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Routine "general absolution" for minors?

April 28, 2010

Marjorie Campbell recently posted an interesting essay at InsideCatholic wherein she describes being asked by a priest in confession, many decades ago, about a girlish romp she and a sister had after bath time one evening. When the priest began asking questions about the escapade and her sister’s role in it, Campbell clammed up (rightfully, I think, on these facts) but was eventually absolved of whatever ‘sin’ her play time could have possibly amounted to. Even today, though, Campbell says she feels pangs of guilt for discussing what the priest asked her in confession, and blames the secrecy of the confessional for the discomfort she felt at his improper questions. Campbell’s is, as I said, an interesting essay, but the solution she proposes for the problem is not good.

Campbell recommends that “individual, integral confession” (c. 960) not be celebrated by children until they reach age 18. Instead, Campbell recommends that general absolution be routinely offered to Catholics under 18, whereupon, one surmises, they will be able to defend themselves from improper questioning in confession and so may begin taking the sacrament in the usual way.

This proposal, however, has a number of problems, including (1) avoiding dealing with the real problem Campbell apparently experienced, (namely, improper questioning by a confessor), and (2) punishing the innocent (by depriving children of the benefits of personal confession). Let’s see how.

First, I have within arm’s reach here at home a half-dozen books by experts in moral theology and canon law who expressly declaim against confessors questioning penitents about the identity or activities of third parties, and that’s without even going into my office. (Granted, I probably have more books on moral theology and canon law on my home book shelves than do most Catholics, but my point stands: some of the confessor’s inquiries here were undoubtedly wrongly placed.) But Campbell’s solution simply avoids the need to address the primary problem of bad sacramental practice.

Second, general absolution cannot offer the benefits to be gained by one’s engaging in a careful and balanced act of moral self-assessment, so Campbell’s solution essentially deprives young people, for many crucial years, of the experience of growing in self-knowledge and of developing a lively awareness of the mercy of God. Moreover, as Campbell notes, Canon 962 requires later individual confession by those receiving general absolution (precisely to avoid one’s conscience growing up untamed from the chronic lack of self-accusation), but Campbell thinks that later time should be upon turning 18 (at which point, what happens? a general confession of everything assumed in by general absolutions since age 7?) At a minimum, lest we countenance a massive disregard for the plain meaning of a canon, Campbell’s proposal would require Rome’s amending Canon 962 to apply only to adults, this, despite centuries of experience showing that regular confession works in real life for people of every age. Obviously, such a drastic amendment is not going to happen. And it shouldn’t.

If the faithful need renewed catechesis that the seal of confession binds only the priest, not the penitent, provide it. If priests need a refresher course on the parameters of sacramental practice, give it to them. If parents need to underscore with their children their freedom to talk about anything, anytime with them, underscore it. But don’t react to bad practice by clergy in confession by discouraging young Catholics from approaching a sacrament provided by Christ and his Church and vital to our growth as responsible sons and daughters of God. +++

PS: In the comboxes following Campbell’s essay, some folks float the idea of having parents sit in on the confession of their children, or of having “interpreters” in the confessional when children appear. Both of these ideas are terrible. The first proposal would have an obvious chilling effect the freedom of children in confession (see also CDF’s 2007 rejection of so-called “couples confession”), and the second idea would turn interpreters (persons with specific canonical duties) into quasi-chaperons (a role they would not be suited for). And both options would present insoluble conflicts with regard to the seal of and confidentiality attached to confession.

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