Thursday, April 22, 2010

Seal of Confession Still Enforced

The Lutheran tradition stands opposed to the breaking of the seal of Confession. That is to say, the priest is duty bound never to divulge anything confessed to him. Tragically, this is a dead tradition in many sectors of modern Lutheranism.

This is manifest in several ways. One is that the absolute seal of Confession isn't even taught by some seminary professors. Some, in fact, teach future pastors to break the seal of Confession. Another sign, or manifestation, is that the breaking of the Confessional seal is happening, and at an alarming rate; at least it is becoming more known. Almost everyone knows now that you simply don't go to any pastor, and confess any sin. In this regard, it is a sad, sad time for the spirituality of our people as a whole. A third, and crucial sign of how bad things are in terms of the vitality of this sacrament is that when the seal is broken, there is only a negative consequence for the one making the confession, never for the one hearing the confession.

If there has been a case in recent decades of real action being taken against a Missouri Synod pastor for breaking the seal of Confession, then it apparently takes an expert in LCMS history to ascertain such information. To borrow from the Psalmist, such knowledge is too lofty to be given out to just anyone, like me. It shouldn't be that way. I didn't realize at my Confirmation that I was signing up to be part of a church that sees itself as a secret society. For all the famous secrecy of the Roman Catholic Church, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had no problem getting information about the present and past cases of priests being investigated for breaking the seal of Confession.

See, for example, this article on the suspension of Father David Verhasselt, pastor at Saint Catherine of Alexandria parish out in Oconomowoc, a far west suburb. Archbishop Listecki has placed Fr. Verhasselt on suspension, as the matter is investigated. The case could potentially conclude in a diocesan or Vatican trial, and excommunication.

My own response to this story, then, is that while the breaking of the seal of Confession is a grave violation of a pastor's sacred office, this is an encouraging story. For it shows that the seal of Confession is still enforced in the modern world. We do not know for sure what happened in this case. Therefore, I have no comment on Fr. Verhasselt in particular. That is for the proper ecclesial authorities to determine. I do see this also as an opportunity for Lutherans to reevaluate the place of Confession in our own churches. Are we doing all we can to defend and protect the seal of Confession? Of course, to be sure, the answer is No, at least when it comes to our Church as a whole, including the teaching at our seminaries. Let's also face the fact that many today, perhaps some reading this blog, are unconvinced of the need for the absolute seal of Confessional confidentiality. I must leave a defence of the seal to another time, but let me just state at this point that when the seal is defended and protected, the Gospel itself, and thus the people, are protected.


Father Hollywood said...

Dear Deacon:

I suspect there are no cases in recent memory of LCMS pastors being defrocked and/or excommunicated for violating the seal of confession because confessions are so rarely heard in our churches by our pastors.

In our Augsburg Confession (Article XI) we confess: "private absolution should be retained and not allowed to fall into disuse." To our shame, it has fallen into disuse.

Only speaking anecdotally, I have to say that every pastor I know (not that I know all that many) who actually do hear confessions privately are vehement that "never" means "never" - that the seal is absolutely absolute - with no exceptions.

The only wishy-washiness about the issue that I have heard has come from men who were not parish pastors or men who do not actually advocate the hearing of confessions.

So, the fact that we have not really heard of any pastors being defrocked for violating the seal isn't necessarily good news; I think it simply points to the "disuse" that was condemned by Article XI having become a reality among us.

Kyrie eleison!

Deacon Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Good points, Father.

I do know of a small handful of cases of parish pastors, who have divulged what they heard. One was a vicarage pastor, who yapped what he heard from his seminarian vicar. The only consequence was that the vicar failed his vicarage.

Let me be clear, though, that just as you say, there are indeed many, or at least several good pastors that I know of, who know that their ear is a closed tomb. And I praise God for them.

One of the practices that I myself feel quite uneasy about, I must say, is when pastors preach on the value of holy absolution and, while meaning well, end up saying a little too much in the pulpit about their past experiences with penitents.