by Richard Leonard, SJ
Within a year, I expect that every state in Australia will have enacted legislation against the seal of confession in regard to child sexual abuse. In the future, on hearing a confession of child sex abuse I will be legally bound to immediately proceed to the police station where, almost certainly, I would not be able to name the offender, give an address or describe him or her.
I can easily imagine that some activists might falsely confess to criminal abuse in order to entrap a bishop or priest. Since confessors are simply mandatory reporters, they wouldn’t have any role in discerning if a claim of abuse was true or not. The police and the courts would reach a judgement on that in due course.
The first response I have heard from one bishop is to bring back completely anonymous confessionals, where, short of the penitent giving his or her name, the priest would have no way of identifying the one confessing. Maybe, for identification purposes, the state will demand closed-circuit cameras outside reconciliation rooms.
The other option is restore the Third Rite of Reconciliation.
The Third Rite of Reconciliation enjoyed a great reception in many places in Australia until November 1998. That month seven metropolitan archbishops together with the chairman and secretaries of several national bishops’ conference committees held a ‘Synod’ at Rome with various prefects of Vatican dicasteries. At the end a document was produced and signed entitled the ‘Statement of Conclusions’. The tone of it was generally negative, and the lax administration of the Sacrament of Penance received very special attention.
The bishops were told that first and second rites of penance were the “sole ordinary means” by which Catholics are sacramentally forgiven by God and that general absolution (the Third Rite of Reconciliation) was “illegitimate” and had to be “eliminated”.
Recently in another journal, I suggested that the Third Rite of Reconciliation should become the parish norm so as to protect vulnerable priests and bishops. It set off a minor firestorm. Some of my correspondents rightly said that the communal rite should return full stop; and not as means to avoid being charged by the police. Others took me to task for even suggesting that this form of Christ’s forgiveness was remotely equal in efficacy to the other two rites. From my own graced experience of the first and second rites, as well as the privilege at presiding over both forms for decades, I need no convincing of their beauty and power when they are celebrated well. However, questioning the motivation of those who seek the third rite and even suggesting it is does not deliver on its Sacramental promise of Christ’s forgiveness, is dangerous stuff.
The reality is that for all our preaching, teaching, demands and encouragement, since the third rite was eliminated after November 1998, the vast majority of Australian Catholics do not access any form of Penance, ever. Even Lenten and Advent penance services have noticeably shrunk in recent years. If we believe in the sensus fidelium, then the People of God have not received the teaching that the communal rite of penance is “illegitimate”. For almost thirty years we have chosen form over substance, and the Body of Christ is weaker for it.
Though it is only anecdotal, I believe that if we restored the more ancient communal rite of penance, we could regularly see again a church-full of confessing Catholics repenting of their sins and of celebrating God’s unbounded mercy. Other than an institutional back down, where would the downside be?
Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments (Paulist Press), which has just been published.