Confession behind the Screen

The recent legal moves against the seal of confession in California — see Bishop Barron’s commentary here — are a good argument for only having anonymous (behind the screen) confessions. So a brother priest tweetedand I heartily agree. No priest is ever permitted to violate the seal of confession; the state can coerce as much as it wants, but the priest remains bound by the seal, even if he must die for that. St. John Nepomuk is one saint who died for the seal. May he pray for us! In any case, the anonymity of confession adds a further level of protection for both priest and penitent.

I have always preferred to go “behind the screen” myself. I realize many people like the face-to-face option. The Church allows that option, but requires that confessionals ordinarily have fixed grates (Code of Canon Law, canon 964 § 2), and even prefers that confessions not be heard outside of a normal confessional without a “just cause” (canon 964 § 3). How many churches have confessionals that are not in accord with the Church’s law! Bishops should do something about that…

(Incidentally, the “just cause” mentioned in canon 964 § 3 is a rather low bar, so I don’t mean to imply by it that many priests, myself included sometimes, are “doing it wrong” — I’m just highlighting that ordinarily, confession should take place in a confessional.)

Indeed, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, back in 1998, put out an “authentic interpretation” (binding interpretation of the law) on canon 964, specifying further that the priest-confessor always has the right to insist on confession behind the screen. A priest may choose to avail himself of this right for any number of prudential reasons. The above, concerning the greater protection of the seal of confession, is one of them. There are several others.

One other prudential reason I will mention here is the very current concern about youth protection. For this reason, most churches by now have windows on their confessionals, which hopefully do not allow sound out but do allow a certain level of transparency that would help to deter anyone who might have bad intentions from doing something inappropriate. Only having the option of a fixed screen that cannot be navigated around is another way to add greater protection for both youth/vulnerable persons and clergy.

(An aside: where there are windows, care needs to be taken that lip-reading by those outside cannot easily take place. Traditionally, a priest would put his hand sort of over his mouth while he spoke in confession, if his face could be seen by anyone outside.)

Some will object that they cannot kneel behind a screen; I get that. But chairs or benches can also be set up. Some will remember the bad old days when confessionals were dark and suppose that that is what we are going back to; no, we have lots of good lighting solutions and just because there is a screen does not mean the confessional needs to be tight, dark, and foreboding. I suppose as with anything we can always find many reasons to be against it. But given the serious threats being brought against this sacrament — and California is not the first state where this has been tried, to say nothing of other countries (laws have already been passed in Australia) — we need to think about how best to protect it and all those involved.

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