Church Uses Facebook for Sacramental Scrutiny at its Peril

Religion Dispatches:

For all Il Papa’ssocial media encouragement the last few years, the Roman Catholic Church continues to struggle with digital ministry practice, particularly where new media intersects the church’s medieval sacramental structure.

In 2011, a new smartphone app aimed to support preparation for and the practice of confession ended up generating more confusion than contrition when a not particularly social design invited people to conclude that absolution was granted by way of the Confession app itself rather than, according to Catholic teaching, through the mediation of the priest.

No wonder Pope Benedict XVI’s Message for World Communications Day earlier this year highlighted silence and listening—the heart of Christian practices of contemplation—by way of encouraging the development of “a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds.” And, we might add, actions.

Blog a bit, tweet a bit, share your favorite liturgical recipes on Facebook if you like, the Holy Father seemed to be saying to the Catholic faithful, but once in a while, for the love of God, zip it.

All in all, not a bad idea, but I suspect the silence His Holiness had in mind had nothing to do with the kind of creepy, panoptical Facebook surveillance that led the Rev. Gary LaMoine of Assumption Church in Barnesville, Minnesota to prevent 17-year-old Lennon Cihak from receiving the sacrament of confirmation, a rite of passage usually administered to Catholic teenagers to “perfect the work of baptism” (the first of the sacraments, in Roman Catholic teaching) and mark their maturity as Catholic Christians. Likewise, the boy’s family members have been prevented from receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion at the church.

LaMoine singled out Cihak on the basis of a photo posted on Facebook which showed his support for efforts to defeat a proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would have defined marriage exclusively as between one woman and one man. The amendment was defeated by voters, with no small amount of support from progressive Catholics, who rejected energetic lobbying from the church hierarchy on behalf of the proposed amendment.

In some Minnesota parishes, for instance, an expensively produced DVD mailed to parishioners in support of the now-failed amendment was returned in collection baskets with “Give to the poor,” “Care for those in need,” or bible verses such as “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24) written on the packaging.

The DVD give-back was more than a gesture of spiritual or political defiance. It also highlighted the ethic of mutuality and equanimity at the heart of new social communication practices that have emerged from our engagements in digital social media locales like the Facebook page that became the focus of sacramental censure for Cihak and his family.

The ethical environment of the new media world is early in its evolution, with occasions of cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking, and other nefarious digitally-enabled transgressions rightly causing concern. But the overall culture of the internet, as it has morphed into social and mobile forms that have shaped relational practice both on- and offline, has generally retained the democratic, collaborative, transparent, and dialogical ethos of its earliest enthusiasts.

No reasonable communicator these days, then, expects a passive mass of consumers to gobble up a magisterially-broadcast message whole, not having the opportunity to share their own, potentially influential, perspectives. Hence those Twitter hashtags at the bottom of your TV screen. We expect interactivity. We assume someone’s listening. We live ready for conversation.

If you blast out a message—whether it’s a DVD, a tweet, or a smoke signal—and you think that’s the end of it, you haven’t been paying attention for the past several years to how communication works these days. So, perhaps the Pope is right: you ought to be listening more.

Likewise, it would take fairly rigorous monastic seclusion to have missed the memo on transparency as a virtue that is considered essential for ethical living in the digitally-integrated world. In the past decade, the Roman Catholic clergy abuse, News of the Worldphone-hacking, and Wikileaks scandals have marked new, and only very incompletely explored, ethical territory as we sort out the best ways to balance personal privacy and public safety as these are impacted by our engagement with new media.

But even given difficulties defining necessary and appropriate boundaries of personal, professional, and institutional transparency, we can see the virtue of transparency overall as having a stabilizing ethical function that invites openness and honesty while discouraging secretiveness and duplicity.

When Lennon Cihak felt moved to share his opposition to the proposed Minnesota marriage inequality amendment, he may have been inviting conversation or at least the nodding engagement that the Facebook “like” button offers. Indeed, many of his Facebook friends apparently “liked” or commented on the post without (so far) sacramental repercussions from Fr. LaMoine.

Yet Cihak had no reason to expect clerical surveillance in a social community where the expression of personal perspectives is rich relational currency. It functions not merely as self-construction or -revelation, but as digital generosity which enriches relationships as it invites further engagement—in the best of cases, even with those of differing perspectives.

Father James Martin, SJ, for instance, criticized LeMoine’s actions against Cihak and his family on both Facebook and Twitter, tweeting “If you deny the sacraments to those who favor same-sex marriage, you must also deny it to those who fail to forgive.” His Facebook page has spilled over with conversation—some of it heated, but most of it respectful—on the weight of Catholic teachings on sexuality in particular, and full acceptance of all of the Church’s teachings in general, in decisions regarding access to the sacraments.

There is arguably something sacramental in this dialogical practice, at least some sort of “visible and invisible grace” pointing to the kind of compassion, love, and justice that is at the root of all Christian teaching. Christians, Roman Catholic or otherwise, draw these ethically essential virtues from the model of Jesus Christ. For LeMoine to ignore them at the intersection of his sacerdotal and social media practice is profoundly disturbing to the equilibrium for which Pope Benedict argued. Some might even say “sinful.”



Archbishop Phillip Aspinall: Priests ‘Can Report Child Abuse’

The spiritual leader of Australia’s 3.5 million Anglicans, Phillip Aspinall, believes that priests may be able to report child abuse revealed during the rite of confession without breaking the seal of the confessional, putting him at odds with Catholics.   

The Australian reports:

The Anglican Primate says the sanctity of the confessional should be examined by the royal commission into child sexual abuse called this week by Julia Gillard, which he regards as being a decade overdue.

Dr Aspinall’s predecessor as Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth – who lost his job as governor-general after a scandal erupted over his handling of sex-abuse cases in the diocese – also backed the inquiry.

Dr Hollingworth warned yesterday that the abuse of children was “more widespread than previously thought”, and welcomed the royal commission as an important national initiative and a means to help victims.

Dr Aspinall told The Weekend Australian that pastoral guidelines for Anglican priests already stipulated that anyone who admitted sexually abusing a child during confession would not receive forgiveness unless they agreed to go to the police.

If the penitent refused, the confession was incomplete and, arguably, the seal of the confessional would not apply.

Only specified, senior priests could hear such confessions in the  Anglican Church, Dr Aspinall said. “These priests are specially trained  to require the penitent to report the matter to the police and even go  with them to support them while they do that,” he said.

“If they don’t do that, forgiveness will not be granted to them.”

Dr Aspinall is credited with cleaning house after taking over as  Archbishop of Brisbane in 2002 in the teeth of allegations that the  diocese had failed to deal properly with sex abuse cases in the 1990s  under Dr Hollingworth’s leadership.

Dr Aspinall, who was later elected Primate, said the announcement of a  national royal commission into child abuse came 10 years after he first  asked John Howard to call such an inquiry.

“Of the nearly 3.6 million Australians who call themselves Anglican,  statistically one in four women and one in eight men are victims of  abuse, so it is something that affects our church on many levels,” Dr  Aspinall said in a statement yesterday.

His support for the royal commission to review confessional sanctity  is in sharp contrast to the position of Australia’s most senior  Catholic, George Pell, who this week declared that the confessional was  “inviolable”, even for murder.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney said he would not hear the  confession of a pedophile priest if he had prior notice of it, but, were  it made, the seal of the confessional would remain.

In response, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, a Catholic, said he  struggled to understand how such information could not be reported to  police, while federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill  Shorten called for the royal commission to address priestly privilege.  Interviewed by The Weekend Australian, Dr Aspinall said mandatory  reporting of child sex abuse was policy in the Anglican Church.

He said the rite of confession was less frequently practised by  Anglicans, and was different from what took place in the Catholic  Church.

Senior priests had told him they hadn’t heard a confession for years, let alone one involving child sex abuse.

But he acknowledged that opinion was divided among Anglicans on what the confessional seal covered.

“Some people would say that anything said in a formal confession remains secret and sacrosanct,” Dr Aspinall said.

“Others would say, no, if the penitent has not followed through and  taken the appropriate action and received forgiveness, then the  confession is incomplete and the seal of confession does not apply.

“In that instance the person either reports the matter to the police themselves or the priest is free to do so.”

Asked for his personal view, Dr Aspinall said: “My view is that every  instance of child sexual abuse should be reported to the police.”

In nearly 25 years as a priest, he had never been put in the predicament of hearing the confession of a child abuser.

“I don’t think I ever will, because the reality is child sex abusers  hide what they do; they don’t come forward to reveal it,” Dr Aspinall  said.

Pressed on what he would do if someone confessed such a crime to him  and refused to have it reported to police, he admitted it would pose “a  real dilemma of conscience”.

“My heartfelt conviction is that all these matters should be reported to the police,” he said.

“If I found myself in a position of having to break canon law to do  it, I’m not sure what I would do. But my conscience, I think, would move  me to find a way for … proper action to be taken.”

While Cardinal Pell attacked sections of the media for exaggerating  the incidence of sex abuse by Catholic priests and for vilifying the  church, Dr Aspinall said reporting of the issue had mainly been  reasonable.

He praised the courage of victims in coming forward.

Dr Aspinall conceded that trust in the church had been affected.

“I think people are more shocked when it’s a clergy person or a  church worker who engaged in this behaviour because they have very high  expectations of people in the church,” he said.

“And I think that is right and proper.”



Australian Cardinal: Confessional Seal is Inviolable, Even in Abuse Cases

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, has said that while the Church will cooperate with a federal commission investigating child abuse, priests will not break the seal of confession.

Someone who confesses sins involving abuse will not be reported to police by his confessor, the cardinal said. He explained that while an admission made outside the confessional would be reported, “the seal of confession is inviolable.”

Cardinal Pell said that if a priest is aware that someone has been guilty of abuse, “the priest should refuse to hear the confession.”

The cardinal said that he welcomed the federal investigation because it will “clear the air” and “separate fact from fiction” regarding the Church’s response to sex-abuse complaints. He has said that media reports have portrayed the Church’s role unfairly.




Australia: Priests Could be Ordered to Report Crime Confessions

The prospect of government forcing priests to report what was said in confession is the sign of a “police state mentality”, says a priest and law professor.

Hundreds of years of Catholic tradition in the confessional could be overturned by Victoria’s inquiry into child sex abuse.

Priests would be ordered to reveal crimes told to them in private confessions under one proposal before the inquiry.

But priests say they will resist being forced to reveal secrets of the confessional.

Priest and law professor Father Frank Brennan said the move would be a restriction on religious freedom.

“If a parliamentary inquiry were to recommend a law by parliament saying that priests were forced to disclose anything revealed to them in the sacrament of confession I think that would be a serious interference with the right of religious freedom,” Father Brennan said today. 

“Indeed it would be a very sad day if we moved to a police state mentality, it’s almost of Russian dimensions to suggest Catholic priests would have to reveal to state authorities what went on under the seal of the confessional.

“I am one of the priests who, if such a law were enacted, would disobey it and if need be I would go to jail.”

Father Brennan said disclosures to priests in the confessional were different to those made to doctors or counsellors, or even when a priest was acting in a counsellor role.

“If it were in the sacred realm of the sacrament of confession which in Catholic theology is akin to the penitent being in conversation with God, where the priest is simply an agent, then definitely the state has no role of interference in that.”

Father Brennan said he expected police would have other more important leads when investigating crime than what was said in the confessional.

“They probably don’t have much of an idea about what people confess in confessions anyway, I think most of it, if not all of it would be of no interest to police.”

A parliamentary committee also will look at radical new laws that would see bishops face criminal charges for the misconduct of their priests.

Founder and coordinator of Melbourne Victims Collective, Helen Last, welcomed the proposal.

“I think it’s great, I think it’s very important,” Ms Last said today.

The Melbourne Collective works with survivors of clergy and/or religious abuse and Ms Last said she had recently spoken with a survivor of alleged abuse by a Catholic priest who had reported it in confessions over a 10-year period.

“She spoke to them, while the abuse was happening, in the confessional … many of the priests just told her to stay away from him, one priest fell asleep while she was telling him and others basically said ‘go away and change your behaviour’,” Ms Last said.

“Priests need to be mandated to report from within the confessional and without the confessional and they urgently need to be trained about appropriately referring victims.”

Submissions are being accepted for the inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups.

Ms Last said the collective was working with 100 people to help them complete submissions.

The inquiry was set up by the Baillieu Government in April.

The inquiry is being conducted by State Parliament’s Family and Community Development Committee, chaired by Liberal MP Georgie Crozier, with Labor MP Frank McGuire as deputy.

A guide released by the committee asks those making submissions to consider whether mandatory reporting rules should be imposed on the confessional.

“Should the sacrament of the Catholic confessional remain sacrosanct in these circumstances?” the paper says.

It also asks whether tough new laws should be imposed on the church hierarchy.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne declined to comment on the guide, saying it do not want to pre-empt the work of the inquiry.

“The Catholic Church will co-operate with the inquiry,” archdiocese spokesman James O’Farrell said.

But the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has previously said the confessional must remain sacrosanct.

In Ireland, where similar laws have been introduced, priests have vowed to defy the orders, which could see them jailed for up to 10 years.

The Reverend Father John Walshe, chairman of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, said the confessional was not a place of counselling.

“The universal response of priests to any attempt to demand they pass on information they have received in the confessional will be absolutely negative,” said Fr Walshe, parish priest of St Patrick’s, Mentone.

“Priests have in the past history of the church been martyred for refusing to break the seal of the confessional andI believe that priests today would continue to do the same.”

A spokesman for the Baillieu Government said the committee had sought submissions on a wide range of issues.

The sex abuse inquiry is due to present its report to State Parliament by April.

Australia’s cardinal George Pell has been approached for comment.



The Restored Order of the Sacraments

In via Fr Christopher Phillips’ fine blog:

The Catholic News Agency reports:

Rome, Italy, Mar 8, 2012 / 03:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo said he is delighted to have first-hand papal approval for changing the order by which children in his diocese receive the sacraments.
“I was very surprised in what the Pope said to me, in terms of how happy he was that the sacraments of initiation have been restored to their proper order of baptism, confirmation then first Eucharist,” said Bishop Aquila, after meeting Pope Benedict on March 8.

Bishop Aquila was one of five bishops from North and South Dakota to meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican as part of their March 5-10 “ad limina” visit to the Rome.

Over the past seven years the Diocese of Fargo has changed the typical order of the sacraments of initiation. Instead of confirmation coming third and at an older age, it is now conferred on children at a younger age and prior to First Communion.

Bishop Aquila said he made the changes because “it really puts the emphasis on the Eucharist as being what completes the sacraments of initiation” and on confirmation as “sealing and completing baptism.”
When the sacraments are conferred in this order, he said, it becomes more obvious that “both baptism and confirmation lead to the Eucharist.” This sacramental assistance helps Catholics live “that intimate relationship of being the beloved sons and daughters of the Father in our daily lives,” he added.

The Bishop of Fargo said the changes have also distanced the Sacrament of Confirmation from “some false theologies that see it as being a sacrament of maturity or as a sacrament for ‘me choosing God.’”
Instead, young people in Fargo now have “the fullness of the spirit and the completion of the gifts of the spirit” to assist them in “living their lives within the world,” especially “in the trials they face in junior high and high school.”
Bishop Aquila explained his theological thinking to Pope Benedict during today’s meeting.

In response, he said, the Pope asked if he had “begun to speak to other bishops about this.” He told the pontiff that he had and that “certainly bishops within the Dakotas are now really looking towards the implementation in the restoration in the ordering of the sacraments.”

I’m pleased to say that our parish has had this restored order of the sacraments for the past several years.  By the time our children have reached the age of reason (about 7 years) they are prepared to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, and at the same Mass (celebrated by the bishop) they receive First Holy Communion.  During the week prior, they make their First Confession.

Fortified by the sacraments from a young age, our children are able to grow in grace and to be better prepared to enter adolescence.

The article says: ‘… have also distanced the Sacrament of Confirmation from “some false theologies that see it as being a sacrament of maturity or as a sacrament for ‘me choosing God.’” This is something that needs to be looked into more closely.