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Apparently we have to ask: how do bishops lose faculties for confession?

November 14, 2012

Just so we’re clear, the seal of confession is absolutely inviolable (Canon 983 § 1) and any confessor who violates the seal is liable to excommunication (Canon 1388 § 1).

Retired Sydney auxiliary bishop Geoffrey Robinson, discussing some fact patterns that might—or might not—have fallen within the seal of confession, apparently obviated the need to consider what is actually covered by the seal by simply declaring “I would be prepared to break the seal of [the] confessional because you have to weigh up the greatest good, and here the greatest good is surely the protection of innocent people.” Assuming Robinson meant what he said, his remarks occasion a new and urgent question for Church law: how does one revoke the faculties of a bishop to hear confession?

Faculties for confession are required for validity (Canon 966 § 1). Even bishops need, but have by law (Canon 967 § 1), this faculty. Granting that no canon expressly covers the revocation of a bishop’s faculties for confession (the Code cannot anticipate every eventuality that might confront the Church in our bizarre times), ecclesiastical authority can, I suggest, respond coherently and effectively to utterances such as Robinson’s.

The pope has the authority (Canons 331, 1405 § 1, n. 3) to enjoin Robinson’s compliance with ecclesiastical (and indeed, divine) law (Canon 49), under pain of penalty (Canons 1319, 1339), in regard to confessions he has already heard. As the Legislator of the Code under which Robinson enjoys faculties for confession, the pope also has the authority (Canon 331) to revoke Robinson’s faculties and has, I believe, obvious cause to consider doing so (Canon 974 § 1).

While only the pope can take the above actions in regard to Robinson, other diocesan bishops can act to protect the faithful in their dioceses from approaching any cleric who has declared his willingness to violate the seal of confession by notifying Robinson, and the faithful, that Robinson does not have permission to celebrate the sacrament in their territory (Canon 967 § 1). Such a declaration does not go to the validity of any future confessions heard by Robinson, but it would tend to limit the harm caused by his startling readiness to violate fundamental law.

Finally, besides urging Robinson to reaffirm publicly his acceptance of the obligation to honor the sacramental seal because it’s the right thing to do, let me suggest that his comments, if left unretracted and unchallenged by higher authority, could, I fear, be construed as a waiver by Robinson of his civil rights to resist compelled testimony in any number of actions (not just those of his choosing); his words might even be used to attack the rights of other ecclesiastics to guard the confidences of those who come to them for spiritual advice and assistance.

In short, there is, I suggest, too much at stake to let Robinson’s words stand as the last ones in this matter.

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