
When I first moved here years ago, there was a sense of openness and freedom quite different from the East – and I loved it.
But all that is gone, and Californians today find themselves enveloped in a never-ending grasp of liberal politicians. Not only is the entire government in Sacramento in the grip of the Democrat party, but that influence permeates the courts and law in general.
Living under a régime like that is like being pecked to death by ducks.
The latest insult is SB 360, a measure introduced by State Senator Jerry Hill, a Democrat from San Mateo in Northern California. Hill aims to trash the centuries-old seal of confession for Catholics.
A bit of background is necessary. Members of the clergy are state-mandated reporters along with other professionals such as doctors, teachers, social workers and others. That means that they are required to report suspected cases of child neglect or abuse to authorities.
But there is one caveat. Catholic clergy who might learn of such situations during confession are exempt from that mandate – based on Catholic doctrine that makes confession between a penitent and a priest absolutely private. That seal may never be broken.
In fact, Canon Law stipulates that any priest who breaks that seal of privacy would be excluded from the priesthood. It is so serious an offense that it just does not happen.
When the scope of the bill first became public, the reaction was widespread fury. Catholics and others saw it as an infringement of the privacy of personal confessions and freedom of religion. Clearly the state was stepping into a controversy it hadn’t anticipated.
Whether or not a priest disclosed details of a confession, the very idea that a “state law” would make it possible for the most private part of a person’s relationship with God could be made public was reprehensible.
The Senators backed off and modified the bill – but made it narrower and worse. Now, it would require that when a priest hears the confession of another priest or people he works with, those who might confess such abuse sins, the confessor is required to report that person to authorities. The amended bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 16.
Basically, the law still requires priests to violate the seal of the confession – and let me tell you, I am not the only one who says that would never happen.
Oakland California Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael C. Barber, S.J., didn’t mince words. He said the law strips confidentiality from the Sacrament of Confession and any priest divulging sins he’s heard “commits a mortal sin and is in danger of excommunication.”
He added that even if the bill passes, “No priest may obey it. … I will go to jail before I will obey this attack on our religious freedom.”
In fact, this is a full-frontal attack on religion; but Senator Hill hasn’t budged on his opinion that there should be no exemptions to the duties of mandated reporters.
It raises the question of another area where there is protection of privileged conversations: attorney-client conversations. When would that be breached by a law? It’s all together possible if SB360 is allowed to stand, although Hill has made no comment about that.
One aspect of Catholic confession is the fact that not every confession is face-to-face. Traditionally, when a Catholic goes into the confessional, there is a screen between him/her and the priest. It is dark. There is no light. The two cannot see each other and the penitent does not identify himself.
In that case, even if the penitent were member of the clergy who might confess child abuse, the priest hearing the confession would not know who he was. The issue would be moot.
While there are also face-to-face confessions, it would seem to me that anyone fearing they might be reported would go to a private confession and that would preclude any problems.
In that case, the law would be useless.
But, it would be on the books and leaves the door open to other and further infringements of private religious practices, not only for Catholics. This has been an area that has been protected by our Constitutional rights since the beginning of our country. Now is not the time, and California is not the place, for such a drastic change to be made.