Thursday, February 13, 2014

John Cornwell on Confession: Lots of Wrong, a Little (Big) Right

John Cornwell wrote a piece for the Daily Mail website on the Sacrament of Confession for young children, i.e. those around the age of seven who are thus considered to have the use of reason. It's a very interesting piece, and normally I'd brush it off as a stupid rant against the Catholic Church and be done with it. However, he raises some interesting issues that are worth responding to.

First, his premise is incorrect. As Dr. Peters notes HERE, Pope St. Pius X did nothing of the sort to mandate Confession at the age of seven in any way remotely close to Cornwell's assertion.

Remember priests hear Confessions and must confess too.
Cornwell makes a point about the confessional, the old box style rarely found in parish churches today as pointed out towards the end. Around the time of the Council of Trent, during the Protestant Revolt, people were slandering priests, accusing them of improprieties (mainly sexual) in the confessional. It wasn't true, for the most part at any rate, so the Holy See decided to implement the confessional in order to stop the possibility of it being true, and it remained that way until people decided otherwise after the Second Vatican Council. So it keeps priests from slander, keeps them from being tempted, and protects the anonymity of the confession. It's a win on all fronts. But aren't the friendly confessions in private rooms, where the priest and penitent are face to face, the kinds that lead to abuse?

 Keep in mind that both priest and penitent can request a grille, and in some ways the requirement is more important for the priest. Why? I can see the anonymity issue being meaningless if a person walks up to a priest: the priest has already seen his or her face. But the issues that led to the screen's imposition are very possibly more important to a priest, who under 99.9% of circumstances probably won't face any issue related to the seal of confession (related to anonymity).

As to young children going to Confession: if young children did not have the use of reason, they had no need to confess since they could not adequately distinguish right and wrong. But the Popes in the last 150 years have (rightly, I wholeheartedly believe) that reason is reached at an earlier age (and even as young as ages 4 through 6, as 7 to 8 years is the end year in which it is reached).

The yearly duty of Confession is still the precept of the Church to prod us along so that we might realize that if we love God, then we will follow this commandment and not only follow it but go beyond it as far as necessary. The Church forcing someone to go to weekly confession makes no sense, and Cornwell is wrong to assert otherwise. It's simply never been that way. However, I think a parent can (and should at least at some times) decide otherwise for the spiritual benefit of the children under his or her charge. That is also an entirely different matter.

As Dr. Peters points out, one must confess grave sins. But a good confessor will ask about venial sin. Why? It is persistence and attachment to venial sin that is the hardest to drop, since we know mortal sin will keep us out of communion with God forever, so we try to work on eliminating them, and this is made more difficult through piling on venial sin.

Now, Cornwell points out all these other issues about the Communion fast, and missing parts of Mass, and so on. Fr. Servais Pinckaers, OP who was a great moral theologian, would suggest that these issues related to obligation and limits of freedom pervaded moral theology after Trent, instead of focusing on what makes us happy, thereby separating doing good from our spiritual lives. I don't know how true that is: consider that the Baltimore Catechism's  most famous answer is on happiness. But it's true enough that these issues arose. Certainly there is lots of confusion between passion and action, whereby sin comes in after we use judgment to do or not to do something, or judging something's goodness or evilness.

But Cornwell is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT to call out priests who abused children (or adults!) in the confessional. It's a sin that just adds more and more layers to it. One, you're not married, two it's forcible, three it's mostly to young people including men, four, you're a priest, five, it's in a sacramental (!!) context. It's a scandal featuring horrible and egregious acts on the part of those dedicated to God so that the members of Christ's Body the Church might become as holy as the Church is.

We Catholics who try to be faithful and defend the Church don't realize that in some places how bad it was and that people covered it up. Now, the problem is that in some places it was so bad people say it was like that everywhere, or that most/all priests in bad places were abusers. (Satan, go away. Now.)

This paragraph hit the nail on the head:
 A leading priest-psychotherapist, Richard Sipe, has characterised clerical abuse in the confessional as 'soul murder', arguing that such attacks undermine not only the physical and psychological integrity of the victim, but spiritual integrity as well - and for life.


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