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."

St. Pope John Paul to the members of the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 12, 1994

Some years ago, occasioned by a civil case in Louisiana, I took up some issues related to the seal of confession. I want to return to the question again, which has been raised by proposed legislature in several countries to oblige priests to report suspected sexual abuse of minors, even if it comes to their knowledge only in the context of confession.

Recently, June 29, 2019, the apostolic penitentiary published a note on the sacramental seal and the internal forum, and some comments thereupon in the presentation of that note. Before looking at this note in detail, I want to here translate a speech of Pope St. John Paul II To the members of the Apostolic Penitentiary and the confessors of the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome (March 12, 1994), cited in the aforementioned note. Originally given in Italian, it is available on the Vatican website only in Italian and Portugese.

I thank the Lord, who also this year offers me the joy of your presence: of you, Cardinal Major Penitentiary, whom I thank for the sentiments expressed in the address to me; of you, Prelates and Officials of the Penitentiary, Ordinary and Extraordinary Penitentiary Fathers of the Patriarchal Basilicas of the City. I am also pleased to welcome you, young priests or future ordinands to the presbyterate, who in desire anticipate your sacred ministry, and therefore, in relation to one of the highest and most delicate aspects of it, you have specifically wished to prepare by taking advantage of the course on internal forum, which each year the Apostolic Penitentiary organizes and carries out.

This joy derives, first of all, from the observation of your sincere devotion to the Chair of Peter, whose "potior principalitas" Cardinal Baum recalled referring to the venerable testimony of Irenaeus. It is a joy that then springs from the opportunity that our meeting offers me to return to issues pertaining to the sacrament of Penance, always of vital importance for the Church and today of special relevance.

2. As I turn in gratitude to the Members of the Penitentiary and to the Penitentiary Fathers, because they dedicate the best of their energies to the pastoral care of Reconciliation, I stress that the existence of a Dicastery with this specific task, and the full-time assignment of many Priests, belonging to illustrious religious families, to this ministry in the main basilicas of Rome indicate the privileged place that the Holy See attributes to this sacramental function.

I would like to direct that thanks to the individual Penitentiary Fathers as well as to their religious families, because they are well aware of this need and of the singular good fruit that follows, in harmonious cooperation with the Apostolic Penitentiary and on the basis of of secular dispositions issued by the Supreme Pontiffs, generously provide, at the cost of sacrifice, suitable subjects, and with noble spirit subordinate certain peculiarities of their customs to the pre-eminent task assigned by the Holy See.

3. I would further like to highlight your origin from the various continents. This circumstance corresponds to the Pope's intention to send all the confessors of the world his meditation, his recommendation, his hope regarding the ministry of Reconciliation. It must be protected in its sacredness, as well as for theological, juridical, psychological reasons, about which I have spoken in the previous similar allocutions, and out of the loving respect due its character of intimate relationship between the faithful and God. It is God indeed whom sin offends and it is God who forgives sin, who scrutinizes "what is in man", that is, personal conscience, and deigns to associate in this healing and sanctifying conversation the human priest, elevating him to the ineffable prerogative of acting “in the person of Christ.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ, having established that the faithful accuse his sins to the minister of the Church, thereby sanctioned the absolute incommunicability of the contents of the confession with respect to any other man, to any other earthly authority, in any situation. The canonical discipline in force regulates this right/duty, founded on the divine institution, with canons 728 § 1, n. 1, and 1456 § 1 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches for the Churches of that Rite and, for the Church of Latin Rite, with canons 983 and 1388 of the Code of Canon Law. And it is very significant that the new Code, despite having mitigated the sanctions against the transgressors in almost all the other spheres of penal law, in this matter instead maintained the maximum penalties.

4. The priest who receives sacramental confessions is forbidden, without exception, to reveal the identity of the penitent and his sins; and precisely, with regard to serious sins, the Priest cannot mention them even in the most general terms; as far as venial sins are concerned, he cannot absolutely reveal the species, let alone the individual act.

It is not enough, however, to respect the silence as regards the identification of the person and his sins: it is necessary to respect it also by avoiding any manifestation of facts and circumstances, the remembering of which, although they are not sins, can displease the penitent, especially if mentioning them entails a disadvantage: in this regard, see the Decree of the Holy Office (Denz, 2195) which categorically condemns not only the violation of the seal, but also the use of the knowledge acquired in confession, when this involves in any case the "gravamen paenitentis". This absolute secret regarding sins and the dutiful strict caution for the other factors mentioned here bind the priest not only by prohibiting a hypothetical revelation to third persons, but also by forbidding hinting at the contents of the confession to the same penitent outside the sacrament, without his explicit consent, and especially if it is not sought.

5. This total confidentiality is directly for the benefit of the penitent. Consequently, there is for him neither sin nor canonical punishment, if he voluntarily and without causing harm to third parties reveals what he has accused himself of in confession. But it is evident that, at least by reason of a pact implicit in things, out of a duty of fairness, and, I would say, out of a sense of nobility towards the confessor, he ought in turn to respect silence regarding what the confessor, trusting in his discretion, manifested to him within the sacramental confession.

In this regard, it is my duty to recall and confirm what, by Decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (cf. AAS 80 [1988] 1367), was established to repress and prevent injury to the sacredness of confession, perpetrated through the social media. [Note: the decree establishes the penalty of excommunication latae sententiae for those who by technical means record what is said by penitent or confessor in confession, or who publish it in the media.]

I must also deplore some unseemly and harmful episodes of indiscretion which, in this matter, have recently occurred to the bewilderment and pain of the faithful: "Ne transeant in exemplum!".

6. Consider here that their levity and imprudence of priests in this field, even if they do not reach the extremes foreseen by the penal law, produce scandal, discourage the faithful from approaching the sacrament of Penance, obscure a glory of two millennia that has also had its martyrs: I think above all on St. John of Nepomuk.

Consider the faithful who approach the sacrament of Penance, who, calling into question the confessor Priest, attack a man without defense: the divine institution and the law of the Church oblige him in fact to total silence "usque ad sanguinis effusionem".

I trust that none of those present will, thanks be to God, be reproached; but the warning is valid for all, and we must all with earnest prayer implore the heroism of an unstained fidelity to the sacred silence.

In order not to end on this negative note, I would like to add the positive things you see, especially the great influx of penitents who confess in Rome and elsewhere, especially in the Sanctuaries. There is a rebirth of the Sacrament, especially among young people, as noted in the World Youth Days, especially in Denver.

If penitents are not lacking, confessors are not lacking either. If once it could have been feared that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was about to be forgotten, today we are witnessing a rebirth of it.

This means that the Holy Spirit is always present and works through us, works above us, finds its paths and we must receive the fruits of its work.

This is why I am delighted. I would like our meeting today to also be a meeting of joy, a pre-Easter meeting, with the Easter vows that are always a great joy for the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is always present in the Sacrament of Penance and many rise again, even great sinners. It is thanks to many movements that have raised awareness of the importance of the Sacrament of Penance and forgiveness even among criminals or the Red Brigades. I talked to these people.

We must always return to the sacred memory of the great confessors of the Church such as St. John of Nepomuk, the Curé of Ars, Jean-Marie Vianney, and as Padre Pio was in our times. Also in Rome one knows many great confessors of the past and present among the various priests of the religious Congregations. There are true martyrs of the confessional in various Roman churches such as St. Peter's Basilica.

I entrust these exhortations and desires to the mercy of Jesus, the Eternal High Priest and to the prayers of Mary Most Holy, Mother of the Church and Refuge of sinners, while, as a pledge of constant affection, I impart my blessing to you all.

Homily for the 25th Sunday in ordinary time, year B

If my tomato plants seem to be too small, and I try to simply stretch them until they are big enough, I will ruin them. I have to supply the conditions under which they can grow on their own, taking in sun and water and turning it into the fruit.

Something similar is true about humans and human communities, from the family to entire countries and the community of all mankind. To regulate everything by exterior principles, by a multiplicity of laws and policies, is impossible and counterproductive, diminishing the interior freedom necessary to live well. Each of us needs to be orderly within himself, to have a healthy and peaceful human community.

St. James points to the passions as sources of all kinds of disorder among men.
The passions are part of who we are: it’s good and normal to be hungry when we need food and to be satisfied when we’ve had a good meal; it’s likewise good and normal to want recognition, success, justice.

While the desire for money, food, or pleasure can lead us to excess, often a more insidious problem is presented by desires, that clothes themselves with an appearance of justice and a deeper purpose: pride, ambition, jealousy… “We’re being treated unfairly, others receive more recognition or money from the Church. We can’t accept that.” Or “He began!… He is in the wrong. HE has to make an apology.” Or “They are completely wrong… they have to recognize and correct their mistake, before there’s any point in talking with them.”
What is the solution? The solution, or starting point of a solution is not to reject or repel one’s own desire for justice, but to put it in the context of service, which can sometimes recognize the “right” thing to do in giving in, even if the other person is objectively “wrong”.

That doesn’t mean being a wimp, or pretending that everything is just fine. Jesus says, “he who would be the first… should make himself the servant of all.” We are not to be the slave of one person, obeying and accepting everything from that person, but able to see behind a conflict between two sides, and despite various difficulties, look out for and seek the common good, the good of all.

Sometimes we make heavy crosses for ourselves in life with others, because we are simply in principle unwilling ever to give in or to give way. To be considerate, however, to have understanding for the point of view of others, even if we disagree with them, to make allowances for the weaknesses of others, to exercise patience and make sacrifices out of faith in God’s love, smooths our own way, and brings us closer to God’s kingdom, where he is all and in all.

(This is my homily text from the 25th Sunday of Ordinary time in 2015).

Homily for the 24th Sunday in ordinary time, year B

People often enjoy talk about other persons. The disciples, too, gladly tell what other people think of Jesus. Only Peter is bold enough to position himself: "You are not merely some special man, but the Messiah, the Son of God." With this profession he makes a great advance in his life of faith and his relationship to Jesus.

Jesus demands a decision. He who decides for Jesus is unable to continue living simply as he was before, as he would without Jesus. He is taken into the life of Jesus, which entails more suffering as well as more joy.

Jesus tells the Apostles, without pulling any punches, the suffering that he will endure, and they as well. Peter, perhaps thinking that Jesus has gone off the far end, reproaches him. Yet Peter has seminally what he needs to accept this part of Jesus's message: his profession of faith in Jesus, which can lead him to understand the meaning of the suffering that Jesus takes on, and that Peter himself will have to endure.

Jesus is the suffering servant, his suffering and death a sacrifice to redeem his people. It is not, however, his suffering and death per se, as a material price, that redeems, but his love, a love that does not reject suffering, when it is necessary.

We frequently need such love in our lives, too. In many situations a way out is possible only at the price of a sacrifice: crises in a relationship, enduring conflicts, fidelity in difficult situations; often it is only love that is ready for sacrifice that can help. To take just one example, to resolve a conflict and realize healing in a wounded relationship, we must often be ready to give up on coming out as the "winner", or even be willing to have just a little bit the feeling of "losing". Genuine reconciliation doesn't have a loser, since both sides are the better for it, but sometimes we still have the feeling of giving something up and in this sense of losing.

How do we stand on the issue of making sacrifices for Jesus, of entering not only into his joy, but his suffering as well? Do we think that as believers, life will be easier and we will have fewer problems, because God solves them for us or doesn't let them arise in the first place? It can happen, particularly at the beginning of the way in faith, that God makes the way attractive, to encourage us, as one may reward a child with sweets. But at some point we must cease to be dependent on these sweets, whether that is interior consolation or providential avoidance of exterior difficulties. The deepest joy in faith isn't found in God's preserving us from all evils and difficulties, but in being united with HIM, even then, indeed especially then, when loves calls for a sacrifice.

As gratitude gives our joys a deeper meaning, as a gift from one who loves us, so readiness to sacrifice gives our sufferings a deeper meaning, as being an instrument of salvation in Christ.

In the measure that we make these two fundamental attitudes, gratitude and making sacrifice, "offering them up" for and with Jesus, we will experience the fulfillment of Christ's promise, "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything else will be given to you as well." We won't always have everything that we might immediately wish to have, but in what we do have and in what we don't have (or what we suffer), we will find ourselves to be rich in him.

Zero tolerance policies for sexual abuse

The norms approved by the Bishop's Conference of the United States and given recognitio by the Holy See for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests or deacons, include two measures that could be described as zero-tolerance for sexual abuse.

  • Those guilty of such abuse are to be permanently removed from ecclesiastical ministry. "When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants."
  • When there is adequate evidence of sexual abuse of minors, the cleric shall be removed from ministry until the investigative process is completed. "When there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith shall be notified. The bishop/eparch shall then apply the precautionary measures mentioned in CIC, canon 1722, or CCEO, canon 1473—i.e., remove the accused from the sacred ministry or from any ecclesiastical office or function, impose or prohibit residence in a given place or territory, and prohibit public participation in the Most Holy Eucharist pending the outcome of the process."

The first of these provisions has substantial roots already in the 1917 code of canon law, which provides in canon 2359, that clerics guilty of a crime against the sixth commandment with a minor under the age of sixteen, are to be suspended, and in more serious cases deposed from the clerical state. This seems to be perfectly reasonable for the sake of the common good, given how harmful such crimes are to youth and to the Church. And speaking from the side of the clerics, my own feeling is that if I were ever to commit such a crime, I would likely feel obliged in conscience to give up the ministry. Though admittedly, it may be easy to feel this way, being confident that I will never do such a thing.

The second provision is somewhat vague, and probably has to be that way. In the process of investigating an accusation, one may find that the accusation "seems true", is probable, or "credible". Once a probable opinion of guilt has been formed, the provision to protect others and uphold the sanctity of the ministry by removing the accused cleric from ministry until the investigative process is completed seems fairly reasonable.

That an accusation "seems true", or is probable, presupposes some investigation, at least brief, of the accusation in question, cannot always be very quickly ascertained. I get the impression, though, that in some dioceses of the USA, when any accusation is received that is taken seriously enough to begin any real investigative process, the cleric is immediately put on administrative leave. If this is true, it may be ultimately counter-productive, encouraging those in persons of authority to try to avoid hearing accusations that might be true but are not very likely to be so. Again, review boards may come under pressure to make a quick decision regarding the credibility of an accusation. If the accusation seems to them very probably false, but with some small chance of being true, they are in somewhat of a dilemma: they can decide that the accusation is credible, which requires putting the accused cleric on administrative leave and possible damaging his reputation; or they can decided that the accusation is not credible, meaning that it will not be further investigated. But there will surely be middle cases, where after a very brief preliminary investigation, there remain insufficient grounds to take any action against the accused, but sufficient grounds to justify further investigation.

Guilt proven beyond doubt may justify imposition of penalties without exception, and probable guilt may justify measures taken without exception to safe guard children, but enough possibility of guilt to warrant further investigation does not always justify any immediate administrative measures.

Forcing a black-white decision (probably guilty on the one hand, or surely not guilty on the other hand) too quickly will probably lead both to injustice against some persons judged probably guilty who should not have been, and to injustice against further victims who should and could have been protected.

Celibacy and the sexual abuse crisis

Over the past years, when a larger report of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests comes out, again and again opponents of priestly celibacy come out suggesting that the Church's discipline, in the Roman Rite, of requiring permanent and perpetual celibacy of its priests, contributes to the abuse crisis, or is even a major risk factor, or still more strongly, "will predictably produce this kind of result".

Others claim that "Clerical child sex abuse has nothing whatever to do with celibacy."

The truth, as is many cases, likely lies between these extremes, though it is cannot be neatly located on the scale from "causes the crisis" to "has nothing to do with it".

Leaving aside any empirical statistical evidence on the frequent of sexual abuse by celibate or non-celibate men, some aspects of celibacy would, taken on their own, suggest a connection between priestly celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest an inverse correlation (mandatory celibacy for priests countering the risk of someone abuser vulnerable persons).

Marriage as a remedy for concupiscence — suggestive of a connection between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
Marriage has long been described by Christian saints and writes as a remedy for concupiscence, by St. Augustine (see, for just one example, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Thomas Aquinas (see Summa theologiae, supplement, q. 42, article 3, Whether matrimony confers grace, and a multitude of others (see a selection of texts in the post Is marriage for the weak?). In this respect, it would not be surprising to find that those who are not in a position to legitimately satisfy sexual desire in marriage, are more likely to satisfy sexual desires in illegitimate ways, up to and including abusive ways. Celibacy does not make a man's sexual desires perverse or disordered; rather, his sexual desire is lacking order to begin with, being in the first place an instinctual drive, that must be governed by reason; the lack of the structured governance of that drive provided in marriage will, in the absence of contrary remedies, tend to lead to more disordered desires and acts.

Celibacy as freely chosen, involving abstinence even from legitimate sexual pleasure in marriage — suggestive of an inverse correlation between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
On the other hand, no one is forced to become a priest, and so, when we speak of priestly celibacy, we are not speaking of celibacy imposed randomly, independently of man's will, or even against man's will. Rather, it is a celibacy freely chosen (even if, in a particular instance, chosen principally as a condition or means to the desired end, the priesthood). If those who freely choose celibacy do so with adequate deliberation and a firm will to live it, if they belong to those "who can take it" (Matthew 19:12), we should, other things being equal, expect them to less frequently fall into sexual sin. For he is capable, or takes the means to render himself capable, of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a legitimate manner in marriage, is much more capable of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a sinful manner.

Celibacy as chosen by reason of being drawn to that way of life or not drawn to marriage — possibly suggestive of a connection between celibacy and abuse
No one is forced to become a priest. But also, in most cases, priests are, in the first instance, self-selected. Catholic communities and bishops could, in theory, come to men with the proposal, "we would like you to be a priest; are you willing to remain celibate for the rest of your life, study theology, to serve the Church in this diocese, etc.?" But, in many or most cases, the decisive initiative is taken by the men themselves who consider the priesthood. Given the association of the priesthood with celibacy, this has a unintended consequence: those who, for whatever reason, are not inclined to marriage — homosexuality, asexuality, sexual immaturity, sexual disorders — will be over-represented among applicants to the seminary. In the absence of an adequate mechanism to identify and exclude them, persons with certain sexual problems may also end up being over-represented in the presbyterate. And, very plausibly, some of those sexual problems will manifest themselves in distorted ways, including abusive ones.

Celibate priesthood as a special class — positive and negative aspects
A fourth point regarding celibacy is somewhat ambivalent: the discipline of celibacy tends to reinforce the image of the priesthood as a special class of Christians. This aspect of celibacy, might, in some times and places, contribute to a culture set firmly against all abuse, inasmuch as other priests who get wind of possible abuse are keen to uphold the reality of their class as a holy state, called in a special way to Christian virtue and holiness, and for whom, therefore, such sins are still more intolerable than they are in the case of lay persons. On the other hand, that the celibate priesthood makes up a special class may also have the opposite effect, lead to a culture permissive of abuse, because (1) one stands up for one's own, defends one's brother priests, assuming their innocence or downplaying their faults, because (2) one desires to uphold the image of the priestly state as a holy state, or because (3) the discrepancy in one's own life between the greater ideal of holiness to which one is called and one's actual life, causes one to misjudge the gravity of other sins; in the theological tradition, and expressly in the 1917 code of canon law, canon 132, clerics in major orders are so obliged to chastity that to sin against it is to be guilty of sacrilege (the notion behind this is that the priest's whole self, including his body, is dedicated to the Lord as something holy, so to sin against it is to violate what is holy); a priest guilty of habitual impurity, whether by fornication, adultery, masturbation, pornography, or impure thoughts, could possibly become thereby less inhibited from a crime such as abusing minors than a lay person guilty of the same habitual impurity would; similarly, a priest guilty of such impurity, whether occasional or habitual, may view such a crime by another priest less seriously than a lay person would.
Various problematic issues arising in connection with the priesthood as a special case are often treated under the notion of clericalism, by pope Francis (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God), and others (e.g., Sexual abuse and the culture of clericalism).

In view of these considerations, some of which, taken on their own, would suggest a link between celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest that celibate priests might be less likely to be sexually abusive, it is not too surprising, that, on some accounting, sexual abuse of minors (or at least behavior evoking a serious accusation of such abuse) is as common by married Anglican clergy as by celibate roman catholic clergy. (See, e.g. Does Celibacy Contribute to Clerical Sex Abuse? by Richard Cross, and the therein reference studies.)

At any rate, the issue is much more complex than "celibacy is unrelated to the issue of sexual abuse" or "celibacy is a principal cause of sexual abuse".

Homily for the 22th Sunday in ordinary time, year B

"For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance." (Matt 13:12) These words of Christ are true on many levels. Those blessed with good parents, to grow up in an intact family where peace is lived within the family, where parents encourage them, who have many natural talents, are thereby better equipped to leverage their position and abilities to achieve their goals, exterior goals such as getting a job or starting a business, and interior goals such as learning discipline and perseverance.

But as a secret treasure doesn't benefit someone if he knows nothing at all about it, so the blessings we have won't do much for us if we don't perceive them. And conversely, they will profit us more, if we not only are aware of them, but recognize them precisely as blessings given us by God. But really, everything good we have, receive, do, and enjoy, is a blessing given us by God. "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (James 1:17) Thankfulness for what we've been given is a virtue, and gratitude towards God is like a virtue supporting all others. As hope and joy are key in directing us toward what we have not yet attained and resting in the good we have, so gratitude plays a key role in distinguishing joy from mere pleasure, in giving deep meaning to the goods we enjoy: they do not arise simply by happenstance, nor are they merely the fruit of our labors, but are a gift given us by someone who loves us deeply, by God himself.

Gratitude leads naturally to responsibility. A rich, but spoiled child, ungrateful for all he has received from his parents, is readily incline to spend-thriftiness and laziness. Whereas a child of parents with more moderate means, grateful for his parents and all he has received from them, is inclined to apply himself and what he has to achieve his goals.

St. James exhorts us: "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (James 1:22) Receiving the word of Christ in a personal manner, as a gift granted and entrusted to us, leads us to respond in kind. And so obedience to the demands of the Gospel is a sign that we've received the word within our heart. St. James adduces as an example visiting orphans and widows, and keeping oneself pure from worldly excesses and perversions.

To many, the moral requirements of the Gospel of Christ and the Church appear rather as a burden making life worse than as a way and means to happiness. This notion is one of the many causes why christian faith is not taken serious or even outright rejected. The decisive reason for the abandonment of Christianity,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the year before he became Pope, is that “It seems to place too many restraints on humankind that stifle its joie de vivre, that limit its precious freedom, and that do not lead it to open pastures but rather into want, into deprivation.”

It is true that, those who, in faith, experience their life as a way in friendship with God, who live each day grateful for the blessings of that day and the life, do not always find it easy in a given moment to do what is right and good. But, for them, on the whole, it is ultimately a joy rather than a burden to follow the Lord, to love and serve him. In this way they experience in their own lives the truth of the Lord’s promise, “My yoke is sweet and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:30).

Wherever on this spectrum we may fall, whether we’ve merely accepted the faith from our parents as something we just take it for granted, and don’t find it any particular source of great joy, or whether we have already experienced the tremendous joy of knowing Christ, let’s pray for a grateful heart every day, to be attentive to the many good things that happen to us, and that we ourselves achieve, to see this a loving gift of God to us, and to respond in kind, with a joyful and loving heart to him, in Himself and in our brothers and sisters.

Homily for the 21th Sunday in ordinary time, year B

Jesus Christ turned many things upside down. The Son of God, the Almighty, Immortal, became man and subjected himself to the weakness of the cross, to save those who had offended His Father by their sin, also us. And so, through his teaching, life and death, he transformed all sorts of power relationships.
Worldwide and in the history of the human race the man tends to stand above the woman, to have more power or authority in the relationship between them and in society.
Paul recognizes such a relationship between husband and wife, however — and this is a tremendous qualification — in the context of a mutual subject in reverence for Christ, and, still more, with the understanding that in the body of Christ, every authority and power is for the benefit of the subordinate or weaker, regardless whether the authority arises from an office, ability, or a particular situation. For Christ, too, came to serve and to give us life for us. St. Paul, in a manner, inverts the power relationship (“Husbands, love your wives”). Contrary to the common polemic, according to which the Church oppresses women, it is especially there, where the Church and Christianity flowered, that the dignity and freedom of women is most recognized. Still, it took a long time for the teaching of Christ and St. Paul to penetrate the culture, and we must admit that it is various respects still not fully realized.
The general principle, that power and authority is for the benefit of the weaker and subordinate, I want to connect today with the various reports from the USA and Ireland over the past few weeks, which most of you have likely heard something of in newspapers or on television, of abuse perpetrated by deacons, priests and bishops within the Church, against those entrusted to them, men and women, youth, children. That would be bad enough, but what at least in my country, the USA, especially outrages persons, and that not only the usual enemies of the Church, who are always on the lookout for an occasion to attack the Church, but also those most faithful to the Church, is the way in which many cases were dealt with, that greater attention was given to preserving the Church's image or retaining the Church's ministers than to doing all reasonably possibly to prevent further abuses.
On this subject I want to make three points today.
First, we should not neither instrumentalize nor polemize the suffering of victims. Many gladly use such reports as an occasion to push for something that they are in favor of regardless. Within the Church, from one side (the liberal), the abuse is used to argue against the discipline of priestly celibacy, from another side (conservative/orthodox), to argue for stricter upholding of the Church's teaching and discipline regarding homosexuality and the priestly ministry. From without the Church, it is used to argue, in effect, that the Church is inherently wicked, does more harm than good. Very briefly, to the concrete issues: the incidence of abuse perpetrated by Anglican priests, who are generally married, is the same as that perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests, who are generally celibate; and in both cases it is something like twice as rate as the incidence of some crimes by teachers and coaches, who are in many cases married. So there is at least no immediate statistical evidence to conclude that either the priestly office or celibacy increases the chance of a man becoming a perpetrator. That said, given the Church's call to holiness, it is no claim to fame that its ministers are only just as prone to sexual misbehavior and crimes as other religious ministers are, are just somewhat less than other professions. And there may be some substantive issues in some cases linked with celibacy, e.g., loneliness, particularly for those not living in some form of community. The issue of homosexuality is more complex; here, in fact, the majority of persons abused by priests are male, though overall females are abused more than males. On the other hand, many perpetrators at least claim that the sex of the victim did not particularly matter to them… it was a matter of who was accessible to them. To the third point, again, the incidence of abuse by ministers of the Church, as far as we have definite numbers, is less than that in non-religious educational institutions, or sport clubs, as well as by family members. That doesn't make the abuse by ministers of the Church in any way okay, but does take the feet out of the argument that the Church's teaching on salvation, sin, sexuality, etc. or structure inclines people generally to wickedness.
More fundamentally, while all such reports may provide food for thought and possible input and evidence on these various topics, it is a unjust instrumentalization of victim's sufferings to use them merely to prop up positions one holds otherwise.
For us all, it is important, on the one hand, not to exaggerate the evil and tar all ministers with the same brush, nor, on the other hand, out of zeal for the Church, to downplay the wrong and the abuses in handling the situations.

We can, however, and this is my second point, learn some things and recognize certain temptations and pitfalls to be avoided. In the Church, as a long-standing institution being and recognizing itself as the bearer of the most important message, the Gospel, and even, in its sacraments and life, of Jesus Christ himself, one can easily be tempted to overrate oneself and to focus on self-preservation. To preserve its image, to be unwilling to believe that such a good priest could do such a thing (and laity may fall prey to this temptation just as much as bishops or other priests); to preserve its peace, to be unwilling to upset things; to preserve its constituency, its ministers (and here, too, it is not just bishops, but also laity, who often put such on a emphasis on having a priest, regardless of his qualities or deficiencies). For such reasons, priests have, at times, been silently moved to other parishes, even while those responsible knew of grave misdeeds.
This isn't something that happens only in the Church. The same thing happens in families and extended families, where most cases of abuse take place. One doesn't want or can't believe such a thing about one's stepfather, uncle, brother, nephew; one doesn't want to disturb family peace or cause a ruckus, one doesn't want to get involved, doesn't want to set something in motion that could lead to a indictment or prison for a relative, etc.

Thirdly, recognizing the existence of such temptations, we need to make it a point, in the Church, in families and extended families, not to look away or ignore the situation, when we have a bad feeling about a situation, or hear something about it, from a potential victim or another person, but to carefully look at it. Not to silently let it be, but to do something. In many cases, the first step should be to get advice, to talk about the situation with someone not so close to it and so emotionally involved, with someone with experience or education in the area. For, indeed, to act too quickly, especially when it is a case where active abuse is still ongoing, came not infrequently cause more harm than good. (Some comments about institutions serving this purpose in the diocese of Vienna made here…) We are called to co-responsibility for each other within the body of Christ, whether ordained or not, and regardless of our place in the hierarchy.

I'd like to close with a more general look at this temptation to self-preservation. The temptation to avoid the real problem, and instead focus on preservation, can appear in many other areas. E.g., in countries that were Christian for many centuries, a Christian and ecclesial culture was taken for granted. Those who couldn't name any other reason to go to Church on Sunday than the fact that it was customary, and that "that's just what one does", still went out of custom and as a tradition. In face of the rapid decline in Christian and ecclesial culture the temptation can be great to take up the attitude of preservation and resistance, a defense mechanism keeping us from recognizing the state of the faith in purportedly Christian countries such as Austria, to think, "the most important thing is, we still have a priest"; "the most important thing is, we still have OUR Mass", to oppose proposed parish unions, joint liturgies celebrated in another Church, etc. This, too, can be a distraction from what is happening, finally, a distraction from HIM, who alone matters. Peter says, "to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life"; if it is a matter of preservation, than a matter of preserving <i>his</i> presence in the Church, <i>his</i> words, <i>his</i> teaching.

I'd like to close with a prayer… []


Encounter with pilgrims

Last week, on the evening of the feast of the Assumption, I had a surprise visit from a group of 22 Spanish pilgrims making their way on foot from Krakow, Poland to Mariazell, Austria, including one married couple going with three of their older children. The pilgrimage was led by a priest who founded a home for homeless persons in Madrid. Many of the participants are volunteers for the home, some others got to know the priest in another way. They stayed in the parish hall overnight, and had supper and breakfast here.

One special feature of this pilgrimage was their reliance on divine providence and the generosity of benefactors on the way; though they had planned in advance approximately how far they would go each day, and thus the town or towns where they would be towards the evening, they did not plan in advance for food or shelter, and would not buy food along the way, but begged for it when they came. (In the case of food, one told me, when no one gave them something, they would practice dumpster diving at supermarkets, which I guess is a modern-day equivalent of gleaning the leftovers from farmer's fields.)

This dependence upon providence and the generosity of those they meet reflects in some way the complementarity of the contemplative and active life in the body of Christ. The pilgrims, by voluntarily choosing not to provide for themselves, show, on the one hand, that we should seek above all the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and to those who do so, all other things will be given as God wills, and on the other hand, providing spiritual goods to the community (making visible the priority of God before all else, as well as their prayer for the communities through which they pass and for their benefactors), fittingly receive material goods from them.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in ordinary time, year B (with Hunting club)

We can do one and the same thing in various ways and with various attitudes: we can perform a task rushing about in a hurry or with calm and composure, we can do a friend’s bidding with joy or grudgingly, we can entrust someone with responsibility with confidence or fear that something will go wrong. The ability to consistently do what is right, and do it with the attitudes appropriate to the situation, is what we call virtue.

Such virtues are necessary in hunting. It is not the hunter with the best weapon and the best clothing or camouflage who has success, but above all the one who can attend to the was of nature and the animals, who can recognize nature’s changing moods, and who has the patience to wait for the right moment.

A hunter has to wait for the right moment, to accept his own limits. Even the expert cannot assure success on a given day. Sometimes it is granted as one is finishing for the day and going home. Or, in turn, a sudden fog or change of wind can steal away an apparently assured game.

Not all of us are hunters, but we are all pursuing a variety of things: security or success in life, recognition, friendship, love… here, too, interior attitudes count more than exterior presuppositions. Not he attains happiness, who has the most money from his parents or grandparents, or the best education, but who can attend to himself and to others, who recognizes himself honestly, with strengths and weaknesses, and with humility and confidence puts them to work, and last but not least, indeed of greatest importance, he who can recognize the tracks, the gestures, and the words of God in his life, and follows them. Sometimes he speaks quietly, and we can easily overhear him. Sometimes he comes close, intervenes in our life, to draw out attention. Sometimes he distances himself, to rouse us.

According to the legend, Jesus Christ appeared to Hubert in the form of a deer. Hubert had an interior conversion, and from that point on viewed hunting in the greater context of the pursuit of the true meaning of life happiness, found in God’s plan for us.

So are we all called, whether or not hunters in the usual sense, to have open eyes and ears when God speaks to us, and to see our activities, responsibilities, interests and desires in the context of his plan, in which we are called, in various ways, to serve him, to serve the Church, to serve mankind in Christ Jesus, who came not to be served but to server.

Holy Communion is given us to strengthen us in this vocation. One who really wants and allows it, will be changed, transformed by this sacrament. The life of Jesus, the fullness of life, can become more and more my life, the more frequently, or rather and above all, the more intensely I united myself with him and receive him. The fruit is very much dependent on myself, whether I permit such a transformation. God does not force me, he makes a generous offer, comes to me under the appearance of bread. I can receive him out of habit, carelessly, and go my way. I can ignore it altogether, as so many, indeed the majority, who no longer even consider it worthwhile to attend Mass on Christmas and Easter (no wonder, that the sacraments of Christ and the Church do little to change their lives for their better, when they are so despised), or I can be open for the mystery of the Eucharist, strive to receive with great faith, love, and devotion, and then amazing things can happen in my life.

If we accept Christ’s offer of himself in this sacrament, we have a twofold task: to receive the Body of Christ, and to be open to him and amenable to his working in us; to thereby become the body of Christ, the Church, sacrament in the world for the life of the world. The many persons who do not understood or believe in the sacraments of the Church, may come to faith through us. If they can grasp the presence of the body of Christ in and through us, the Church, can perceive Christ living in us, they can through us come to faith in this sacrament too, to believe that the living Christ is truly present in this Most Holy Sacrament.

This homily was held in 2018 at a Mass with the hunting club of Eggendorf, reconstructed and translated from notes and memory.