The Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, needs to urgently clarify statements he made earlier this week after he appeared to agree with the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse in Institutions in Australia that priests be able to break the seal of the Confessional when individuals confess to having carried out sexual abuse.
“This is a [proposed] law seeking to protect children. You can’t ask for a higher moral cause,” he was reported as saying by the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 August. The TJHC, a body set up by Australia’s bishops, was similarly reported on Page One of The Australian of 15 August as opposing the nation’s senior bishops on the unbreakability of the Confessional seal. By the afternoon of 15 August, however, Mr Sullivan issued a statement saying the Council maintained that priests should not be forced by law to break that seal.
But the damage had been done. Reading the reports of Mr Sullivan’s initial comments it seems clear that his answer to the question as to whether the baptised faithful of the Church are entitled to the fullness of its faith and practice in key matters (such as the Sacrament of Reconciliation) would be in the negative – perhaps something along the lines of “the faithful should only receive Church teaching and practice as permitted to do so by some Church bureaucrats acting in conjunction with the State.”
If Mr Sullivan was reported accurately, and it appears he was, we have a real problem on our hands. But then so does he. The first problem is that the correct answer to the question outlined above is that the baptised are full and equal members of the Church together with anyone else within it and are fully entitled to the fullness of the Church’s faith, teaching and practice – especially in such fundamental and essential matters as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, whose inviolability has been sacrosanct since the beginning of the Church. Baptism confers rights.
The second problem is Mr Sullivan’s. Someone really needs to sit him down and explain Confession and its history to him because he appears to have an insufficient or incomplete grasp of its operation or, perhaps more importantly, the fact that its operation has always been understood as depending on its inviolability.
The problem raised by Mr Sullivan regarding the confessional is more than merely hypothetical. In May, The Catholic Weekly editorialised on the issue of the Brothers of Charity, a religious order in Belgium, who decades ago established a number of psychiatric hospitals for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. In a shock announcement in that month, the largely lay-run and controlled Board of Management running those institutions announced that it would commence offering euthanasia to patients within their system.
As pointed out in our 5 May editorial, the Belgian problem was fairly easily defined: “professionally competent but usually philosophically and morally naive and theologically simplistic lay boards left in control of Catholic institutions [who] will pursue whatever policies happen to be fashionable in their society – regardless of the faith or belief o f the Catholic Church and the religious bodies which established them.”
The Royal Commission is, of course, fully entitled to its view. Francis Sullivan’s initial backing of the Commission’s recommendations, however, appears to exemplify the wider problem: the rise of the Catholic bureaucrats who have significant power but limited comprehension of the faith of the Church they are supposed to represent, who then manoeuvre politically to achieve what they think are acceptable political and public relations outcomes. Such bureaucrats are susceptible to end up operating as theologically loose cannons unwittingly undermining or challenging the established faith and practice of the Church – as Mr Sullivan appeared to do. Of course, the idea of a Church whose faith is essentially regulated, defined and controlled by the state is nothing new. But it is an inversion of a Christianity for whom God always comes first. It seems a pity to have to point out something so basic: that from the beginning, Mr Sullivan should have realised this.