Field Notes Society

Why challenge the practice of mandatory confession

Getty Images/iStockphoto  

There are seven sacraments — rites of devotion — that are considered holy and a channel for god’s blessings by Catholic and Orthodox Christians across the world. These sacraments — baptism, eucharist (holy communion), confirmation, reconciliation (confession), anointing of the sick, marriage and ordination — lay the very foundation for the church and its believers.

Over time, the Church has contended with several crises of faith — sexual abuse charges against its clergymen being the most recent, and perhaps the one with the most ramifications.

Recently, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Centre and the Kerala government and 11 Malankara Syrian Church bodies on a petition filed by three members of the church, challenging the practice of mandatory sacramental confession. The petitioners alleged that the sacrament had been misused for blackmailing and even sexual harassment of women parishioners.

The provocation for the complaint came after five priests of the Malankara Orthodox Church were disrobed and arrested in 2018 for sexually abusing a woman after threatening to break the seal of confession. Her husband alleged that she was abused by the five priests for years. The woman was pressurised into sexual relations with the priests after she ritually confessed about having a premarital affair.

Catholic and Orthodox Christians are mandated to undergo confession at least once a year before a priest to foster their faith. According to the canon, which lays guidelines for church governance: “The sacramental seal is inviolable. Therefore, it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” If a priest breaks this law, he is liable to excommunication.

Following the case, many such confession-related blackmail allegations emerged. In one such case, a woman reportedly committed suicide after a priest leaked her confession to another person. “At a time when many clergymen are facing allegations of sexual harassment, confession before a priest is a risky affair,” says Indulekha Joseph, lawyer and member of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement (KCRM). She says nuns should be allowed to perform sacramental confession for women.

“We recently approached Cardinal Mar George Alenchery with our demand to give permission for nuns to perform confession. But he said only ordained clergy have the power to perform Confession and they are specially trained for it. Nuns are not ordained, so they lack the power.”

According to Indulekha, after the Malankara Orthodox Church blackmail case, many women church-goers came forward with their experiences of exploitation of various degrees. But nobody was ready to go public.

Violation of privacy

The petition in the Supreme Court says that under the pretext of rules and customs, believers are forced to undergo ‘mandatory confession’, failing which they are denied church services. They allege that compulsory confession is in violation of their fundamental right to privacy and human dignity.

Jacob Kurian Onattu, member of the Working Committee of the Orthodox Church and retired principal of Baselius College, Kottayam, argues that the practice of confession is not compulsory. “You need to undergo confession only if you want voting rights in parish bodies. According to our belief, confession is done to god, not to the priests. The role of the confessor priest is only to guide the believer. I personally don’t believe in doing away with the practice because of a few errant priests.”

There is also the option of confessing before a priest of one’s choice, says Onattu. “If you are not comfortable with a particular priest, you can choose any other priest in any monastery or seminary, and produce a letter to that effect to exercise your voting rights.”

Compulsory or not, what’s undeniable is the need for change. Parishioners say the Church must move with the times. “It is unfortunate that such incidents have been reported in the Orthodox Church too. The church must be cautious and adapt to the changed times. If needed, reformation should be brought in the training practices of clergymen,” says Abraham Cherian, a practising lawyer in the Kerala High Court and a member of the Orthodox Church.

Time for a change

Though some clergymen admit in private that it is indeed time for a change, most Church authorities are vehemently against any change and say it is an internal religious matter.

In 2018, the National Commission for Women had called for the abolition of the practice of confession, a move that was strongly opposed by the Church. “It’s a matter of faith and it’s illogical to ban the sacramental confession in the name of misuse of it by a few priests,” the Church said.

“The Church will go to any extent to protect the sacraments as they are the magical formula to control the laity. And according to the very patriarchal church law, only ordained clergy have the power to perform confession,” says Sr. Jesme, a former nun with the Congregation of Mother of Carmel, whose book Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun spoke about gender inequality in the Church and stirred up a hornet’s nest.

There have also been instances of children being subjected to inappropriate questioning during confession. Sr. Jesme recalled an incident when a child complained that a priest had asked her during confession if she touched her private body parts.

One can argue whether or not sins are pardoned after confession before a priest, but when it becomes a matter of belief, most devotees religiously follow it, says George Pulikuthiyil, a former Catholic priest, lawyer and founder of the Thrissur-based Jananeethi, an organisation that provides free legal service to the poor. “Once you become part of a religion, you need to follow its rules,” he points out.

The seal of secrecy has come in conflict with the law of the land many times. In 2019, a legislation was passed in the Australian state of Victoria, asking priests to violate the sacrament and inform the authorities if anything in the confession pointed to child abuse.

Meanwhile, a few women from the Jacobite faction of the Malankara Syrian Church have also approached the SC to demand their right to confess before a priest of their choice.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 12:09:07 AM |

Next Story