Dr. Marianne Schlosser on the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood

Dr. Marianne Schlosser, professor of theology at the university of Vienna and member of the International Theological Commission, has seen it necessary to distance herself from the preparatory group responsible for the topic of women in the Church for the “synodal way” of the German Church, which focused too much on the issue of ordination. One of the prominent advocates for women’s ordination in the working group was Sr. Katharina Ganz, Superior General of the Oberzeller Franciscan sisters. Marianne Schlosser recently (the exact date of the letter is not indicated in the text published online yesterday, September 23, 2019) wrote the following open letter to Sr. Katharina Ganz, defending and explaining the Church’s teaching on this point. Translated by Fr. Joseph Bolin from the German original, put online by Die Tagespost (removing the headings, which appear to have been added by the press):

Dear Madam Superior General, esteemed colleague!

You recently sent me a link to your interview in the FAZ 13.09.2019.

As the topics you discuss are on concern to many people, I would like to comment on a few points and have decided to do so in the form of an open letter, because a letter to the editor would not provide the space for a differentiated opinion. I write with the awareness that I am not alone in my view, but to give a voice to many others who do not usually make themselves noticed by their vocality.

Already the headline, "Women must pose the question of power", rather unsettled me. You associate the "question of power" mainly with the sacrament of Holy Orders and see in the fact that the Roman Catholic – as also the Eastern Churches – does not entrust women with the apostolic ministry, a violation of the equal rights of men and women.

Honestly: I do not want to have anyone above me in the Church, man, woman, or collective who or which holds such a notion of "power" or of the sacrament of Holy Orders. "Christ freed us to freedom" (Gal. 5: 1). There is to be no power in the Church other than the authority of Jesus Christ – and we know what it is supposed to look like ("You know that the powerful … but with you it should not be like this …" Mark 10 , 43, Luke 22:26).

I certainly will not deny that there is a de facto abuse of office and the rank associated with it. And it is painful to me that, even to the present, religious nuns are sometimes as a matter of course treated by clerics and others as servants and do not receive the esteem due them. You do not even have to look to Africa or South America for that.

Maybe it would be "just" that not only men should be allowed to be able to abuse power. It would not, however, make the situation better.. You admit yourself that this expectation would be quite unworldly. Not to mention that de facto "power" is not exercised only by persons who hold an office … I fear that Augustine was right when he considered the hunger for power, i. e. the temptation to rule over others, to be inherent to the human being – not the male sex! As long as he / she does not convert, i.e. take on the mind of Christ (Phil. 2).

Especially in the context of the recent abuse scandal by clerics, the old question has once again come into the limelight: Does the Church (who is that?) need women as priests? Meanwhile, it sounds rather the other way around: women need access to the ordained ministry; they have a right to it.

I do not want to insinuate anything of anyone. But if someone needs an office for themselves, then the abuse of the associated position is inevitable. Anyone – man or woman – who thinks they have a right to it is, mistaken. That's why it is, in my judgment, a mistake to use the language of equal rights in this context. Gregory the Great, a truly experienced shepherd, was of the opinion that it was better not to ordain people who press for ordination. For he who is so convinced of him- or herself that he/she has never been driven to terror by fear or at least a shadow of self-doubt in the face of what lies ahead in such an office, one man doubt his / her special vocation to follow the Good Shepherd. This necessarily means, after all, a kind of "expropriation" of one's own plans and interests – which as a rule also involves resistance within oneself.

That is it which one would need to increase awareness of, so that the church grows together into a "fraternal" community. The fact that your patron saint and model, Francis, not only had a very high esteem for priests, "because of their ordination" (as he writes in his "Testament"), but could also himself be downright authoritarian, cannot, incidentally, be totally overlooked.

A position of responsibility brings with it a special danger, as the whole spiritual tradition knows. To not confuse responsibility with patronizing, patience with with indifference, modesty with submissiveness, affability with conformity, etc., requires a great spiritual maturity.

Unfortunately, the behavior of public officials is at times an anti-testimony.

But where would the suggestion you made at the end of your interview lead, to separate "the sacrament of Holy Orders" and "power"? Who should then exercise "power" with which qualification, with what right? The time of the prince-bishops, who were laymen according to canon law, is over.

The Church binds the delegation of authority and special responsibility to criteria, including a lengthy education and an examination of the character and religious qualifications of a candidate in order to minimize risks. And the rite of consecration expresses confidence in believers’ prayer that the Holy Spirit will not remain idle.

Is this just a spiritual castle in the air, far from reality, an all too power-filled reality?

As long as the office of leadership ("munus regiminis") – even if that were just a distant ideal! – is dialectically connected with the "diakonia Christi" (Jn 13: 13-16; Lk 22,27), that is to say, with the alienation of oneself, if need be unto the giving up of one’s life, there is at least hope that some, many, if possible all of them – hope that one will not lose sight of the summit, even if one were to relapse. If, on the other hand, you declare the summit non-existent, you will remain in the fog of the valleys.

As for the possibility of women's access to Sacred Orders, especially to the priesthood, you assume that John Paul II's "Ordinatio sacerdotalis" does not the degree of ultimate binding force expressly claimed by the document itself (n.4), that it lacks the formal explanation pronouncement as dogma.

However, it has now been repeatedly explained (most recently by Cardinal Ladaria on May 29, 2018) that, and why!, this letter is binding as an expression of the ordinary Magisterium.

(1) Response ad propositum dubium concerning the Teaching Contained in “Ordinatio sacerdotalis”, 28 October, 1995; (2) Concerning the Reply of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Teaching Contained in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 28 October 1995, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19951028_commento-dubium-ordinatio-sac_en.html; (3) In response to certain doubts regarding the definitive character of the doctrine of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 29 May 2018., Luis F. Ladaria, S.I., Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/ladaria-ferrer/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20180529_caratteredefinitivo-ordinatiosacerdotalis_en.html)

By no means everything that is "de fide", that is to say to be accepted in faith, is formally dogmatized. But if some circles insist on it, they might achieve just that …

That would at any rate be easier than the opposite way. For that would not only rescind a document of the papal Magisterium (which could scarcely be formulated more emphatically!), but abdicate a tradition of the whole church, which was not merely practice, but a practice that had undergone reflection.

In such a case one would have to in my opinion even ask the question, whether a church that had for 2000 years discriminated half of the faithful – and the more fervent half at that! – can be really the church of Jesus Christ, led by the Holy Spirit. Of course, the question is relevant only if one maintains – and I believe we both do – that the Church together with its basic structure is built on the will of Christ – otherwise it would not matter anyway; in that case nobody needs something like a sacramental ministry.

You then declare frankly that certain theological arguments do not convince you.

I do not deny that in the course of reflection on the sacrament of Holy Orders and its recipients, less judicious or viable arguments were brought into play. For good theologians (like Thomas Aquinas) they were however never the main reason.

But fundamentally: what degree of persuasiveness can theological arguments achieve in so far as they rest on the historical revelation of God? If there really is revelation, if the eternal truth of God has become man in Jesus Christ, then this is given to us as an event. In other words, that and how God acts in the history of salvation cannot be demonstrated with "conclusive reasons," because this action is rooted in the freedom of God. The theological arguments can only show the inner coherence, the connection with the whole of revelation. There will always be leeway for assent to the argument. This also applies to the question under discussion here.

You ask why the representation of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, that is to say, of his actions, especially during the celebration of the Eucharist, cannot assumed by a woman, since men are also present in the pews. Literally, challenged by your interviewer's provocative question, you said, "Why should sexual masculinity be a necessary condition to represent the man Christ when, conversely, the church is to be the bride of the Bridegroom of (sic) Christ? Then the church should consist only of women. "

Yes, if that were the church's argumentation, I would also not find it convincing! For one thing, the sacramental representation of Christ does not simply depend on nature, "the Y chromosome." Otherwise every man, qua man, could represent Christ.

Secondly, there seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the notion of representation, a probably widespread misunderstanding.

In the "symbolic" language of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, the people of God as such, composed of men and women, is "feminine" (in the sense of "receiving") in relation to God, and all together form the "body", none of the members is the head. Moreover, every creature is receptive in relation to God, every soul – as the mystics of both sexes say – is the "bride of the word of God," which must first be received so that mortal man may "bear fruit that remains."

This also applies to those members of the Church who are ordained to the priesthood. Even a priest is and remains "receiving" in relation to God, remains a member of the body of Christ. One can also say with Pope Francis that he must not forget the "Marian" dimension of Christianity, which is the first and fundamental vocation of the Church, the "Prae" before the "Petrine" vocation. Therefore, only a baptized person can be ordained, and ordination cannot replace baptism.

That a priest can "represent" the "vis-à-vis" of the church, that is, Christ as head and bridegroom, is only possible because of the sacrament of ordination. This enables him to "re-present" something he can never become. The persons in the pew, on the other hand, do not "represent" the church – at best in the sense that the whole may be present in one part – they are it by reason of their membership in the body of Christ through baptism (cf Can. 204 – § 1).

But why cannot this sacrament of representation be conferred on a woman?

A sacrament always includes institution by Christ, i.e. the linking of a visible object or operation with a new meaning and an effect guaranteed by Christ Himself. In principle, he could have ordered it differently, he could have completely foregone the sending of the apostles, or he could have left everything (and not just a lot) to later development in the believing community. But if something is to be a "sign", then it must point to the designated content in the best possible way (significance). Oil or wine have a different significance than water. At a "wedding dinner" we think of something other than a birthday party, however lavishly it might be celebrated. This aspect is not playing around with pictures, but relevant, because the sacraments are by definition "perceptible signs" for an invisible reality.

And it seems to me very reasonable that a woman is not a significant sign for the bridegroom of the church. Likewise, a man is not a significant sign of the Church as bride. So religious women often receive a ring on the day of profession, whereas that is unusual for monks – although they both live the bridal love for Christ, they are a visible sign of it in different ways.

The reasonableness of the argument is based not only on a natural preconception – just as the sacraments are not merely religious variants of natural rites – but on the connection between the reality of creation and the historical revelation of God; One could also say that the reality of creation and its symbolism is used for the communication of salvation. Christ "interprets" creation when he establishes the sacraments. The symbols used in the Scriptures as the deposit of the self-communication of God are therefore not simply "pictures" that could be replaced as desired. Rather, they are the way the unfathomable divine mystery of Christ's love is made accessible to us. That the relationship between Yahweh and his beloved people be described as a marriage bond, that the Gospels designate Jesus as the "Bridegroom," that Paul speaks of the Bride Church (2 Cor 11: 2; Eph 5), who owes her life to the Bridegroom, or that the eschatological fulfillment, the joy without end, whose sacramental anticipation is the Eucharistic celebration, resembles a wedding feast (eg Rev 22), is not arbitrary imagery, but expresses that humanity, indeed the individual, will be wooed by God's love. Not the other way around.

That this reasoning seem strange to not a few people, because premises of thought have changed, says nothing about the truth. It could also be the premises that need testing and metanoia. The content of faith is not simply what one just finds obvious. Karl Rahner once wrote in an "open letter" (in the context of the priestly way of life): "Christianity is still a highly unfashionable thing; also in that area about which I have so long tried to write. Thank God it is. "

Greetings in Christ,

Marianne Schlosser

Cardinal Schönborn on Women's Ordination, April 14 2019

On April 14, 2019, Cardinal Schönborn of the Archdiocese of Vienna gave a televised interview with the ORF (in German) with Gaby Konrad and Gerold Riedmann. Here the translation of the part where he was asked about the ordination of women. Surprisingly, but perhaps because he was asked more insistently, he seems to more explicitly advocate the ordination of women as deaconesses than he does the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the Latin Church in the same interview, though he certainly suggest support for the latter as well.

Gaby Konrad: In your estimation, from a closer perspective, has he (the pope) gotten mired down with his reforms?
Schönborn: That depends on what one expected of him. In my estimation, there is a group in the Church and in Society, for whom the pope has already gone to far. These are the in some respects very severe critics from the traditionalist camp, who suspect nothing good. There are those who anticipated enormous reforms, which the pope cannot deliver.
Gerold Riedmann: Because the system resists too strongly?
Schönborn: No, because here one has problems with doctrine. These are the well-known topics, are they not? There are still no women bishops, still no women priests.
Gerold Riedmann: Why?
Schönborn: Exactly. This question was inevitable. That’s why I posed it myself.
Why? Because we have a two thousand year old tradition, which not even the pope can set aside at breakfast with a stroke of the pen; that requires developments, and developments, in a institution as large as the Catholic Church, require a long time. We dare not forgot, the protestants have had women pastors for less than a hundred years, among the protestants for less than a hundred years, the Orthodox by no means. The usage has now developed among the Anglicans, and always with enormous controversy. So someone who expected that Pope Francis would clarify this question now, is of course disappointed.
But if one looks at what this pope has already achieved, well just look at it. The climate Summit of Paris, we are allowed to say it, the climate Summit of Paris would finally not have came about, if the pope had not massively fought for it. Those are, for me, the immense reforms that this pope is driving. The Amazon Synod, that is now coming in October.
Gaby Konrad: We intended to come to that topic. But perhaps before that to the issue of women. You yourself said, for you, in your opinion the issue of women is decisive for the Church’s future. If we now make a thought experiment, and the pope would ask you for your personal opinion, at a Council, and would ask you, what do you personally believe? Can women become priests? What would you answer?
Schönborn: I would say, that at any rate women need a greater place in the Church. That is, in many respects that have more place, since in most cases there are more women in the Church than men. Aside from those who are at the altar.
Gaby Konrad: In the pews?
Schönborn: Sorry, what's that?
Gaby Konrad: In the pews there are more women than men.
Schönborn: There are more women than men sitting in the pews. That's a fact. In our parish councils are 52% women. But women are less represented in positions of leadership. That is, incidentally, a problem in all religions. There was recently a meeting of representatives of the religions in Austria with the President of Austria, and the representatives sat in the first row, and those they had brought with them in the second and third row, and in my speech of thanks I said to the president: “if I look at the first row, I get the impression that the second half, or the other half of humanity is missing.” Among the Muslims, the Jews, the Buddhists, the Christians, everywhere there only men sitting in the first row. I think we have world-wide a problem or topic: women in the religions.
Doris Wagner, in the movie “female pleasure”, of which I only saw the trailer and read about it… it concerned the fate of five women, five religions, five cultures. This is a world-wide topic, the Catholic Church in many respect is not coming in last in this movement.
Gaby Konrad und Riedmann simultaneously: But?
Schönborn: But,
Gerold Riedmann: I only wanted to take up her question. Can women become priests? That is one question. You answered somewhat evasively. Asked again: should women become priests?
Schönborn: I have said very clearly. I wish that they could become deaconesses. That is the degree of ordination that they also historically have had. Let us try and see [Schönborn spoke this sentence in English]. Ok? Let’s see.
Gerold Riedmann: That means?
Gaby Konrad: Women have to first prove themselves?
Schönborn: Sorry?
Gaby Konrad: Women have to first prove themselves as deaconesses, and then we’ll see how it further goes.
Schönborn: No. Institutions don’t work at the touch of a button. That’s a fact. And before we get our nose bloody running into the limits that exist, let’s see what is possible. I ask myself again and again, why women have until now had now place in Vatican diplomacy. There is no reason, why women cannot be in all possible positions of leadership – in our diocese, women are as a matter of course in all possible positions of leadership. Let's start there.

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

„Bear one another’s burdens, and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) When something is heavy for one person to carry, two persons can carry it together more easily: not only physical burdens, but everything that weighs us down, makes us sad. By carrying such burdens with and for another person, we show that we wish well for the person we help, we love them.

“Bear one another’s burdens” can also mean taking a burden that someone else has upon ourselves, even without doing anything that anyone can see, silently, inwardly bearing with them, being patient with other persons’ faults.

Or that we pray for someone suffering under the burden of sickness or an unpleasant situation they have gotten themselves into.

“So you shall fulfill the law of Christ”. Love, or charity, is the love of Christ, because Christ gives us the fullness of the holy Spirit, which is the spirit of charity, because Christ taught this love, saying “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35), and because he himself loved us, and showed that love by bearing our sins on the cross.

“Bear one another’s burdens” is a precept and counsel that extends to all, but in an ordered manner. Paul writes, further, “So let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). With the parable of the good Samaritan Christ teaches that our love is not to be restricted to a particular group of men, but that we are to love all men as our neighbors, as they are also made in the image of God and loved by God. And again, “ Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. If we love only those who love you, what good does that do you etc.?” (Mat 5:44,46) However, we learn to love all men, who God created, by loving those whom he placed close to us: ourselves, our family, and the family of God, the Church. And when we love enemies, we love them so as to, in principle, desire to be joined in friendship with them. We can’t do that unless we love friends.

This is not selfish, because we don’t love them or do good for them only because they love us or do good things for us, but because they are united with us in God, in the shared faith and with a common goal, eternal life in Christ. And so that same love extends, in principle, though not with the same intensity, to all those for whom we wish that they might know Jesus Christ and attain eternal life.

Let us pray for that love, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the mark of Christ’s disciples, a sign of the divine origin of the Church, and the root of eternal life in us.

Cardinal Schönborn on the discipline of celibacy and married priests, April 14 2019

On April 14, 2019, Cardinal Schönborn of the Archdiocese of Vienna gave a televised interview with the ORF (in German) with Gaby Konrad and Gerold Riedmann, where, among other topics, he was asked about and spoke about priestly celibacy. Taken together with various other statements he's made, his position seems to be, in effect, that it would probably be, all things considered, good to under certain circumstances ordain older married men to the priesthood in the Latin Church, but that the decision to do so should be a decision of the whole Church. Here is, in translation, that part of the interview.

Konrad: As you already mentioned, this Amazon Synod will take place in the fall, and then a second hot topic will be handled. The discipline of celibacy could possibly be relaxed. What is your take on the matter? Is the discipline of celibacy good, or is it bad?

Schönborn: The discipline of celibacy is what it is. I have experience of both, because I am also responsible for Eastern Catholic Churches in Austria, and I have around 30 priests who are married. I experience both sides: very good families, priests with families. And I experience very good priests who live celibately. And I experience crises on both sides: unmarried priests who do not maintain celibacy, and married priests whose marriages fail.

Therefore I would say, very soberly, life is not simple. But, if one lives the state of being unmarried so, as it was lived by Jesus as a model – the celibacy of priests is related to Jesus’s having lived unmarried – that can go very well. It can also, unfortunately, as we see, go very wrong.

I am very convinced that one form is possible, and it will surely be discussed at the Amazon-Synod: the so-called “proven, married men.”

In the Archdiocese of Vienna we have 180 deacons, most of them married, with a job, with a family. And I can well imagine that in the future there will not only be married deacons, but also married priests, who have proven themselves in their profession, in their family, and who are active in their communities, that such men can also receive the laying on of hands for priestly ordination.

Riedmann: That is to say, a testing similar to what you spoke of in connection with women in the Church. The deacons have… without the deacons life in the local church would probably no longer be possible in the same way.

Schönborn: exactly.

Riedmann: To ordain these men as priests, is something you are in favor of.

Schönborn: Among the current deacons, married, with a job, so those who serve as deacons without a salary, there are certainly a great many, of whom one could say, they could perform priestly ministry very well. That is something that is being very earnestly discussed. It would of course create a two-class clerical system. The volunteer priests and the full-time priests. But why not?

Celibate and married priests – some accepted facts and disputed questions

There has been a fair amount of talk about the Amazon Synod and the possibility of ordaining married men, despite the contrary tradition and prevailing discipline of celibacy in the Latin Church, and in spite of all the arguments and motives that can be adduced for priestly celibacy. Occasioned by today's reading for Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, I want to here lay out a few of the facts, less clear and disputed matters regarding celibacy in the Latin and in the Eastern Churches.

In 1. Timothy, chapter 3, St. Paul writes:

The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible… not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?
… Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain… Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well;

There have been married clerics since the beginning of the Church. At the some time, we find esteem for celibacy by clergy from the beginning.

Some fairly certain points (for those accepting the Church's teaching and tradition)

  1. Some apostles were married; and in the first centuries, there were married bishops, priests, and deacons, as implied in the quoted task from 1 Timothy, and in the following first centuries of the Church. E.g., In the fourth century, the Father of St. Gregory Nazianzen's father, Gregory the Elder was a bishop; he was married and his wife was still living at the time of St. Gregory Nazianzen's ordination to the priesthood.
  2. Christ elevated marriage, and also proposed celibacy ("to make oneself an eunuch" spiritually) for the kingdom of heaven.
  3. The virginal or celibate way of life was esteemed from the very beginning in the Church. And specifically by at least some clerics (beginning with St. Paul the Apostle)
  4. Developed practice and law regarding continence and priestly celebration of the Eucharist differed in West and East. In the West complete continence was obligatory for all major clerics, while in the East some measure of continence was necessary in relation to celebration of the Eucharist.
  5. The discipline of the Latin Church and of the Eastern Catholic Churches is legitimate.

Matters where the historical data is less clear or is mixed

6. Whether the married bishops in the Church had children after elevation to the episcopate, and, if they had children, if they did so without violating a promise or (ecclesial or moral) expectation of continence after episcopal consecration
7. The reason for a connection between continence and the Eucharist, not just for clergy, but also for laity
a. Some Fathers deny that sexual intercourse makes one unclean, such that one needs to be purified before prayer (The Didascalia Apostolorum explicitly rejects the position that sexual intercourse would make one unfit to receive the Eucharist)
b. Some early Church writers (Tertullian, Origen), claim that intercourse requires purification before prayer; some Fathers suggest this or put it forward as the better thing to do, while finally leaving the matter to the conscience of married couples (St. Dionysus, St. Athanasius of Alexandria); later texts put it forth as morally obligatory (Timothy of Alexandria, St. Gregory the Great)
c. but in the course of time, the general consensus was that abstinence should be practice before reception of the Eucharist (and before celebration by a priest).
8. At least occasional continence, to devote whenself to prayer (see 1 Cor 7:5), in Lent, or when children were not possible, was an ideal of married christians (most well known is St. Augustine, but the position is also held by others such as Origen, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen)

(Possible) points of dispute

9. Why continence (and celibacy) for the clergy was so esteemed since the early Church
10. Whether continence was, as a rule, expected of married clergy from the very beginning. And if it was, whether it should be expected (at least as an ideal) of married clergy now (in the West and in the East).
11. Whether the Church has the moral right to change the law regarding priestly celibacy in the Latin Church — or whether it is so strongly rooted in Christ and the Apostles, or deserves such respect as an extremely ancient and valuable tradition in the Latin Church, that the Church has no right to change it.
12. Whether changing the law regarding priestly celibacy in the Latin Church would do more good or more harm.
13. Whether changing the law regarding priestly celibacy in the Eastern Churches (making it more like the west) would do more good or more harm — there isn't much dispute about this because it has scarcely been proposed to change the discipline of the Eastern Churches to require celibacy as a condition for priestly ordination.
14. Whether, if both traditions and disciplines should be maintained more or less as they are, whether the differing disciplines are justified principally (1) because each is the tradition of the respective Church, (2) because the respective discipline is the most fitting discipline for that Church with a view to the its whole spiritual, ascetical and liturgical life, (3) because the Church as a whole is thereby more perfect in its variety and fullness, (4) because, practically, changing the discipline is difficult without causing a whole host of other problems, or (5) for some other reason?

My impression is that most articles in the media, blog articles or commentaries concern themselves with point 12, whether changing the discipline of celibacy would really bring the claimed benefits such as mitigating the shortage of priests or diminishing the incidence of sexual abuse by priests, or whether changing would not in any case bring many and greater problems with it than it would solve.

Even if no one proposes changing the discipline of the Eastern Churches, it might be good to consider point 13, whether it would do more good or harm to introduce the law of priestly celibacy into those Churches. Precisely because there hasn't been a lot of polemics about it, it may be easier to soberly take stock of what that sort of change might or would do to the Church.

I believe it would be good for those discussing the matter of priestly celibacy on all one levels in the Church to consider the question raised in point 14. The answer one gives could be helpful in deciding various edge cases (e.g., should married Anglican clergy, having converted to the Catholic Church, be ordained priests, should those who, having been baptized into the Latin Church, have become members of an Eastern Catholic Church, be ordained priests, and the like). It could also be helpful in considering very long time goals, particularly if one's answer was based mostly on the practical difficulties of changing the discipline.

Sacramental Confession and Turning Oneself In to Civil Authorities

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, among the recommendations of its final report

recommended that

Recommendation 16.26

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether:

b. if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.

The same idea has been put out for consideration by others. The Apostolic Penitentiary's Recent Note on the Seal of Confession, addresses this idea, and appears to reject it categorically.

In the presence of sins that involve criminal offenses, it is never permissible, as a condition for absolution, to place on the penitent the obligation to turn himself in to civil justice, by virtue of the natural principle, incorporated in every system, according to which “nemo tenetur se detegere”.

The note recognizes, however, that sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to reform and not repeat the evil committed, is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution.

At the same time, however, belonging to the very “structure” of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as a condition for its validity, is sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to reform and not repeat the evil committed.

In a very technical sense, the note may be correct, that a confessor by his own authority may not "place", in the sense of externally "impose", as a kind of penalty or satisfaction, the obligation on the penitent to turn himself in to civil justice. However, in a practical sense, the claim is over-stated. Cases are certainly possible, and are virtually certain to sometimes occur, where the only way a sinner and criminal can show true repentance and a firm intention not to repeat the evil, is for him to turn himself in. If, for example, he has continued to commit such crimes for a long time, despite knowing their gravity and perhaps even having confessed them repeatedly, a firm intention not to repeat the evil committed has to include means that give him a reasonable hope of avoiding it, e.g., the external help he could get from medical or civil authorities.

The claim is probably also over-stated in the sense that the Church could impose a discipline that would exclude purely private penance in this particular case. In view of the Church's ancient practice of public penance and in light of its general and universal authority in the external forum, it is surely in the Church's and the pope's authority to reserve the crime of sexual abuse of children to the Holy See, and to make public penance (whether imposed by the Church or as a punishment imposed by the state and accepted by the sinner) a condition for giving absolution for such crimes.

Sexual Abuse of Minors Revealed in Confession – When May A Priest Speak?

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, among the recommendations of its final report

recommended that

Recommendation 16.26

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether:

a. information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession

I am not aware of any explicit communication on this subject, and this recommendation is also not directly addressed by the Apostolic Penitentiary's Recent Note on the Seal of Confession, but the Note does touch upon the issue. It says "Should there be a penitent who has been a victim of the evil of others, it will be the concern of the confessor to instruct him regarding his rights as well as about the practical juridical instruments to refer to in order to report the fact in a civil and/or ecclesiastical forum to invoke justice."

In fact, the situation is somewhat complicated. For reasons of natural shame, and because perpetrators often actively try to make the victim feel guilty for the crimes committed against him or her, so that he or she will be ashamed to speak, child victims of sexual abuse often have feelings of guilt, and might well confess the abuse as though it were a sin. In this case, the sacramental seal would seem to apply directly. Moreover, even if the child does not mention it as a sin, and it would not fall under the seal as such, various consequences undesirable for the child might arise were the priest to reveal that information, and so the priest would be forbidden from doing so. (According to a decree of the Holy Office of 1682, knowledge from confession cannot be used if the use is harmful to the penitent, even if greater harm for the penitent follows from failing to use that knowledge)

The Church's tradition has recognized the possibility of a penitent's releasing a priest from the seal of confession (St. Thomas Aquinas, e.g., affirms the possibility, and canon law of 1917 refers to it), and this note itself makes reference to it in the limited case of a penitent's giving a priest permission to talk about what was said in confession outside of confession. The simplest and best solution to aim for, in many cases, might be for the priest to get permission from the child to tell others about the matter. For some reason, however, the apostolic penitentiary seems not to want to mention this possibility.

The Seal of Confession

The Note of the Apostolic penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal, quoting an address of Pope Francis, suggests two reasons for the existence and inviolability of the sacramental seal: the sanctity of the sacrament, and the freedom of the conscience of the penitent, who must be sure that what he reveals to God through the mediation of the priest will remain between him and God.
The "sanctity of the sacrament" is found in the seal, in that priests in the sacrament act “in persona Christi capitis”, that is, in the very person of Christ the Head. In confessing his or her sins to the priest, who represents for him or her Christ, with whom he or she comes into contact in the sacrament, the penitent bears witness to the saving mystery of Christ and the supernatural character of the Church and ministerial priesthood. Conversely, the seal binding the priest is a form of testimony to that same saving mystery of Christ present in his Church.

On this account, what directly and properly falls under the sacramental seal of confession is that which is submitted, through the priest, to the saving power of Christ: the penitent's sins (real or supposed). Other things mentioned during confession fall under the seal indirectly, if and to the extent that through them the sins could be inferred or suspected. This is also St. Thomas Aquinas's account, and seems to be indicated by canon law. A penitent's mentioning, e.g., that he went to McDonald's the other day could fall under the seal to the extent that a sin of gluttony, disobedience, imprudence or the like might be inferred. In principle penitents (especially persons inclined to rambling) may mention things in confession that are entirely accidental to the confession and bear not the slightest suggestion of a sin. These would not fall under the seal as such, but in practice priests will often treat these as falling indirectly under the seal in order to be on the safe side of upholding the seal of confession — if they were to exercise liberty to remember and to mention such things, they might easily make a mistake in judging something to be wholly accidental to confession.

Moreover, canon law forbids uses knowledge acquired from confession when it might harm the penitent, even if all danger of revelation is excluded, and thus not contrary to the seal of confession. This canonical prohibition helps to ensure penitents' confidence in going to confession, in that they can be confident not only that the confession will not be revealed, but also that no indirect disadvantage will come to them from anything they say in confession. Here, too, a priest could easily make a mistake about what might harm the penitent, and so it is safer to make no use at all of knowledge acquired from confession.

Victorian Law Mandating Clergy to Report Child Abuse Learned About In Confession

On September 10, 2019, Victoria, Australia, became the next Australian province to pass legislation removing clergy's exemption from mandatory reporting of crimes against children when the knowledge or reasonable suspicion of such crimes came in confession.

Such legislation has previously been passed by the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, the Northern Territory (with some ambiguity as to whether the mandatory overrides provisions in the Evidence Law), and is pending in Western Australia. Here a summary of the varied status in Australia prior to this legislation.

The legislation states that its main purposes are:

(a) to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005—
(i) to include persons in religious ministry as mandatory reporters under that Act; and
(ii) to clarify that a mandatory reporter is not able to rely on the religious confession privilege in the Evidence Act 2008 to avoid the reporting requirement imposed by section 184 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005; and
(b) to amend the Crimes Act 1958 to provide that information that would be privileged under the religious confessions privilege in the Evidence Act 2008 is no longer exempt for the purposes of section 327; and
(c) to amend the Evidence Act 2008 to provide that the religious confessions privilege does not apply in proceedings for an offence against section 184 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 or section 327(2) of the Crimes Act 1958

Most cases in which a priest in confession gains knowledge of child abuse are likely to be when the victim himself at the time or later as an adult speaks of the abuse in confession. In such cases, the confessor could ask the victim who has come to him in confession for permission to release him from the seal of confession, to tell others what he has told him. If the penitent does not want that, the Victorian law would in many cases not require reporting the abuse, as this can be, according to the Crimes Act, a "reasonable excuse" for not reporting: "

A person does not contravene subsection (2) [mandating reporting of sexual offences by adults against children] if
– (a) the information forming the basis of the person's belief that a sexual offence has been committed came from the victim of the alleged offence, whether directly or indirectly; and
(b) the victim was of or over the age of 16 years at the time of providing that information to any person; and
(c) the victim requested that the information not be disclosed.

In two types of case the law would require reporting that is incompatible with the sacramental seal or at any rate church law and teaching on confession:

(1) When the person who has committed abuse confesses it, and does not release the priest from the seal by giving him permission to report it, as reporting the abuse in this case would be a direct violation of the seal.

(2) When the penitent is a victim under 16 years of age, speaks of the abuse as a matter of guilt on his part, and does not want the priest to tell anyone else about it. For the confessor to reveal it in this case would also be a direct violation of the sacramental seal. If the penitent only mentions it within confession, but not as a matter of sin, to report it might not be a direct violation of the seal, but certainly seems contrary to church law as interpreted in the Note of the Apostolic penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal, the principal points of which I summarized in the preceding post.

Seal of confession, internal forum, and other secrets

The Note of the Apostolic penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal seems to distinguish three basic levels of confidentiality: the seal of confession, the non-sacramental internal forum, and other secrets.

The seal of confession

  • The seal of confession is so established by God together with the giving of the sacrament of confession, that not even the Church can make or allow an exception to it, much less any civil authority. The seal is bound up with the priest's acting in persona Christi when he gives absolution, in the very person of Christ the head, who alone can forgive sins. (Translation note: the English translation of this note currently available on the Vatican website and elsewhere omits an important "not" and gets a key sentence backwards: "[In n. 1467 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church] we read that the Church “establishes”, by virtue of her own authority, rather than that she “declares” — that is, recognizes as an irreducible datum, which derives precisely from the sanctity of the sacrament instituted by Christ — “that every priest who hears confessions etc." — the Italian text, in fact, and more accurately, says the opposite: "We read not that the Church "establishes"… but rather that she "declares…"
  • Fidelity to the seal of confession is consequently not merely a duty to the penitent, but testimony to Christ as the Savior of all.
  • The sacramental seal extends to all sins admitted by the penitent, even if absolution is not given. (This is stated as such in canon law.)
  • The confessor cannot use knowledge from the confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded (Stated in canon law — this stricture was not always understood to be included in canon law; St. Thomas Aquinas holds that a confessor can act based on knowledge gained in confession as long as there is no danger of thereby revealing the confession.)
  • The sacramental seal binds the confessor also “interiorly”, to the point that he is forbidden to remember voluntarily the confession and he is obliged to suppress any involuntary recollection of it. (For this claim, which raises some interesting questions, no source is given in the note.)
  • Outside of confession, the sacramental seal binds the confessor in relation to the same penitent who confessed. Unless the penitent has given the priest permission to speak about the confession, the priest may not speak about it to that penitent outside of confession. (Here reference is made to Pope St. John Paul II, Address to the Apostolic Penitentiary, 12 March 1994).
  • The penitent cannot, after the fact, release a priest from the obligation of the sacramental seal, because this obligation comes directly from God. (For this claim no reference is given) Self-revelation of a crime to civil authorities cannot be demanded by the confessor as a condition for absolution: "It is never permissible, as a condition for absolution, to place on the penitent the obligation to turn himself in to civil justice, by virtue of the natural principle, incorporated in every system, according to which “nemo tenetur se detegere”."

Non-sacramental internal forum

The confidentiality of the internal forum in which spiritual direction taken place is analogous to the sacramental seal. Because the one seeking spiritual direction confides in the spiritual director by reason of the spiritual director's special relationship with Christ (rooted in holiness of life and, in the class of a cleric, from sacred orders), the spiritual director effectively has this knowledge as a kind of representative of Christ. Consequently this confidentiality has a particular sacredness, beyond that of other secrets.

Professional Secrets

  • Professional secrets binding on persons by reason of a special office are binding of virtue of natural law, and must be preserved except “in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very great harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth”.
  • The "pontifical secret" is said to be a special case. The exact intent of the text is hard to make out here, and the English translation unhelpful, but it seems to be suggesting that the pontifical secret, bearing upon the greatest matters, could not be subject to exceptions except by judgment of the Supreme Pontiff. "A special case of secrecy is that of the “pontifical secret”, which is binding by virtue of the oath connected to the exercise of certain offices in the service of the Apostolic See. If the oath of secrecy always binds coram Deo the one who issued it, the oath connected to the “pontifical secret” has as its ultimate ratio the public good of the Church and the salus animarum. It presupposes that this good and the very requirement of the salus animarum, thus including the use of information that does not fall under the seal, can and must be correctly interpreted by the Apostolic See alone, in the person of the Roman Pontiff, whom Christ the Lord constituted and placed as the visible principle and foundation of the unity of faith and of the communion of the whole Church."