The Pope Repented

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written a post. I’ve been going through some stuff. I’ll leave it at that.

However, the Pope finally responded to the Pennsylvania news, and I wanted to think out loud about it, so here it goes.

A quick disclaimer: I do speak fairly strongly against the Roman Catholic Church in this post. I hope that my Roman Catholic friends understand that I am not speaking against THEM, but against particular doctrines of the institution with which they identify. Please don’t take personal offense at my words, and please talk to me and explain where you perceive that I might be misrepresenting you or your church’s doctrines.

As for a post outline… First, I’ll summarize what’s happened recently in Pennsylvania for any who don’t know. I’ll then analyze some doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that I think have led to this situation. Finally, I’ll analyze the Pope’s letter addressing it.

What’s Happened Recently in Pennsylvania

For any who don’t know, about a week ago, a grand jury report was released in which credible allegations of sexual abuse and rape were leveled against over 300 priests in various dioceses throughout Pennsylvania. Well over 1,000 children are suspected of having been horrifically abused by priests for a period of decades, and there is clear evidence that the leadership of the RCC was involved in covering up the scandal.

If you need details, and have a strong stomach to consider how evil someone can be, you might read the grand jury report, which details the downright demonic actions of some of these men in positions of power in the RCC.

Some Roman Catholic Doctrines that Have Led to This Situation

There is no longer any doubt that this not only was, but is, a widespread problem within the RCC, at the very least, and possibly within other religious communities in which men are vested with great authority and little to no accountability. I pray that men in my own protestant churches who may be guilty of such horrific sins will confess them openly, repent, and remove themselves from places of leadership within churches, submitting themselves to the discipline of both the church and the state.

That said, I’d like to state clearly some of the doctrines that I believe have made the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, a breeding ground for this particular kind of abuse and evil.

There are two specific sets of doctrines I would argue contribute heavily to the problem, and are very unbiblical: (1) Ecclesial Structure and Apostolic Succession (2) the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

Ecclesial Structure and Apostolic Succession

The first of these doctrines is rather large and hard to summarize, but I will do so with the words “ecclesial structure” and “apostolic succession.” Ecclesial structure relates to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic bishops, priests, and laity. In short, there is a hierarchy of power that ascends a ladder ultimately leading to the Pope. Specifically, according to the RCC, the pope “enjoys, by divine institution, ‘supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.’” Again, according to the Catechism, the pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful [i.e. the Church]. For the Roman Pontiff [the Pope], by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” What does this ultimately mean? The pope is effectively God on earth, and speaks with the authority of God Himself, according to the RCC. Beyond that, the same language is used to describe the extension of his power into the Bishops. “The Bishops, established by the Holy Spirit, succeed the apostles. They are ‘the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches.’” Meaning that, what the Pope is for the whole church, bishops are for individual churches.

I actually don’t have a big beef with the idea of an organized leadership structure in which you work up a ladder of authority to make hard decisions. The issue comes when we speak of individual men on the ladder (instead of a plurality of men, “elders”) who only answer to those above him on the ladder (and not those below him), and one individual man at the top, who answers to no one on earth. A better ecclesial hierarchy, I think, is a ladder where only a plurality of elders is held accountable to the word of God by the local churches they lead… but that’s another post for another time.

This Roman Catholic ecclesial hierarchy is justified in their eyes, and further distorted in mine, by Apostolic Succession. It is the Roman Catholic belief that the power given to Jesus (Matt 28:18-20), he gave to his apostles, and it was passed down, person-to-person, in an unbroken chain to the current Pope and Bishops. There is mystical power in the laying on of hands, according to Roman Catholics, and Peter laid his hands on a guy, who laid his hands on a guy, who laid his hands on a guy, and that line connects right down to the present. This is Apostolic succession, and it gives the Roman Catholics their justification for unfettered power and authority in their ecclesial offices because it goes back to “all authority” that was given to Jesus. Unfortunately, he never gave THAT power and authority to the Apostles… at least, not in the Biblical texts.

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation

The second of these doctrines is called “The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation,” or more commonly called “confession.” In the Roman Catholic sense of the term, confession of a sin is something that must be done to a priest if that sin is actually going to be forgiven by God. In the Catholic Catechism it argues that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins (I agree) and passed that authority onto his apostles (I disagree) and the current bishops and priesthood have the same authority of the apostles passed down in an unbroken chain (I disagree, further. We’re back to apostolic succession). This is specifically stated as such when the Catechism says, “Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry. Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’”

Furthermore, priests are ordered by the Church Magesterium to keep all confession a secret under the “sacramental Seal.” The catechism says, “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.”

The Effect of These Two Doctrines

These two linchpins, working together within the RCC are the errors that breed corruption. By entrusting fallible and sinful men with the ability to wield the power of God on earth, as if they were God Himself, and particularly, the exclusive power on earth to forgive sins, you entrust to him his destruction. I would argue strongly that Apostolic Succession, as taught by the RCC, is false. The apostolic authority given to the apostles was not the exact same authority Jesus claimed at his resurrection, and further the authority that was given them died with the apostles. It was followed up with a different kind of authority given to pastors and teachers. I would further argue the authority given to pastors and teachers is dependent entirely on the scriptures. They are there to lead according to the revealed word of God; they are not there to reveal the word of God. Your pastor is not God on earth, and I even hesitate to say he is God’s representative on earth. If I do say that, I must clarify that he is such a representative in the exact same way that ALL CHRISTIANS are God’s representatives on earth.

Furthermore, this power of priests is heightened when a priest is entrusted with the actual ability, to forgive sins. Yes, they claim it is only through the power of Christ, but they maintain that the laity does not have this same power. This is wrong.

All who believe the gospel, all those who are “regenerated” for the theologically minded in the crowd, are saints according to the Bible (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:2; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1). A pastor or teacher (elder) has no more or less authority to forgive another man his sins than the believing janitor or babysitter has, that is to say: none. God is the one with authority to forgive sins.

By giving some divine right to priests to forgive sins, and then reinforcing that with a powerful secrecy, the sinful nature of the priest in question is given a playground.

Confession is supposed to be a bringing to light of evil done and realigning one’s will with God’s. I encourage people all the time to confess their sins. It is right to do. But I cautiously discourage confessing sins in secret or “safe spaces.” Do you not know that what you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops? Do you not know that you are to walk as children of the light, and expose the unfruitful works of the darkness? Confess them in the light now. The power of an unconfessed sin is the same as the power of a sin confessed only in private and secret: the fear that others will not forgive you for that sin if they knew about it. But guess what? They can’t forgive you for that sin anyway. God is the one who can, so it doesn’t matter if someone here on earth forgives you or not.

To that end, I want to take a moment to confess in the light some of the sins I am tempted to only confess in secret.

I have looked at pornography. I have lusted after women. I have murdered in my heart. I have abused food through bulimia. I have selfishly regarded my own comfort before the needs of my roommates.

I have sinned. And I hope you don’t think, dear reader, that I no longer sin. I do. And when I do, I try to confess it quickly to God, and to anyone who will listen.

This is the gospel, friends. God saves sinners, purely by his grace. He forgives sins because he chooses to do so… not because they were confessed to a priest who holds the keys to forgiveness, or because you said five Hail Mary‘s.

In short, the non-biblical, but no less true phrase, “Power corrupts, and Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the problem that has led to the current situation in the RCC. The power of being “God on earth” and to wield forgiveness in secret has led to the possibility of abusing that power, and placing a stamp of God’s authority (which these men do not have) upon acts that God himself in his word calls detestable, evil, sin.

The Pope’s Letter Addressing the Problem

If you’d like to read his letter in full, here is a link to it.

My initial (and sinful) reaction to this letter is to dismiss it with the phrase “too little, too late.” But that would be wrong of me. Having addressed the issues I see in the RCC’s structure, I now see it fit to, temporarily, accept these errors, insert myself into the Roman Catholic worldview and say, “work within the system already established, and evaluate the Pope’s words on their own merits, without getting caught up in the ‘he shouldn’t have this kind of authority to begin with’ question.” When I try to do that, I find the Pope actually wrote a pretty good letter renouncing the evil at hand, confessing the sins of his flock (not in secret, but to all), and implementing steps of repentance within his institution, the Roman Catholic Church.

In fact, the two big doctrines I outlined above, seem to be spoken of negatively (if not explicitly, then implicitly) in this letter from the Pope, and I praise God for that.

There are very rightfully contrite statements that I would expect anyone who leads to make when his followers commit acts of evil. “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner […] we showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” Later, “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary…” And, “Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others.”

From whom must the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, and the Pope in particular, beg forgiveness? The answer can only be this: from God. And it seems assumed that the Pope supposes God will give this forgiveness without the intermediary approval of a priest, but through the intermediary of his son. Amen to that.

In one stunning paragraph not being widely reported, the Pope seems to denounce the hierarchical structure of his own institution, under the term “clericalism.” I will quote the whole paragraph:

“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that ‘not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people.’ Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

These statements are encouraging to me. While I realize he probably means something different from the term “clericalism” than I do, this is a step in the right direction. I’m not going to denounce a statement by the pope if it at least points his people toward a more biblical understanding of authority and power. All believers are saints. Pastors and teachers have special responsibilities, but are accountable to the people of God on earth, and to God Himself in heaven. The “clericalism” the pope denounces here suggests that bishops and priests are accountable only to other bishops and priests, and I support any denunciation of such a system.

There are, obviously, things with which I will disagree. (If you read this blog ever, you know that I always find something with which to disagree!) The Pope’s emphasis on “fostering a culture” instead of “teaching and practicing the truth of scripture” is bothersome. His reference to communal salvation only, instead of individual salvation is interesting to me. His veneration of Mary as his final (and repeated) example to follow as a disciple of Christ (above even Paul who instructed people to imitate him as he imitates Christ) makes me shake my head and sigh.

But I’m willing to put those aside for now and say this: I agree in large part with what Pope Francis said here. If his actions line up with his words, I’ll support him as he goes about instituting change on this front. Whatever else he may be, he is this: he is a man in a position of authority who claims to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, and so when he leads in a manner worthy of the title “Christian” I will support him in doing so, and try to do the same in the institutions I lead.
May my fellow protestant friends do the same.

2 thoughts on “The Pope Repented”

  1. Man, when you give feedback, you really give feedback. Part of me really appreciates it, and another part of me wishes you could summarize, Nathaniel. Haha.

    So, here’s my reaction… I think I understand everything you wrote. Believe it or not, I really do love and have a high regard for Church history, and I followed all of your arguments even through the church councils most protestants haven’t heard of.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, though, with your first paragraph. I don’t accept what you termed “the whole apostolic tradition,” as authoritative. And so, while your argumentation for RCC doctrine is very good, once that premise is accepted, the vast majority of it is, unfortunately, built upon that premise. Thus, it is quite unsatisfying to me.

    I do appreciate the response though, because it helps me to understand the arguments of a well-thought-out Roman Catholic a little bit better. I still disagree in many spots (obviously) but probably not in the ways you would expect a protestant to disagree. For example, I DO think the petra in Matt 16 is Peter.

    A couple of quick notes I actually do want to address, though.

    (1) I do understand the difference between absolution and penance. I intentionally decided to leave out explaining the difference that you rightly and expertly explained. (love the baseball metaphor, btw.) I felt justified leaving the terms *murky* since I got the term “Penance and Reconciliation” from the Catechism, but I see now that I should have made the clarification in the post. (Trying to save space, you know how it is.)

    However, my issue lies not in the false conflation of the two (which leads one to believe that forgiveness is dependent of works), but in the idea that absolution is given through the priest. THAT is the particular issue I tried to focus in on, but I think might have failed in focusing in on. The idea that the forgiveness comes by God, but can only reach the people by means of a priest acting as an intermediary, is what I find wrong. (I believe there is only one mediator between God and man, the Man, christ Jesus.) I actually, agree entirely with the whole rest of the two doctrines (that it is absolved by grace from God, and that doing penitent works helps to restore relationship with the body.) I also should have clarified that I do not think people should be confessing their sins to God, secretly. They should be confessing their sins to other brothers and sisters in the church, openly. Again, I tried to make that clear, but I think I might have failed on that point.

    (2) I find your biblical support for apostolic succession supremely lacking. It’s just not there, friend. As you yourself stated, you have to go to post-apostolic writings to find the doctrine clearly stated, and while I admire and find good things in those post-apostolic letters, I do not accept their authority or inerrancy. You simply can’t find the doctrine even remotely “developed” in the bible. You definitely have apostolic authority, but nothing like apostolic succession. That’s a big problem for me.

    (3) In defending Apostolic succession, you repeatedly appealed to the date of the canon, and the “authority of the church” predating the canon. Here I simply dispute your interpretation of facts (and terminology). I think you and I would agree that the “canon” refers to “all of the books specifically inspired by the holy spirit to to be inerrant and infallible in their original manuscripts.” Yes? If so, that canon existed prior to the church recognizing it and writing down the list. From the moment God inspired the book, it was part of the canon. It’s not as if Paul’s letter to the Galatians took a hiatus from existing between the death of John and the Synod of Carthage. You said without apostolic succession “no one could have reliable Christian faith between the death of the apostles and the establishment of the canon of Scripture at the Synod of Carthage in 397.” They had the teachings of the apostles (it’s not as if everyone forgot everything they said once they died), they had the books the apostles had written, and they had Hebrew bible. I think that’s more than enough for someone to have reliable Christian faith. As for your second point, I simply want to differentiate what I THINK we will agree about… namely that the Synod of Carthage did not confer the inspiration of the Holy Spirit upon the particular books, it simply recognized the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that already existed in the particular books. Now, where we’ll disagree… I maintain that if, in an imaginary world where there was no Synod of Carthage, then the status of the books written up to that point would not have changed. To put it in a more blunt way, but not an entirely accurate and precise way, I don’t think the canon is dependent on the Church for its existence or authority. I think the scriptures (going back to the books of Moses, mind you) can be (and were) recognized as scriptures without a vote saying so. The church vote doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t required for their recognition.

    You might be tickled to know that there are many RCC practices I encourage my protestant friends to adopt. Not as dogma, but merely as wise. However, there are particular RCC dogmas (apostolic succession being one, the mere existence of the papacy being another, almost all of the Marian dogmas being still more) that keep me from becoming a Roman Catholic myself. Hence, I repeat myself at the beginning of this comment: you hit the nail on the head. It really does boil down to authority. I firmly hold to the authority of Scripture alone and that’s where I fail to be convinced by your otherwise expert argumentation.

  2. I think the first step of my response here is to lay out some corrections to your views on Catholic doctrine. This is, in and of itself, a challenge of common ground, because Catholic doctrine explicitly does not rely on Scripture alone, but on the whole of Apostolic Tradition (which itself determined the canon of Scripture).

    First, let’s look at papal authority. The “unhindered” bit refers primarily to other humans’ power over the pope; it says nothing of God’s power over him. Catholic doctrine holds staunchly and primarily that the doctrine of the Church is unchanging; any development of doctrine is clarification, not revision. By that measure, the authority of the pope ends at the hard edge of established Catholic doctrine. The pope, for example, has no authority to state that, for example, homosexual sex is not a sin or that praying directly to God is one. If he should make such an attempt, he in fact will be hindered–if not by the college of bishops, then by the Holy Spirit. There has been at least one case in the history of the Church wherein a pope prepared to express a heresy as the teaching of the Church and was prevented from doing so by dying suddenly of natural causes.

    This restriction of papal authority means, first, that their supremacy only covers certain specific functions and actions. The pope has the authority, for example, to change the practice of the faith (not doctrine or dogma but only discipline), such as which prayers are prayed at Mass. The pope does not have the authority to change the teachings of the faith and morals, such as the truth of the Resurrection or the sinfulness of abortion. This restriction has the secondary effect of allowing the pope to be, himself, a knave, a wretch, and the worst of sinners, even a private heretic–even an atheist. From his position, he can write letters and influence decisions, but he cannot ultimately change the doctrine of the Church. This is substantiated not only by the teachings of Apostolic Tradition but also by historical example–we have had our fair share of absolutely wretched sinners on the Chair of Peter (of which the worst was probably Alexander VI), but they were never able to excuse themselves or their actions.

    It is inaccurate, then, to call the pope “God on earth,” for of course he is not. He is the vicar of Christ, meaning he stands in persona Christi under certain circumstances, but so do all priests (during the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation in particular). But the pope’s authority ends in two places where God’s does not: when he attempts to contradict Catholic doctrine, and when he dies.

    It is also not quite accurate to say that the pope answers to no one on earth. While technically true in a metaphysical sense–no one has higher authority than the pope–it is simultaneously not true in a human sense. Catherine of Siena is noted for her successful confrontation of the pope and insistence that he behave appropriately. On the other side of it, some popes were established by political entities and powerful families and were thus controlled by those groups. It is the responsibility of the clergy and the laity to confront sin; while none of us have the power to remove the pope from the Chair of Peter, he simultaneously does not have the power to legitimize his sins. In the end, the laity (and the Church) will always conquer wicked popes, because death comes for us all eventually.

    On apostolic succession, we usually don’t point to the Great Commission, though I suppose that’s one source of it. (The Great Commission, notably, applies to all Christians, not merely the apostles and their successors.) Rather, we see Christ give explicit authority to the apostles in Matthew 18:15-20 and John 20:21-23 (NB., “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”); this authority is given to Peter in a special way in Matthew 16:17-19 and John 21:15-17. (You will also see some Scriptural basis for the sacrament of reconciliation in 3 out of 4 of these passages.)

    We see further examples of Peter’s primacy among the apostles in Acts 15, when he presides over (and makes the determining decisions at) the ecumenical Council of Jerusalem.

    On the particular question of succession, here are some points to consider. First, in Matthew 16, when Jesus first gives authority to Peter, he promises that “the gates of hades will not prevail against” the Church. (If you want to argue that the rock of foundation is not Peter, I go into a lot of detail on the text here, but that’s not at issue right now.) The indomitable nature of the Church is linked to the authority given to Peter by mere proximity if not by obvious connection (and I think the latter); how can the Church remain indomitable if that authority has died out?

    Second, consider Biblical examples of apostolic succession. The first example of the apostles passing on their authority is the ordination of Matthias to the Twelve in Acts 1; through the Holy Spirit, the Eleven add him to their number and their apostleship in particular.

    Later, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Saul meets Jesus Christ himself and is charged with becoming an apostle to the Gentiles–but he is not able to do so until Ananias (notably not one of the Twelve) comes to him, heals him by the power of God, and ordains him (lays his hands on him). Saul (now Paul) goes on to teach others and ordain them as leaders of local churches, then exhorts them to do the same to others (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

    Apostolic succession is further supported by the teachings of not only the apostles but their immediate successors from the very foundation of the Church. Before the end of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome–second- or third-generation Christians, predating even the book of Revelation–defend explicitly the doctrine of apostolic succession in their letters. By the end of the second century (still 200 years before the final establishment of the canon), this doctrine as the source of true Christian teaching was well-established as a refutation of the Gnostics and other secret-society heretics.

    The problem of denying apostolic succession is primarily that it defies, first, the indomitable nature of the Church (for without it, no one could have reliable Christian faith between the death of the apostles and the establishment of the canon of Scripture at the Synod of Carthage in 397), and second, the reliability of that canon altogether (if we cannot trust apostolic succession, we cannot trust the alleged successors who compiled the Bible). The only option this leaves is that the Holy Spirit saw fit to intercede in the declaration of doctrine for the Synod of Carthage (as far as the canon of the New Testament goes) and the possibly-non-factual Jewish Council of Jamnia (as far as the canon of the Old Testament goes, since Carthage confirms as canonical the Deuterocanon). Having so acted, the Holy Spirit no longer intercedes to establish points of doctrine, and anyone who predated or differed from these points either is not admitted to the number of the saints (defying again the indomitable nature of the Church) or must be granted some divine dispensation on account of ignorance (which implies more will be saved by ignorance than by evangelization, which is of course nonsense).

    Let that suffice on the subject of apostolic succession and the papacy for now (I have spilled more ink on those subjects on my blog if you want to read more of my justifications). As a short addendum, the authority of the Church relies on its teaching authority (it must have access to the truth to teach the truth) and its historicity (it predates the canon of Scripture by over 300 years).

    On to the sacrament of reconciliation. The actual practice of reconciliation is not set in stone; there is little evidence that it was done in isolation with a priest during the years of the early Church, but often was done publicly before the whole local church; severe sins listed offenders among the penitents, meaning they were publicly removed from the benefits of the sacraments for a certain number of days (depending on the offenses). Later, as the doctrine developed, the practice was changed to encourage repentance among the faithful. It was rightly judged that those who must confess publicly are less likely to do so and those who confess privately have a right to that privacy. This depends, as I mentioned above, on the authority of the apostles to bind and loose sins (in Matthew 16 and 18 and John 20, as referenced above)–the actual authority to forgive (or not forgive) sins.

    It should be noted that this authority does not supersede God’s. God’s authority in this matter is absolute (Luke 5:20-21). It is possible (and the Church grants this possibility) that someone may be perfectly contrite in the moment of their death and, so being, be forgiven by God by extraordinary means. But one should not rely on extraordinary means of grace and should seek out ordinary means of grace–by which I mean, when God has granted the authority of forgiveness and the ministry of reconciliation to his Church (2 Corinthians 5:16ff.), we should avail ourselves of that ministry.

    You have also conflated absolution with penance. I don’t blame you; a lot of people do. Penance is not required for absolution. Absolution is given by God (through the priest) at the end of confession (provided you were truly contrite and do not intend to keep sinning and a couple other things that make confessions invalid) regardless of whether you do your penance. Penance is provided as a means of reconciliation. It may be described like this: You are playing baseball in your back yard, and you hit the ball through your neighbor’s window. The window is broken. You go to the neighbor and apologize; he forgives you (absolution–he does not hold this against you any longer), but the window remains broken. Penance is making an effort to repair the window, that you may be completely reconciled with your neighbor, not merely absolved. Penance is important because sins cause harm to the whole body of believers (1 Corinthians 6:12-20); acts of penance and reparation work to undo this damage and heal the body.

    This requirement to confess to a priest, in my experience, does the opposite of add secrecy. It adds accountability. When I was Protestant, I sinned in secret, I confessed in secret (to God alone! after all), and nothing ever changed. The ordinary means of grace through confession mean that I am held accountable for my sin and I must expose it honestly before God in the sacrament. The Church, like any Protestant denomination, encourages people to confess their sins appropriately, seek reconciliation with their neighbors, and confess crimes to the authorities–but it cannot require these actions because of the seal of the confessional.

    The seal of the confessional, though it sounds like an enabler of sin, actually safeguards the sacrament. The sacrament of reconciliation is, after all, the ordinary means of obtaining absolution; without it, mortal sins remain heavy upon our souls. By the seal, the priest is bound to hold a secret unto the grave. He cannot tell anyone what he has heard in the confessional. He cannot tell his superiors. He cannot tell his fellow priests. He cannot tell his parishioners. He cannot tell his family. He cannot even tell the penitents themselves. The seal is absolute. So we can rest assured that our sins, at once forgiven and cast away, will not be retained by anyone on this earth, and can confess all things equally, no matter how heinous, and seek the absolute mercy of God even when no man on earth would grant us mercy.

    The sacrament of reconciliation absolutely can be abused, but not in any effective sense. You cannot actually obtain absolution if your repentance is not genuine; you would just be going through the motions for their own sake. If you go to confession to soothe your conscience so you can return to sin, it is a psychological soothing only, not a spiritual one; you are not actually absolved when you act that way. Of course some men commit crimes, confess them to a priest, feel better about themselves, then commit them again; but some very similar men commit those same crimes, “confess them only to God,” feel better about themselves, then commit them again. This is not an institutional problem but a human one. We are sinners.

    It is also important to note that the seal of the confessional is very unlike attorney-client privilege. In the case of an attorney, whenever he learns something about his client, that information immediately becomes protected information that is sealed against every weight of the law. The seal of the confessional applies to the confessional only; if a priest hears of a penitent’s crimes from another source, he cannot himself provide evidence “obtained” in confession, but can (and should) absolutely pass on the evidence of the second source. This is the second possible violation of the confessional seal: abusing it to hide crimes you have no business hiding. This is the difficulty of the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania priests–not that they were able to abuse the confessional (I’m sure some tried, but more than likely, none of the offenders really believe in confession anyway), but because even after receiving information from a secondary source (i.e., the victims), the crimes were covered up. This is not the fault of the confessional at all, but the fault of pride.

    Clericalism (perhaps more accurately “ecclesiolatry”) is the placement of sinful human persons above the Church and, by extension, above Christ. It is simply idolatry. It is denounced as early as 1 Corinthians 1:10-13. It is one of the sins of the Donatists (who argued that clergy must be sinless to be valid clergy and give valid sacraments). It is the sin of those calling for women’s ordination to the priesthood (supposing the priesthood grants certain powers and authorities to alter dogma or doctrine, which, as I wrote above, it does not). It is the sin of those insisting on obedience to the pope even when he defends the indefensible (coincidentally, it is the sin which Cardinal O’Malley opposed when he spoke against Pope Francis’ comments on abuse in Chile). Clericalism is the insistence that a priest or bishop is above reproach no matter what he does, and clericalism is at the heart of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church. It is the stupidity and cronyism of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment (“Never speak ill of a fellow Republican”) applied to the priesthood. It is the reduction of the Church of God to a personality cult.

    As a sidenote, I do want to point out that, while there are many verses where “ἅγιος” (saint, holy) is used to describe all the faithful, it isn’t used that way universally. It is distinguished from the general group of the faithful in Ephesians 2:19; 5:3-5; 1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Revelation 14:12; 18:20; and 19:8. This is fewer references than the other usage, of course, but this is the usage that ultimately won out as more common in the early Church (as is seen abundantly in the first letter of Clement of Rome, which is replete with examples of the “saints”, meaning the holy dead). This is the origin of the distinction between the “saints” (Christian faithful) and the “saints” (holy dead).

    I won’t get into doctrines on Mary (because I have written too long already). I agree that some of Pope Francis’ comments are… bothersome, I suppose is a fine word, but that’s been true since the beginning of his pontificate (and is even more true now than when you wrote this post).

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