Secret of the Confessional and Celibacy: Showdown Between Rome and Canberra

September 17, 2020
Canberra Cathedral

Rome responded with outright refusal of the Australian government’s proposals to lift the secrecy of the confessional in certain criminal cases, and to establish voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.

A six-member royal commission, appointed on the proposal of the Prime Minister by the Governor General representing the British Crown, between January 2013 and December 2017, conducted an investigation into institutional responses to child abuse in Australia.

Based on the Commission’s final report, 189 proposals were communicated to the federal government in 2018, many of which attack the sacramental discipline of the Church.

On September 4, 2020, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) revealed that, on February 26, the Holy See sent it a series of observations in response to the government’s proposals, with the mission to forward them to the Attorney General.

Two observations in particular should attract attention, as they reflect an outright refusal of the exorbitant claims of the Australian authorities.

In recommendation 16.18 which asks the ACBC to introduce “voluntary celibacy for the diocesan clergy,” Rome warns Canberra against “the reduction of celibacy to a purely practical consideration” which cannot “be understood apart from the logic of faith and the choice of a life consecrated to God.”

As for the alleged link between celibacy and abuse, the Holy See stands on factual proof: “There is ample evidence to show that there is no direct cause and effect relationship. Unfortunately, the specter of mistreatment appears in all sectors and types of society, and is also found in cultures where celibacy is hardly known or practiced,” the document said. Contra factum non fit argumentum - one cannot argue against the facts.

And the Holy See specifies that meddling with celibacy in Australia would constitute an “attack on religious freedom”: an argument that hits the mark in this distant part of the Commonwealth.

Another proposition - 16.26 - recommends exactly the lifting of the secrecy of sacramental confession in cases of abuse committed by any person on a minor. Showing unusual zeal, in November 2019, Australian state prosecutors agreed on a protocol to prosecute priests who refuse to deliver sensitive information heard in confession: Queensland is the last state to date to have passed such legislation, on September 8, 2020.

Unheard of measures, for the moment not translated into action, but which have made the Catholic hierarchy react.

The Vatican does not intend to be intimidated and prefers to strengthen the position of the ACBC by reiterating the inviolability of the seal of the confessional. The Roman document firmly reminds that: “the confessor is never authorized, for any reason whatsoever, to betray a penitent by words in way whatsoever, just as it is totally forbidden for a confessor to use the knowledge acquired through confession to the detriment of the penitent, even if all danger of revelation is excluded.”

The message from Rome is clear: the Church is willing to collaborate with the Australian state in the most painful legal cases, but there is no question of renouncing the non-negotiable points of celibacy or the secrecy of confession.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge also confirmed it in carefully selected terms, on September 4: “the bishops are eager to participate in the ongoing public debate concerning the protocols which would be likely to guarantee the safety of children,” neither more nor less.