Anglicans, Sex Abuse, and the Seal of the Confessional: The Controversy and Why it Matters for Catholics

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An exemplary confessional from Toulouse, France. As with most things in life, the more Solomonic columns, the merrier. (Source)

Controversy is hardly a rarity in the Church of England. Yet not every controversy among Anglicans has possible implications for Roman Catholics. The most recent kerfuffle does.

On Tuesday, May 29th, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward SSC, Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, posted the following status on Facebook.

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Source: Facebook.

Anglo-Catholics have an amusing tendency to apply the Roman Code of Canon Law to their own ecclesial life, if only to frustrate the machinations of Evangelical bishops. It’s one of the oldest AC tricks in the book. A venerable tradition of principled disobedience, if you will.

But that is not what Fr. Ward is doing here. He is referring to the Anglican Code of Canon Law, which does indeed affirm the seal of the confessional as a sacramental norm (See Canon 113). Since Fr. Ward’s post, there has been an enormous to-do in the press. It seems that, although these guidelines came out in 2015, no one has noticed until last week. Forward in Faith, the pressure group advocating for traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England, released a concise yet substantive denunciation of the Canterbury guidelines. Indeed, this is not the first time they have addressed the issue. The predictably tedious Church Times report on the matter has come out. Religious sites like Christian Today have written about the controversy. This attention was, perhaps, to be expected. But even secular newspapers are starting to notice. Both The Times and The Telegraph have picked up the story.

Some context may be useful for those who don’t hold their ear to the ground of internal Anglican politics. The Bishop of Dover, who actually governs the See of Canterbury in place of the Archbishop, issued these guidelines. He is not generally known for accepting Catholic doctrine on this or any sacramental point.

No doubt some of my Catholic readers will interject at this point, “Of course he wouldn’t. He’s a Protestant!” Fair enough. But Anglo-Catholics in the United Kingdom do tend to accept lots of Roman doctrine. There are even pockets where Anglo-Papalism – that heady brew of Baroque ceremonial, English sacral vernacular, devotional maximalism, attachment to a male-only priesthood, and slavish Ultramontane sympathies – still exists. And most of those Anglo-Catholics accept the Roman teaching that the wilful withholding of sins by a penitent in confession is itself a mortal sin, thus invalidating any absolution. I will leave aside the dubious question of sacramental validity for now. The point is that Anglo-Catholics really do believe all this, and they treat confession in much the same way that devout Roman Catholics do. Anglo-Catholics with the cure of souls live by that rule. It is only logical that the head of an Anglo-Catholic seminary would thus take serious umbrage with a move in the Primate’s own diocese that was manifestly a) uncanonical, and b) mortally sinful.

But here is another reason for concern, even for us Romans. The diocese responded to Fr. Ward with the risible if disturbing claim that “[The mandated disclaimer] is intended to advise the penitent not to divulge in confession something which would legally compromise the position of the priest.” This is an extremely telling phrase; it constitutes the tacit admission that a diocese in the Church of England is surrendering the legal viability of the seal of the confessional, period. Mandatory reporting is the order of the day, and the sacrament must be deformed to fit it. I hope Catholics prick up their ears.

This guideline was promulgated against the backdrop of the Clerical Sex Abuse scandal. The C of E has been grappling with the same deep evils that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church in recent history. While the bishops have taken some good and appropriate steps in safeguarding, nevertheless, mistakes have also been made. Take the case of Bishop George Bell, accused of abuse posthumously and subsequently subjected to a multi-year botched inquiry and, arguably, public character assassination. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has dug in his heels on the guilt of George Bell in spite of the evidence that the Church’s investigatory body was irresponsible and hasty in its conclusions.

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Bishop George Bell…abuser or victim? Hard to say after the C of E’s deeply flawed investigation. (Source)

Do I know whether the confession guidelines for the Archbishop’s own diocese have been crafted with an eye to that particular scandal? No. It’s impossible to say. But we can safely say that the Bishop of Dover’s dissolution of the seal of the confessional is a similar misstep in the Church’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with the legacy of child abuse.

Of course, the same problem has existed, in a much more flagrant and public way, in the Roman Catholic Church. And it is this connection that should make the Bishop of Dover’s move so troubling to Catholics. His guidelines didn’t materialize out of the air. Similar suggestions have been made to National Inquiries about clerical sex abuse in Britain. Even more serious developments in Australia have seen wider discussions about legally abolishing the seal of confession.

But to return to the United Kingdom – let’s not forget that the Church of England is a motley crew of clerics who think their coreligionists are, at best, mistaken, and at worst, heretics. Evangelicals, Liberals, and Anglo-Catholics of every stripe take deeply divergent views of the sacraments. If the Bishop of Dover’s guidelines are allowed to stand under the current Code of Canon Law, what’s to stop other bishops from adopting them in their own sees? Evangelicals generally don’t have the same hang-ups about confession as Catholics, and liberals may see the change as a progressive step. If enough bishops do adopt the guidelines, they can start to change the culture of the church. Once ordinary Anglicans become used to this exception in the confessional seal (among those who practice confession at all, which is probably a fairly low number anyway), what kind of pressure will the clergy start to exert on the Roman Catholics of England? What if Parliament takes up the cause, following the precedent of the Australians? What if mandatory reporting is extended by law to all clergy without exception? What then?

A slippery slope, you say? Maybe. But there are liberal Anglicans who have already attacked traditionalist Anglo-Catholics – the most Roman people in the Church – on precisely these terms. The Rev. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, argued (in Holy Week!) that sex abuse is tied to traditionalism among Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals. Without a hint of irony, he writes,

There are common denominators between these two ecclesial cultures. They deny women equality. They are squeamish about sexuality. They sacralise ambiguity. They put their leaders on unimpeachable pedestals. The worst abuses flourish in the cultures that are self-righteous.
(emphasis mine – RY)

Other liberal Anglicans have suggested that “angry, conservative religion…in the Church of Rome” will have to undergo various changes to accommodate modernity. One could reach for examples. I will merely say that there is no shortage of criticism directed towards the Church of Rome by Anglicans who don’t identify as either traditionalist or Anglo-Catholic. And let us not forget the long and terrible history of English anti-Catholicism, a staple of British culture from the Reformation on. It has cropped up even in our own times.

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“The tongue of St. John Nepomuk surrounded by five episodes of his life.” Behold, the saintly tongue that would not break the seal. (Source)

What happens in the Church of England matters in no small part because it is the Established Church. It is thus something of a thermostat (or at least a thermometer) of public religious opinion in Great Britain. The prospect of the Anglicans ceding the seal of confession to the investigatory apparatus of the state, and thus normalizing the violation of the seal, is a dangerous prelude for the Catholics of this country.

And of course, there’s the very practical point that mandatory reporting even for confessions will not produce more results. Abusers will simply stop confessing those sins, even as the abused will no longer be able to confide in their priests. Who does it hurt? The most vulnerable. Who does it help? No one.

Catholics believe that the seal of the confessional is absolute. It is the guarantee that when a penitent sincerely asks forgiveness for his sins, he can be sure that he is receiving absolution from someone who will never reveal his past. It is Christ who hears and forgives, not the priest in himself. And Christ is the “Lamb of God, who takes away all sins.” The seal of the confessional expresses this mystical reality. The saints have always known that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, neither what is present nor what is to come, no force whatever, neither the height above us nor the depth beneath us, nor any other created thing” could justify, force, or provoke the violation of the seal of the confessional (Rom 8:38-39). Some were martyred for keeping holy silence.

I hope and pray that we will never see martyrs of the confessional in our time. But if worst comes to worst, will our priests be willing to shed their blood for the trust they have been given?

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St. John Nepomuk, martyred for refusing to break the seal of the confessional. May he intercede for us wherever the seal is challenged. (Source)

Perhaps this controversy, like so many, will turn out to be nothing more than a tempest in the teapot. I would happily look back on this piece in many years’ time and say that my fears were all ill-founded and misbegotten. Let me be accused of hysteria! I would rather be worried over nothing than prove a Cassandra. But as things develop, it may not be a bad idea to pray for the intercession of St. John Nepomuk.

 

 

And After the Fire

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“The Morning After the Deluge,” J.M.W. Turner, c. 1843. (Source).

I am still shocked and furious about the events of the last few days. Fascists of various sorts have descended upon Charlottesville, Virginiaa town I loved and called home for four years—and caused immense pain for the entire community. One woman, a Wobbly protester, died at the hands of a Neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowded alley. I had friends in the counter-protest. I had friends who feared for their lives. And all I could do was watch and pray. The Rosary, the Imprecatory Psalms, Invocations to St. Michael. But how I wish I could have done so much more.

I was following the news across Facebook, CNN television, and Twitter. I observed mixed responses. Some, even among baptized Catholics, sympathize with the Alt-Right fascists. They point the finger of blame at Antifa, the several Socialists who showed up in counterprotest, the Media, and Black Lives Matter activists. Likewise, some Christians equivocated. They were happy to condemn the Alt-Right briefly, while also complaining at length about how the Media wasn’t focusing on Antifa, or the Police didn’t do enough, or, incredibly, how all of this is really just the fault of the Democratic Party (here’s looking at you, John Zmirak and Dinesh D’Souza). Then, there were those brave Catholics like Chad Pecknold, Robert George, and Bishop Barron who condemned white supremacy and racism outright. And they received backlashshameful!from those who should know better.

But I haven’t lost hope.

The Liturgical Providence of God is so calibrated to our salvation that we receive the graces we need at precisely the moment we need them, even when we could never have anticipated needing them in the first place. It works even through a deficient calendar, such as we have in the Novus Ordo. For today, we read and hear about a great many disruptions and turbulent tumults. We turn first to the Prophet Elijah at Sinai where, having cast down fire from heaven upon the Prophets of Baal, he hides and waits for the Lord to speak.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a

The wind rises high all about Elijah; it howls and screams like the very demons of Hell. It rushes up the mountain like the chariots of the wicked King who sought the prophet’s life. But the Lord was not in the wind.

The earthquake causes the whole mountain to tremble. Rocks shake as if they are about to be torn asunder by invisible hands. The trees seem to dance in an unholy rhythm, threaten to crack and topple over. But the Lord was not in the earthquake.

The fire courses across the plain and up the slopes, hungrily devouring the short desert grasses that line the path to Horeb’s cave. The smoke fills the air; the sweltering heat traps Elijah, and threatens to make a furnace of his narrow cell. But the Lord was not in the fire.

The Lord came, instead, in a “tiny whispering sound” that followed all that tumult and trial. The frightful violence of nature may have been sublime, and it may have sorely threatened Elijah. But it was empty. God does not dwell in the frenzy of the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. He comes in peace, and He meets His servant in peace.

This week’s Psalm takes up the same theme.

R. (8) Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R. Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.

Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14

The peace and salvation of God is near to those who fear Him. A great mystery hovers within these lines: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.”

Justice. Peace. Those are words that scare a lot of us traditionalists. After all, haven’t so many abuses of doctrine and the liturgy occurred precisely in the name of “social justice?” Haven’t whole orders been gutted by their worldly capitulation to liberal standards of “social justice” work? And aren’t the proverbial “Social Justice Warriors” the very people who most oppose the Church’s teachings on abortion, marriage, gender, and so many other issues?

All of these criticisms are valid. But they are not complete. Justice is a cardinal virtue. To quote one of the better Anglican principles, “The abuse of a thing doth not take away the good use of it.” Consider what the Psalm teaches us of God’s Justice. Here is a picture of the Last and Eternal Day, when the New Heavens and the Earth will united at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But we also find a practical insight for the here and now. When we read, “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps,” we recognize in this a prophecy of Christ. Our Lord, whose way was prepared by St. John the Baptist (that man so like an icon of Justice), is never far from Justice. The wind and earthquake and fire of injustice will one day yield to the peace of Christ. But in the meantime, we must do what we can to realize that justice in our own communities. Indeed, in our own hearts.

This can only begin when we faithfully repair to the sacrament of penance, confessing our sins with compunction, and seek to live always as Christ would have us. For some, this may mean abandoning deep bigotries like white supremacy or a hatred of the poor. It will be difficult for those caught in such snares to relinquish their demonic ideologies, so we must pray for them. But is there anyone among us who does not cherish some prejudice, some little parasite of pride, some vice that blinds us to the manifold ways we are complicit in the oppression of our brethren? Even I am no saint in this respect, and I pray that God’s mercy might change me to better reflect His love for all people.

For some, direct action may be the right course. I am not an activist. I started this essay confessing that I wish I could have done more to help those standing against white supremacists yesterday. Yet I recognize that I have a temperamental aversion to any kind of on-the-ground activism. The task of marching, picketing, and chanting songs of justice may be what some are called to. Dorothy Day provides a wonderful Catholic example of this kind of work.

And there are other strategies, which theologians and activists have pursued for years, that aim at incarnating Justice. It would be redundant to attempt any kind of review here. But no matter how we go about the task of Justice, we musn’t lose hope. Let us hear the commiserating words of St. Paul to the Romans:

Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Rom 9:1-5

Even amidst the anguish we feel for our brethren, we must not lose sight of the Holy Face triumphant. Nor must we forget that Justice is not itself the highest good. God is. With these two truths in mind, we turn to the Gospel.

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Mt 14:22-33

We learn from the Psalm that “Justice shall walk before him, and prepare the way of his steps.” So Our Lord sends forth His Apostles, His Church, to “precede him to the other side” of the sea. The Church mystically incarnates Justice at every Mass. And it can only hope to sustain Justice, a Cardinal Virtue, with Faith. For when Peter, Prince of the Apostles, goes out of the boat to walk towards His Lord, he only sinks when he loses his Faith in fear.

But all is not lost. Christ comes through the storm and shows that He is master of it. He walks on water. No tempest can withstand Him, just as no wind, earthquake, fire, flood, protest, or violence of this world can drown out His voice. No slogan of oppression, no act of terrorism, no brawl in the summer streets can overcome the peace that Christ alone brings in and to and through His Church.

I hope that my friends in Charlottesville will take heart. The last few days have been tempestuous, to say the least. But Christ will conquer the waves of this world. Have faith, and He will grant us both justice and peace.