Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ireland to compel priests to break seal of confession(?)

The Catholic Herald is reporting that the Irish government is seeking to compel Catholic priests to break the seal of confession.  The debate will sound familiar to all American lawyers familiar with our Free Exercise and religious-exemptions cases and arguments:

Irish Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald said: “The point is, if there is a law in the land, it has to be followed by everybody. There are no exceptions, there are no exemptions.”

Fr PJ Madden, spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests, insisted that the sacramental seal of confession is “above and beyond all else” and should not be broken even if a penitent confesses to a crime.

I would welcome corrections from Canon Law experts and theologians, but I assume that a Catholic priest cannot tell the government what he learns in confession, no matter how serious.  (Has everyone seen the old Montgomery Clift film, I Confess?  Great stuff.)  So, what would the point of this law be (other than to grandstand, which is certainly a venerable legislative aim)? 

One possibility is that the government wants to create conflict within the Church, which I expect would happen if, say, a priest who did reveal sins learned in Confession was disciplined by his Bishop.  It is possible that the goal is to put the Church -- already reeling in Ireland -- on the defensive yet again (thereby weakening still further its influence in Irish culture, politics, etc.)  It's possible that those introducing the legislation really do believe that "if there is a law of the land, it has to be followed by everybody" (but I doubt it).  I have to expect, as the article suggests, that such a law would mean that no priest (or anyone else) would confess to committing serious crimes, and so the Church would lose the opportunity to tell such persons to "turn themselves in."

So, again . . . what's the point? 


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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This might help (http://canonlawblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/note-on-proposals-to-require-priests-to.html)

Posted by: Evan Georgeson | Jul 25, 2011 6:43:12 PM

In theory, at least, a number of states in the US do not recognize the priest-penitent privilege when it comes to mandatory reporting of child abuse. See here:

Isn't it rather difficult to imagine a situation where the state would know that a priest knew something and didn't report it? I have not been following the events in Ireland too closely, but I will hazard the guess that the government wants it known that it wants to "get tough" with the Church, and nobody expects this particular statement to have any practical effects.

Let me make it clear, first, that child abuse is a terrible thing, and I don't want to minimize it in any way. But I would have to say that there has been a certain amount of overreaction, with this being only one example. Opening "windows" in the statute of limitations is another. I think it is just wrong. Residency requirements for convicted sex offenders that leave them with no place to live are yet another example. While I have no doubt that some children who are abused suffer consequences for life, I also wonder if there isn't at least some suggestion to victims who were abused in mild ways that they *ought* to be suffering consequences for life, and they *ought* to seek some kind of revenge, and that they are owed as much money by the Church as lawyers can get for them. I would not for a moment let the Church off the hook for what happened, and I would not for a minute maintain that the press shouldn't have reported it or that it should have been covered up in any way. But I think there has been overreaction in some quarters, and some of it, I would argue, is not helpful even to the victims.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 25, 2011 8:09:03 PM

The point of the law is to drive home the point that it is the civil authorities who are the supreme moral authority in Ireland. Now, one might want to ask if that proposition is in fact true.

Let's see. There is nothing special about Irish government, so let's cast a wider net. Do we believe that the Stalin government in the Soviet Union was the supreme moral authority there? How about the Reichs government in the 1930's that sent Saint Edith Stein on her way to Auschwitz (she died on the way)?

It is truly said that "Guilt is a thief that steals the conscience." These governments, whose hands are dripping in blood, cannot absolve themselves with the blood of the innocent.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Jul 26, 2011 8:50:37 AM

Joel, ultimately there has to be some authority deciding what is moral, even if that decision is that various different types of morality will be accepted. The state isn't always the best at making that decision, of course, but they're far more better suited to it than an unelected and exclusive group such as the church.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 26, 2011 4:13:53 PM

I will not ever violate the seal of confession regardless of what any government says or does.

Posted by: Fr. J | Jul 26, 2011 8:01:07 PM

Of course it is grandstanding. No law can compel someone to speak if they don't want to. Priests obey a higher law than man's law.

Posted by: Douglas R. | Sep 2, 2011 1:48:31 PM