See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. - James 5:7

Monday, November 23, 2009

Confidentiality in spiritual direction.



The seal of the confessional.
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As Catholics we know that the priest is bound by strict law to keep secret anything a penitent confesses in sacramental confession.  Even if a penitent were to bring up a sin he had confessed outside the sacrament, the priest would have to ask the penitent to repeat the matter or ask permission to discuss it with him.  One confessor I had refused to ever discuss matters of (my) confession outside the sacrament - ever.
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Catholics ought to know that if they accidentally overhear a confession, they are bound by the same law of secrecy as the priest. (Code of Canon Law, No. 983.2)
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Recently, there have been blog posts concerning violations of the seal - primarily the situation where a confession was been taped in order to acquire evidence against a prisoner,  I believe similar stories have emerged in cases of espionage in former Communist countries.  Elsewhere, especially on blogs I have read things such as, "My confessor said this or that wasn't a sin," or "You should do this or that," and "I've been guilty of that myself," and worse, "I'm gay too," or "I cheated too."  (Which just might explain why some priests have been posthumously accused of being gay.)
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Bishop Tobin and Patrick Kennedy.
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Today it has come to light that Bishop Tobin is disappointed that Representative Kennedy disclosed that he was asked to refrain from receiving Holy Communion - the story of the so-called Communion ban broke last week, fomenting a great deal of inappropriate discussion on the theological priestly blog circuit.   Bishop Tobin stated:
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“I am disappointed that the Congressman would make public my pastoral and confidential request of nearly three years ago that sought to provide solely for his spiritual well-being,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin in a strongly worded statement. “I have no desire to continue the discussion of Congressman Kennedy’s spiritual life in public.” - Source
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This incident brings up a very important point - respecting the confidentiality of spiritual direction.  As in the case of sacramental confession, it can be argued there is serious responsibity on the part of the penitent to respect limitations of confidentiality as well.  In that sense it is a two way street. 
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All spiritual direction is for the good of the person's soul - as the Bishop pointed out, "For his spiritual well-being".  Hence if it is negative or disciplinary in nature it is to bring forth a greater good. 
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Matters of conscience are private.
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Nevertheless, one piece of advice may not necessarily fit all - especially when it was meant just for you.  Spiritual direction, and sacramental counseling are matters of conscience and ought not to be disclosed to others, except perhaps for greater clarification and instruction - with the priest's permission, and/or in the context of stricter confidentiality.  Think Teresa of Avila who had several directors and confessors examining her spirit.  Few of us will ever have to worry about such things - if only we could!
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So here is the deal - keep your mouth shut about what your confessor says to you - I've been guilty of discussing such things in the past as well - don't do it - the privy counsel was for you - no one else.  Don't flit around the Internet or coffee and donuts Sundays,  bragging about what your spiritual director told you about how far you made it on the ladder of perfection, or how often he suggested this or that for you.  It's just for you - no one else.  (And good for you that you have a spiritual director - no one needs to know that.)
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If you are a priest or a theologian, or an Internet know it all - I don't know if I'd step in on someone else's turf to discuss the spiritual direction of a soul in their charge - public figure or not.  Especially as in the case of Patrick Kennedy - don't tear into someone when they are down - don't interfere with the process - and maybe resist the temptation to flaunt your brilliance with line by line commentary.  (I also think posting a poll on the matter of Kennedy vs. Tobin on your blog is particularly disgusting.  You will never be made a bishop, and may be lucky if you even get one to assign you to anything.) 
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That said, I'm confident Bishop Tobin is perfectly capable to defend himself:
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“At the same time, I will absolutely respond publicly and strongly whenever he attacks the Catholic Church, misrepresents the teachings of the Church or issues inaccurate statements about my pastoral ministry.” - Bishop Tobin
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Note:  I'm quite sure the penitent does not sin if he reveals counsel or advice he hears in confession.  Disclosing a personal revelation a priest may make for the sake of empathy with the penitent must remain confidential to avoid the sin of detraction.  If a priest (or anyone) has more to offer on this, or to correct what I've said - please step in.  Thanks.
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Photo:  Montgomery Clift in "I Confess".

15 comments:

  1. I am fond of the way it was blogged about here:

    http://gkupsidedown.blogspot.com/2009/11/from-salt-of-earth.html

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  2. "You will never be made a bishop, and may be lucky if you even get one to assign you to anything.)"

    I have wondered the same thing, essentially: what does the priest do all day? Well, I mean, I know what he does, but what kind of arrangement is that?

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  3. Aceman12:48 PM

    So I am confused here, he asked PK to refrain from communicating? That's excommunication. Is he excommunicated or not? Last I knew, you don't ask them, you just do it. I thought that when someone is excommunicated it is very public.

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  4. Aceman: You are correct in that there are some actions that are automatic excommunications (and aiding/providing/supporting direct abortion is one of them)
    However,I believe there is a difference between a bishop privately asking someone who publicly opposes the teachings of the Faith in a serious issue like abortion (as in the case of a politician) to refrain from receiving Holy Communion on their own (because they are not properly disposed)which is in the internal forum and placing an official interdict or excommunication which is from the bishop which deprives them in the external forum. Asking someone to refrain on their own is the first step; if they continue (I believe "obstinate refusal in their sin" or something to that effect) then other penalties may be given.
    I'm no canonist, but I think, without referring to my canon law, that this is the procedure.
    Archbishop Burke did a similar thing with several lawmakers in the Diocese of La Crosse several years ago; they went public (he wrote them a private and confidential letter) and this was a big controversy here.

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  5. Aceman6:43 PM

    I dunno--this seems kinda like semi-boneless ham to me. Either it's got a bone or it don't.

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  6. Patrick - I have no idea what his arrangements or responsibilities are.

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  7. Hi, Terry.

    Saw this earlier today but wasn't able to respond, and I've been thinking also about what you said.

    A few times on my own blog I've referred to confessional experiences, and some advice from my SD, although I think I made it clear that it was for ME and it was stuff that COULD be publicly shared. Maybe because it had been already or alluded to it.

    As far as the penitent...we are under no obligation to keep our sins to ourselves. We are not bound, from THAT perspective, to remain confidential, for the Seal is to protect US! But it's like the 5th Amendment...we can incriminate ourselves as we wish. Is it prudent? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

    Consider St. Augustine as a model in that aspect. He didn't hide the life he lived, but he wasn't graphic either.

    As far as the ADVICE received from the priest goes...RIGHT ON! I've heard tales of priests giving BAD advice, I've been told some sins AREN'T mortally sinful, even though other sources say they are (and it WAS admittedly a squishy area that could go either way and would require spiritual direction to sort out, more than a single Confession could do).

    Like you, I've seen "advice" that might have applied to a particular person in their individual circumstances being applied to others who were maybe committing a similar sin but NOT in the same circumstances...this just leads to confusion and relativism. And the idea of "precedent": Well, X person was told this for X sin, why wasn't I told the same thing?" Well maybe because that person is married and you are single?

    Canonically, there's nothing prohibiting a penitent from revealing to others what they confessed or what the priest said.

    But I agree that it should be held in confidence, but subject to prudence.

    Sometimes it IS prudent to reveal certain things, or to speak generally.

    The key comes to purity of intention: WHY reveal it? For attention? For personal vainglory? To caution others? To give testimony to God for the authenticity of the action of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament?

    I have personally revealed advice given in the Sacrament, but nothing that applied to a specific case. Rather, to general things supported by general theology.

    If I DID speak of something regarding a specific case, it did not reveal the sin directly, but had a wider application. I think this belongs to discretion and prudence, although I honestly can't claim whether I was in possession of either virtue. I cringe to think I have said things I should not have, and in fact...yeah...I have. Don't use me as an example of the right thing to do.

    We can often take things meant for us and apply them to a wider audience, but it requires a certain amount of care in sticking with the PRINCIPLES that are the foundation of the advice.

    I would say it's aways prudent to say nothing at all and just give thanks to God for His Mercy.

    I would say it is sometimes prudent to share certain things, but after discernment and with great care.

    So...there I have made the muddy waters even muddier.

    Twalk amongst yourselves. I'm having a moment....

    Let me give you a twopic...Terry's post and Adoro's reality....DISCUSS!,

    ;-)

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  8. Austringer11:50 PM

    Adoro,

    I think your observations are right on -- I'm not speaking here of the canonical aspect (you are far more educated than I in this realm and so I bow to your greater knowledge), but rather your observations about the prudent discussion of what has taken place in the confessional or in spiritual direction. I can think of a particular pithy observation that a great Jesuit priest (yes, there are bright lights still in that order), Fr. David Meconi, gave me in the confessional -- I have mentioned this item to a few others because I thought it was, in a general sense, so applicable to people I know who have struggled with the same sort of theological struggle that I was facing at the time. Prudent? Well, no doubt the most prudent thing is to keep these things private -- that is hard to argue against. Of course I would like to think that the general observation I passed on was helpful to the persons I mentioned this to, but hey, maybe I'm just rationalizing....
    I have come to realize lately just how easy it is to slip into a "let's talk about me" mode under the guise of a discussion of the spiritual life. It is a danger...I have found that the Prayer for Humility is a good corrective.
    Thanks for the conversation, Adoro -- you're the best.

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  9. Adoro - you are the best as Austringer says - and thanks for adding to this - I really do appreciate it!

    "You complete me!"

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  10. michael r.7:01 AM

    Great comments by Adoro. Austringer, I agree, except that perhaps you should not identify the actual confessor.

    Terry, this is bad:

    "I also think posting a poll on the matter of Kennedy vs. Tobin on your blog is particularly disgusting. You will never be made a bishop, and may be lucky if you even get one to assign you to anything."

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  11. Michael - I'm grateful Adoro added that - she thinks these issues through whereas I tend to just write what's on my mind at the moment. Discretion and pridence are key. Adoro is very good.

    I did not intend to be mean-spirited regarding the priest not being made a bishop or getting an assignment - just stating a fact. He can still be a good priest.

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  12. Austringer12:47 PM

    Hey, Terry, I forgot to ask: What movie (I'm assuming it's a movie still)did you get that great photo of the priest in the confessional from?

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  13. oops - forgot to note that - it is Montgomery Clift in "I Confess" - terrific film.

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  14. Aceman: The saga continues...just wait and see what happens.
    It is the practice of the Church to admonish public sinners privately first and if they are adamant and obstinate, well, things progress.
    I don't think Bishop Tobin is gonna let this one go.
    From the reports in the media (and I believe they are reliable from the sources I have heard) this whole thing goes back to 2004...
    P. Kennedy made an issue of this to bash the bishops' involvement with the health-care bill and now that it is public knowledge, there may be some interesting results. Stay tuned.

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  15. Awww...Terry you know I love you and as I have a gourmet taste for my own feet, I'm always happy to sample them on your blog as well as I do my own!

    ;-)

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