The capital of California was named for a river that was in turn named for the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. So it’s notable that last month state senators in Sacramento passed a bill that some say will force Catholic priests to violate a different Catholic sacrament: confession, also known as the sacrament of reconciliation.
Confession, as shown in a zillion pop cultural depictions, is a private conversation between a priest and an individual, meant to encourage Catholics to examine their consciences and request forgiveness from God. The format varies—for example, the two parties may sit face to face, or with an opaque screen between them—but the penitent is encouraged to offer a full inventory of her sins since her last visit. In return, the priest is bound by an ironclad oath of secrecy called the “seal of confession.”
Historically, American law has protected that seal, carving out a “clergy-penitent privilege” for the confessional that is similar to attorney-client privilege. But a bill making its way through the California state Legislature would ever-so-slightly crack the seal open. SB 360, which passed the state Senate in May, would require priests to report suspicions of child abuse obtained through confession in some circumstances. The bill is expected to be voted on by the lower house of the state Legislature in September, according to Catholic News Service. And many Catholics are not happy about it.
Clergy are already among the many professionals deemed mandated reporters for child abuse in California. But state law makes an exception for “penitential communications” obtained in settings where the cleric has a sacramental duty to maintain secrecy. As reporter Jack Jenkins recently pointed out, California’s pathbreaking 1990 law designating clergy as mandated reporters included a confessional carve-out that many other states added when they later adopted similar laws.
The new bill might seem like a very modest burden. In fact, its current language is even narrower than earlier drafts: In the version that passed, a priest would be bound to report suspicions of abuse only if the confessor is a fellow priest or an employee of the same institution—almost all lay people would remain unaffected. But some Catholics remain alarmed by what they see as a state intrusion into a sacred ritual. The policy arm of the state’s conference of Catholic bishops called it “an attack on the sanctity of the confessional.” Robert Barron, a prominent bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, called it “an egregious violation of the principle of religious liberty” and wrote that it “should alarm not only every Catholic in the country, but indeed the adepts of any religion.” And in an interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner this week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat listed the bill as an example of liberals in power “taking stances that are increasingly hostile to conservative Christian institutions.”
These objections can be hard to understand, especially in the context of renewed awareness of the catastrophically widespread sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. No one who objects to the bill would say they want to protect abusers. But it’s not just a human tradition, the argument goes; it’s a ritual instituted by God. And if priests are required to report suspicions of child abuse, then why not other serious crimes? Others raise practical concerns: What if a priest cannot identify the confessor because of the privacy screen between them?
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[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ruth Graham and originally published at Slate. Title changed by P&P.]
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