It’s time for Catholics (and all religious people) to wake up: The real danger posed by the California Confession Bill

It is impossible to doubt that religious liberty is indeed under grave threat, especially when we consider the slippery slope onto which SB 360 would invite us.

SB 360 [link], a piece of proposed legislation currently making its way through the California state senate, should alarm not only every Catholic in the country, but indeed the adepts of any religion.

In California, as in almost every other state, clergy members (along with a variety of other professionals, including physicians, social workers, teachers, and therapists) are mandated reporters—which is to say, they are legally required to report any case of suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement. However, California clergy who come by this knowledge in the context of “penitential communication” are currently exempted from the requirement.

SB 360 would remove the exemption. Sen. Jerry Hill, the bill’s sponsor, characterized the scope and purpose of his legislation as follows: “The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes—with no exceptions, period. The exemption for clergy only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.”

I would like to make clear what the passage of this law would mean for Catholic priests in California. Immediately, it would place them on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Since the canon law of the Church stipulates that the conscious violation of the seal of confession results in automatic excommunication, every priest, under this new law, would be threatened with prosecution and possible imprisonment on the one hand or formal exclusion from the body of Christ on the other. And does anyone doubt that, if this law is enacted, attempts will be made to entrap priests, effectively placing them in this impossible position?

What I hope is clear—not only to Catholics, but to any American committed to the First Amendment—is that we are dealing here with an egregious violation of the principle of religious liberty. In its stipulation that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, the first amendment holds off, if you will, the aggression of any religion toward the civil state. But in its further stipulation that Congress shall never legislate in such a way as to obviate the free exercise of religion, it blocks the state’s aggression toward religion. The framers of the Bill of Rights were legitimately alarmed at the prospect of the government meddling in the affairs of a religious community, monitoring its beliefs and policing its behavior. But such meddling and monitoring is precisely what SB 360 involves.

I realize that non-Catholics and nonbelievers might not appreciate how precious the sacrament of Confession is to Catholics and why the seal of Confession matters so profoundly. In my last year in the seminary, my classmates and I took a course in the theology and practice of the sacrament of Reconciliation (to give it its proper title). Our professor said something that has stayed with me for the thirty-three years of my priesthood, burned into my mind and soul. He told us, “If someone asks, ‘Father, would you hear my confession?’, the answer is always yes. Even if hearing that confession puts your own life in danger, the answer is always yes.”

And he went on, “If a person inquires about what was said during a confession, you should act as though the confession never even happened. And if doing so puts your own life in danger, you should still act as though the confession never happened.”

Why do we Catholics take this sacrament with such seriousness? We do so because we believe that through this sacramental encounter, a sinner accesses the healing and forgiving grace of Christ. In the context of Confession, the priest, we hold, is operating in the very person of Christ, and therefore, the penitent is speaking to and hearing from the Lord himself. Thus, absolutely nothing ought to stand in the way of a sinner who seeks this font of grace. In light of these clarifications, one can understand the indispensable importance of the seal. If a penitent thought that the priest to whom he confessed were likely to share with others what was given in the most sacred confidence, he or she would be reluctant indeed ever to approach the sacrament of Reconciliation. And this is why the Church has striven so strenuously to protect, at all costs, the integrity of Confession.

And through the entire course of our country’s history, the government has protected the right of the Catholic Church to determine its own sacramental practice and has never sought to compel the violation of the seal. Given this venerable tradition, grounded in the second clause of the First Amendment, an extraordinary burden of proof, it seems to me, lies with those who would seek to dispense with the exemption. But what is impossible to doubt is that religious liberty is indeed under grave threat, especially when we consider the slippery slope onto which SB 360 would invite us. Surely murder, theft, spousal abuse, child neglect, and rape are terrible crimes. Would the state determine that priests are obligated to report these offenses to the authorities, should they hear of them in the confessional?

For some time now, the public institutions of the Church have been under attack from the secular state. The government has been seeking to determine what is taught and practiced in Catholic schools and what is carried out in Catholic hospitals, even when these practices run counter to the Church’s formal doctrine. But with SB 360, the secular authorities are reaching into the inner life of the Church, into its sacramental practice and discipline. Catholics should, of course, rise up in strenuous protest against this very aggressive incursion—but so should anyone who cares about the freedom of religion in our society.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 159 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

33 Comments

  1. God bless you, Bishop Barron. Your thoughts on SB 360 are exactly correct! What ELSE will the Church have to go through? The very idea of the government tampering with the seal of confession hurts me down to my very soul! Catholics and all people of good will must speak up! Silence is not an option when truth is compromised. Thank you, Bishop Barron for all you do!

    • The proposed California law (revised) to ‘all inclusive’ is indeed reason for the Catholic faithful to be aghast. Indelible confidentiality by the priest hearing confessions is a distinguishing and indispensable characteristic within Roman Catholicism. The physical presence of the Christ, at Holy Mass, is absolutely and preeminently the keystone to the salvation of humankind. The Church, founded by the Christ, cannot and will not. To contemplate otherwise would be a travesty of grotesque magnitude.
      submit to any prescribed usage that would alter the Masters ordinances.

  2. Quite a far cry from the Hollywood, California that once produced the movie “I Confess,” showing a priest heroically keeping the seal of the confessional sacred even though it endangers his own life.

    If Jerry Hill is going to play this disgusting little game, then the solution is to remove clergymen from the list of mandatory reporters.

  3. Excellent piece – straightforward, cogent, logical. In a word, reasonable. The question, however, is whether reasonable arguments such as this one can even be understood, let alone heeded, by decidedly un-reasonable (and unscrupulous) secularist politicians and judges for whom revealed religion is, at best, a sop for unsophisticated rubes and, at worst, a stumbling block on their path to power – in other words, those in charge of late stage American “democracy”.

  4. What is not apparent to most is that the Church is not seen as victim. Were it, then its standing and sacraments might be respected. The Church, through grievous fault of its own, is seen as victimizer. As hollow men, playing it cool will be futile. It will take great tribulation and persecution to turn matters around, and only after reducing its presence to a whimper. It will take an Act of God with either the building up of true Saints, or, the coming of the end of time.

  5. There is not an iota of what Bishop Barron has put forward that can be disputed. He does, however, while highlighting the fact that “…the public institutions of the Church have been under attack from the secular state,” neglect to raise his voice adamantly regarding the attacks on the perennial Magisterium from within the Church, from within the episcopate. His is a very public profile, but he remains mute in the face of a form of sacrilege which has gone virulent.
    I’m not worried as much about California as I am about the Vatican. The gross betrayal of Chinese Catholics by the “New Paradigm” is merely symptomatic of a more subtle decades long betrayal of the faithful which is now reached crisis proportion in the West.

  6. Dear Bishop Barron,
    Your statement, “the first amendment holds off, if you will, the aggression of any religion toward the civil state.” is incorrect from my reading of the Constitution. No where does the Constitution say religious thought can not be involved in political matters and try to influence legislation based on these doctrines. The Constitution forbids the State from promulgating one religion/denomination over another. That is why the school district in Washington advising their teachers to make a big deal about Ramadan while forbidding them to talk about God or Christianity is unconstitutional. Please be more careful with your words because when you use the false narrative of the ACLU you strengthen their position, which is why they are so bold as trying to pass this unconstitutional legislation,
    God bless,
    tom

  7. May 16th: No Priest can be ‘forced’ to violate the seal of confession. They can and must refuse no matter the penalty imposed. Worse happened to St Thomas More and St. John Fisher and other martyrs. The Church needs courageous and unwavering witnesses to the faith. There have been enough Bishops and Priests who have betrayed Christ and His Church and His people of late…now it’s time for martyrs and saints.

  8. If the Church had stood up to the Democratic liberals a long time ago, would we be in this situation now? But no, couldn’t do that. And what about all these Hispanic Catholics who make up a significant faction of that party in California? What is the Church saying to them about their political affiliations?

    • This law will end up at the US Supreme Court. Hopefully, the “Supremes” till toss it out as a violation of freedom of religion. California is out of control right now because there is no balance to the Democratic Party in this state. No major state politician is Republican or Independent. It’s a nanny state where Sacramento is trying to control every aspect of our lives, like eliminating local city or county control of anything that displeases the Democratic Party.

  9. How would prosecutors would ever prove a violation anyway, short of setting up wiretaps in confessionals? Info about any particular confession would have to come from either the priest or penitent, and if the penitent claimed he told the priest he was a child molester, it would still just be an unverifiable claim (unless he had secretly recorded the confession as well).

    • Another point is that we need to restore “the box.” Anonymity needs to be restored, the therapeutic model abandoned.
      Confession by type and number.

  10. Hello dear Bishop Robert

    Let Saint Edmund Campion’s words inspire and direct all Catholic Priests, under duress from the State…

    “I am a Catholic man and a priest. In that faith have I lived and in that faith do I intend to die, and if you esteem my religion treason, then I am guilty. As for any other treason, I never committed. I stand condemned for nothing but the saying of Mass, hearing confessions, preaching and such like duties and functions of priesthood.” (St. Edmund Campion, Martyr; Response, delivered at his execution, to charges of treason; 1581)

    God bless, Chris

    Christopher Keeble. DSO MSc FCMI
    Supernumerary Fellow,
    Harris Manchester College,
    University of Oxford. United Kingdom

  11. If the Church exhorts Catholics to use the political freedom they still possess to defeat this legislation, or to use their political freedom to repeal it if it becomes law, wouldn’t this exhortation endanger its tax exempt status? That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

    If the Church, for the sake of its tax exempt status and federal funding, can’t bring itself to tell Catholics that it is simply a mortal sin to vote for the 2020 Democrat presidential candidate, due to the fact that whoever it is will, no doubt, ferociously defend and promote the “legal” murder of babies by the millions, how can it now exhort Catholics to use their political freedom to defeat or to overturn this legislation? Doing that can’t be more important than the Church’s tax exempt status, right?

    End sarcasm.

    Where did Christ teach that the preservation of the Church’s tax exempt status was its highest priority?

  12. “Aggression of any religion toward the secular state” likely references the Church of England’s usurpation of the civil authority by imposition. Otherwise all religions under the Constitution possess the inherent right of freedom granted in the same. That includes the right that Bishop Barron urges Catholics to express. That was shown in the fight against State imposition upon Catholic belief under the Obama administration reversed by the Trump administration. Furthermore Bishop Barron commends we proactively express our rights most important at this time of the evil of abortion ‘rights’ reaching beyond prenatal life. We have the right and absolute obligation to vote against and speak against this egregious assault on human life.

  13. I for one would love to hear what Nancy Pelosi has to say about this.

    And then let’s hear from other prominent ‘catholic’ (small c) politicians – Joe Biden, Susan Collins, John Kerry, ad infinitum.
    The clock is ticking and the time is getting close when an answer will be demanded from each of them. Let’s pray that each of them receives the gift of contrition for their sins of this magnitude.

  14. I agree with Dennis, the information given the priest would be unverifiable hearsay wouldn’t it? That being said, what value would it have to the state?
    To pursue a bill to get valueless information is not worth the damage to the religious institution unless the aim is persecution of the institution.

  15. Any priest should be willing to be tortured or put to death before he would ever say anything about what was said in Confession.

  16. I don’t think sexual predators go to confession anyway. And even if they did, would they actually tell the whole truth of their crimes to the priest?

  17. I agree wholly with Bishop Barron’s concerns but I also wonder how real the problem is likely to be in practice.
    Surely a visit to confession is an anonymous event. The priest does not know or need to know the identity of the penitent. I assume this is true of most confessions.
    A confession can be made in general terms. It need not contain dates, times, places and identity of the penitent and the victim. This is because it is essentially a spiritual encounter – it is not like a legal deposition of facts useful to police or prosecution to prove specific crimes and I assume that the priest need know only enough to establish the moral state of the penitent.
    It is not clear how evidence of the content of a confession would come to the attention of the authorities. Suppose the penitent confessed to a priest and later to the police, indicating that he had confessed to a priest earlier, why would they need the evidence of the priest? Perhaps this could happen if he later withdrew his confession to the police, who might then think of approaching the priest. But if it is correct that confessions are for spiritual reasons and are likely to lack details essential for the civil legal authorities, it is not easy to see why the police would want to try such an approach. I am not a priest but have heard that they forget the content of confessions. Thank God!
    I agree that the new law is in principle a serious problem but in practice, it may not place a priest in a difficult position except perhaps in rare cases.

    • Bishop Barron pointed out that that there would probably be attempts to entrap priest. In this case the confession would be made in such a way that were it not spoken of in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it would require reporting as a mandatory reporter. I would hope such a law if passed would be declared unconstitutional by the US courts. However, most countries do not have the level of constitutional support for freedom of religion / speech that the US does. Catholicism is world wide, and it is only a matter of time before such laws are passed in other countries. I am already hearing of Catholic hospitals in other countries – countries normally considered free like Canada, facing laws forcing them to comply with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia.

  18. If this atrocity of a bill is actually passed, then it will be only a matter of time until a Priest refuses to divulge something told him in the confessional, and then – will we see a Priest in handcuffs escorted into a prison? Will MSNBC cover it? Will CNN cover it?

    Perhaps even more important – will that courageous Priest’s Bishop defend him?

    We are getting closer and closer to “Which side are you on?” territory, where there will be no more wiggle room.

  19. How would anyone know what has been confessed to a priest? Unlike secular mental health professionals, priests don’t keep records of who enters their confessional; they don’t keep legal client notes, etc. So who would know with certainty that someone had confessed to a priest and what they had confessed. In large urban Churches the priest often would not know the identity of the confessor. The law holds little power, unless it comes with mandatory surveillance cameras at every confessional. As for the priests, hopefully, they would realize that their loyalty is to God, not Cæsar.

  20. Bishop Baron,
    You know, of course, that the USCCB position all but one issue is insignificantly different from the same positions held Democrat National Committee. You love the DNC and they tolerate you because you seek their favor and bring votes.
    California is a thoroughly corrupted one-party democrat controlled state and this same Democrat Party holds the Church in complete contempt. But you know this, Bishop. It does not bother you.
    So the feigned surprise that California seeks the destruction of the confessional seal is a bit rich. And a bit late.
    2019 is the year of RICO, dear bishop. Bet on it. You brought it upon yourself.

  21. We Catholics are certainly unique when it comes to sealing a confession. We cry out for protection of the First Amendment laws, yet we thwart the civil law when a mass murderer admits his awful guilt only to be free to murder again. There should be exceptions.

    • No, Morgan, there shouldn’t. No exceptions at all.

      Anybody who thinks so is suffering from chronological arrogance. “Oh, things are just soooooo different and sooooooo terrible now, compared to all other times in history, that we need to change things because now is so very very very special.”

      National Catholic Register had a good article about the matter: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/fatherlandry/your-priest-is-ready-to-die-for-you-to-protect-the-seal-of-confession

      And of course there is the Summa: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/5011.htm

      And you know, unless you are incurably gullible, that this would be the thin end of the wedge. The excuse now is “it’s about protecting children!” but it would soon turn into “they should have to report *any* crime that is confessed!”

      If ever I am accused of a crime and the only way to clear me is for a priest to tell what the actual criminal told him in Confession, I’d rather go to jail. If I am the victim of a crime and somebody tries to bring in evidence from Confession to help convice the criminal, I’d rather that he go free than that the priest should break the seal of Confession. I assume that every faithful Catholic feels the same way.

  22. See Bishop Barron’s of discussion at https://youtu.be/2ZszaJ-DSHc my question is and it’s done in all humility how can you speak to that person as you did and joke with them regarding gay marriage and then talk about what you’re talkin about now and you are worried about consequences

  23. It would seem that a simple study could be conducted of exactly how many counselors and others who are currently subject to the law of reporting child sexual abuse ever actually do. We all know Planned Parenthood do not. Is Planned Parenthood except by law? If not, why is there no enforcement of the laws to report against Planned Parenthood?
    All one would have to do is check with the files the police have and Child Protective Services have to know how many non-clerics are currently reporting child sexual abuse before expanding the law to now include breaking the Seal of the Confessional. I am certain the police and Child Protective Service could easily tell you who reports and who does not. That information could be quite enlightening.

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