Monday, July 25, 2011
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?