Sacred Trust Abuse Scandals

My child, sit here with me. Tell me what troubles you. Only if you want to. I am Father Gregory. […]
I can’t tell you, Father.
Would you like to go to Confession?
I can’t, Father. I did terrible things.
God forgives all who repent. He sent his only Beloved Son to die for us.
I can’t, Father. I can’t.
But you could tell St. Francis, couldn’t you? […] We’ll sit here and you’ll tell him the things that trouble you. If I sit and listen it will only be a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord. Won’t that help?
– from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

The sacrament of Confession can be, all at once, mysterious, perplexing, terrifying, humbling, and liberating. The Catchecism says that “even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby
opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a
new future possible.”

The Catechism also says:

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.

The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘sacred sign.’ The sacraments are intended to point beyond themselves to the fullness of God’s mercy and loving justice. It is the responsibility of the priest to be a servant of God’s forgiveness and to mediate between God and the penitent. The sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation is rooted in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:22-23 (NRSV)

Father William Saunders tells this story about the inviolability of the sacramental seal:

A beautiful story (perhaps  embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of  St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague.  King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to  rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened  to be the Queen’s confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became  incrasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her  conduct. Wencelaus, as king, demanded that St. John break the sacramental seal.  Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen’s confessions,  he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned  on March 20, 1393. Similar stories abound, especially in the past century during  the awful persecution of the Church under Communism and Naziism, where priests  were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because they would not break the sacramental  seal.

Though “it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (Code of Canon Law, no. 2490), there are instances where priests have betrayed the authority and responsibility of their positions. Though the sexual abuse scandals that have occurred have been the main focus of attention by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the sacred trust abuse scandals deserve, I think, our serious attention, especially in light of dozens of efforts by governments that threaten the inviolability of the sacrament.

Though the known cases of abuses of the sacramental seal are very few relative to the longstanding tradition of secrecy, it is wrong to underestimate these known cases and to omit from our consideration the possibility of many possible unreported cases.

The most startling example of a breach of the sacramental seal that I have learned about occured in the life of a young boy. I will excerpt his whole account of the experience from his autobiography:

An Early Traumatic Experience

You should know that I took my religion very seriously. The first serious crack in my religious belief happened when I was thirteen years old. On a Saturday morning, during the usual pushing and shoving to be the first one into the gym, I accidentally pushed a classmate down the stairs. Throughout the years, hundreds of students must have sailed down these stairs without any serious injuries. This time he was unlucky; he broke his ankle. I was punished with two hours of detention. I went to confession in the afternoon as I did every week, confessed what I did like a good boy, but I didn’t say anything about this incident at home because I didn’t want to spoil Sunday for my parents. They would learn about it soon enough in the coming week.

That evening my confessor, who was a good friend of my father, was visiting at our house. The next morning my father scolded me about the pushing incident, and I was punished because I did not report it to him right away. I was devestated, not because of the punishment, but because of this unheard of breach of confidence by my confessor. Wasn’t it always taught that the secrecy of the confessional could not be broken? Even the most serious crimes that a person tells the priest in the holy confessional cannot be reported to the police. And now this priest, whom I trusted so deeply, who was my steady confessor and knew my whole little world of sins by heart, had broken the secrecy of the confessional for such a minor incident. Only he could have told my father.

Neither my father, mother, nor anyone else from our house had been in town that day. Our telephone was out of order, and none of my classmates lived in our neighbourhood. No one had visited us except my confessor. For a long, long time, I checked all the details of this over and over because this was such a horrible thing to me. Then and even now I am firmly convinced that the priest had violated the secrecy of the confessional. My faith in the holy profession of the priesthood was smashed and doubts began to stir within me. I never went back to him for confession because I could no longer trust him. I told the priest that I was going to our religious instruction teacher in the church near my school because my father lectured me when he discovered I was no longer going to the priest. My father believed it, but I am convinced that the priest knew the real reason. He tried everything to win me back, but I just couldn’t go back to him. In fact, I went even further. I didn’t go to confession at all anymore if I could get away with it. After this incident, I could no longer trust any priest.

In religious instruction we were told that if a person went to communion without confession, he would be severely punished by God. We were told that someone had done that and had dropped dead at the communion rail. With childish simplicity I begged God to be lenient because I could no longer confess faithfully and to forgive my sins, which I now recited directly to him. So I believed I was free of my sins. Full of doubt, I went trembling to the communion rail in strange church. And nothing happened! So I, poor earthworm, believed that God would hear my prayers and agree with what I was doing. The deep, true, childlike faith which so calmly and surely guided my soul until this time was smashed.

How sincere and contrite! Who could refuse pity and sympathy to this boy whose trust and childlike faith were so terribly betrayed? What became of this boy? The next year his father died. The boy was supposed to become a priest. With the loss of faith and the loss of his father, he became zealous to join the military, though he was just fifteen. He doubted his vocation to be a priest and explained that both the traumatic incident of betrayal and having witnessed the trade in holy relics that he had seen in the Holy Land had destroyed his faith in priests. His mother then died and the young man became more and more convinced of his desire to be a soldier.

The one of whom I speak is Rudolph Höss and I have been quoting from his autobiography Death Dealer: Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. According to the back cover, “Höss (1900-1947) was history’s greatest mass murderer, personally supervising the extermination of approximately two million people, mostly Jews at Auschwitz.”

Two months before he was hanged at Auschwitz Höss ended his memoirs saying:

May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Kommandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They will never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil.

Though his memoirs are filled with alternations between truthtelling and lying, the challenges in deciphering the truth render the work all the more fascinating. And so, from this Nazi we have an extraordinary testimony on the absolutely paramount secrecy of the Seal of Confession. Though the terrible betrayal of trust (whether sexually or with respect to sacred trust) does not exonerate penitents from future sins, it does rouse heartbreaking sympathy for those who, in their vulnerability and trust, have expected to
place themselves before the mercy of God, but have instead encountered extreme human weakness, and perhaps even Satan.

But “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV), there is a need for the sacrament of Confession. It is a real, transformative event through which God imparts His loving mercy even though priests fall short of mediating (as Christ does) the perfection of the love of God the Father.

In her Letter to a Priest, Simone Weil writes: “The Church is only perfectly pure under one aspect; when considered as guardian of the sacraments. What is perfect is not the Church; it is the body and blood of Christ upon the altars.” Similarly, it could be added: What is perfect is not the confessors; it is the mercy of God poured out through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Confession is a powerful experience. The priests through whom I have confessed my sins have been extraordinary examples of Christ’s love. They have always listened lovingly and patiently. They have often given helpful advice, encouragement, and spiritual direction. I am thankful for their ministry. It is truly amazing that there are priests all around the world listening to hours of confessions every week. They are doctors of the soul and deserve our gratitude for their selfless service. Still, we must encourage and pray for them, that each would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1)

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Reflecting on Huizinga and Guardini on Playfulness

This semester I am taking a class called “War and Interpretation”. According to the syllabus, “[…We] begin with the assumption that war is a natural human activity and, as with all such activities, has a variegated historical, political, and cultural significance. […] The objective is to provide an opportunity to engage the intellect with several distinct perspectives on a major expression of one of the constant attributes of human nature.”

While my political science degree requirements include: International Relations; Comparative Politics; and Research Methods, Henry Adams said, “Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.” My friend Thomas Cliplef says, “Generally, I find [the quantitative] side of political science very boring as it tells me nothing about the human condition in relation to politics. It doesn’t attempt to grasp the internal perspectives of the leadership or the citizens within a political community. The qualitative or philosophical side of political science does just this.”

And so, when I am annoyed with the efforts to beat out any normativity in students in a statistics class, I find it refreshing to retreat to my class on war.

For this class, I recently read a book called Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.

Here are some of the important things that Huizinga says about play:

– First and foremost, then, all play is voluntary activity.” (7)
– As regards its formal characteristics, all students lay stress on the disinterestedness of play. (9)
– Play is distinct from ‘ordinary’ life both as to locality and duration. (9)
– [Play] creates order, is order. (10)
– Play has a tendency to be beautiful. (10)
– All play has its rules. (11)
– The function of play in the higer forms which concern us here can largely be derived from the two basic aspects under which we meet it: as a contest for something or as a representation of something. (13)
– Let us enumerate once more the characteristics we deemed proper to play. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules, freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exhalation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow. (132)
– More often than not [the task of a hero] will be tackled as the result of a challenge, or a vow, a promise or whim of the beloved. All these motifs carry us straight back to agnostic play. (133)

Huizinga analyzes play in language, law, war, knowing, poetry, mythopoiesis [myth-making], philosophy, art, and contemporary civilization. What I found most interesting is the relationship between Huizinga’s thoughts on play and those of Romano Guardini in the his chapter “The Playfulness of the Liturgy” within his larger work The Spirit of the Liturgy. Huizinga makes very brief mention of Guardini’s work, but it was enough of a mention to spark my interest in considering the relationship between the play-element in its essence, at which Huizinga aims to strike, and the play-element in the liturgy and in the sacraments, that is Guardini’s focus.

What Huizinga seems to emphasize that Guardini does not is the voluntary nature of play. There is a strong emphasis on the freedom and spontaneity in play, combined with a lack of necessity. What Guardini seems to emphasize that Huizinga does not about the essence of play is that is it, at once, meaningful and purposeless. He says that “to be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight–not to create, but to exist–such is the essence of the liturgy.”

Early on, Huizinga discusses the nature and significance of play, from children’s games to sacred performances:

The sacred performance is more than an actualization in appearance only, a sham reality; it is also more than a symbolical actualization – it is a mystical one. In it, something invisible and inactual takes beautiful, actual, holy form. The participants in the rite are convinced that the action actualizes and effects a definite beatification, brings about an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live. All the same this ‘actualization by representation’ still retains the formal characteristics of play in every respect. It is played out or performed within a ground that is literally ‘staked out’, and played moreover as a feast, i.e. in mirth and freedom.

For such a general description, the above passage certainly coincides with the theology of the Eucharist. In the Blessed Sacrament, the invisible God takes “beautiful, actual, holy form”. According to the catechism, “the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ’s body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all.”

Huizinga continues:
“The rite produces the effect which is then not so much shown figuratively as actually reproduced in the action. The function of the rite, therefore, is far from being merely imitative; it causes the worshippers to participate in the sacred happening itself.”

This makes sense with the re-incarnation of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Christ becomes present again, not represented, but re-present “in the flesh” in the mystery of the Eucharist.

The congregation participates fully in the sacred happening. Consider the words of the priest: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” After the institution narrative, the congregation says the Memorial Acclamation: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” The priest acting In persona Christi constitutes what Huizinga references Marett as calling “‘a helping-out of the action.'”

Staying focused on why this matters at all, let’s entertain Huizinga’s conviction about the centrality of play in civilization. He says, “For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” He argues this forcefully saying, “Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

If Huizinga is right about this, then he is offering an important insight into human nature. We humans are not only knowers, makers, producers, consumers, etc. We are players. This sort of thinking inspires me to remember what my friends and family often remind me: “You are a human being, not a human doing!” This is where Guardini’s analysis is helpful because he strikes at the nature of man as being ordered to live in relationship with God. The meaningfulness lies in the soul’s nature “not to create, but to exist” This has meaning for understanding human dignity apart from achievement.

Guardini says:

It is in this very aspect of the liturgy that its didactic aim is to be found, that of teaching the soul not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being over-clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life. The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with sayings and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’ It must learn not to be continually yearning to do something, to attack something, to accomplish something useful, but to play the divinely ordained game of the liturgy in liberty and beauty and holy joy before God.

It is natural, when discussing play, to consider what can be learned from children. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) In discussing child’s play, Guardini explains what he means by saying that play is purposeless, yet meaningful:

The child, when it plays, does not aim at anything. It has no purpose. It does not want to do anything but to exercise its youthful powers, pour forth its life in an aimless series of movements, words and actions, and by this to develop and to realize itself more fully; all of which is purposeless, but full of meaning nevertheless, the significance lying in the unchecked revelation of this youthful life in thoughts and words and movements and actions, in the capture and expression of its nature, and in the fact of its existence. And because it does not aim at anything in particular, because it streams unbroken and spontaneously forth, its utterance will be harmonious, its form clear and fine; its expression will of itself become picture and dance, rhyme, melody and song. That is what play means; it is life, pouring itself forth without an aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence. It will be beautiful, too, if it is left to itself, and if no futile advice and pedagogic attempts at enlightenment foist upon it a host of aims and purposes, thus denaturizing it.

These two authors may be discussing play a bit differently. I am still not sure about the essence of play, though I agree with the various characteristics that are enumerated.

With the emphasis on existence, we can return to Huizinga’s reference of Aristotle with regard to play. Aristotle, discussing music (which Huizinga places in the category of play), says that “music conduces to virtue in so far as, like gymnastics, it makes the body fit, breeds a certain ethos and enables us to enjoy things in the proper way[.]”

On this note, a friend of mine recently asked, referring to our mutual friend, why this friend would feel obligated to go to Mass every single day. “As the body needs food, so the soul needs food,” I said. Specifically, I meant the Bread of Heaven.

Recently I read a quotation from Cardinal Basil Hume in the Mystery of the Incarnation. He writes:

The meaning of things, and their purpose,
Is in part now hidden
But shall in the end become clear.
The choice is between
The Mystery and the absurd.

Participating in the Holy Mass is an opportunity to enter into the Mystery. The daily grind is what has my heart echoing St. Teresa of Avila’s words: “Lord, what can I do here? What has the servant to do with her Lord? What has earth to do with heaven?” But then, at the Mass we pray. The priest says, “And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise…” The congregation joins saying:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord,
God of hosts.
Heaven and
earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who
comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

There is a distinct presence in the moment, combined with participation in eternity. The universal Church is praying and there seems to be a timelessness. Before receiving the Blessed Sacrament we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Here we are echoing the words of the Roman centurion in the Gospel of Matthew. And so, from a return to biblical accounts, to “heaven kissing earth” in the Eucharist, to the foretaste of heaven through joining the choirs of angels, we participate in this “great processional order of existence in a sacred play, in and through which [each participant] actualizes anew, or ‘recreates’, the events represented and thus helps to maintain the cosmic order.”

One of my favorite parts of the Mass goes as follows:

Priest:
The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.

What I like so much about this part is that it inspires me to contemplate the meaning of justice. Also, thinking of justice in terms of the thanks due to God according to the dignity of His Nature and Goodness inspires a good notion of justice to imitate in community with others. Pope Benedict has written some interesting things about justice and resurrection.

According to this article summarizing the arguments, Fr. James Schall writes:

As the pope cites him, [Theodore] Adorno maintains that, even though he does not believe it, the only ‘logical’ way that there ever could be true justice in this actual world would be for there to be something like the resurrection of the body. Clearly he is right. There is, no doubt, something amusingly ironic about a Marxist
philosopher appearing prominently in a papal encyclical as an upholder of the basic Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

At the end of Huizinga’s book, he says:

So that by a devious route we have reached the following conclusion: real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence, the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. To be a sound culture-creating force this play-element must be pure. It must not consist in the darkening or debasing of standards set up by reason, faith or humanity. It must not be a false seeming, a masking of political purposes behind the illusion or genuine play-forms. True play knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration.

Do we play purely? Is it true that “the liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God”? Could being “spiritual but not religious” be akin to being a “spoil-sport”? Is constituting an end-in-itself the very essence of play? If play is marked by its set apartness from ordinary life and play is a good-in-itself, then is play the aim of life? Is leisure the “basis of culture” as Joseph Pieper called it? (In the same vein as Aristotle, as Huizinga shows.) Can the play-element help us to focus on the goodness and beauty of existence? For human persons, does the goodness of our existence lie (or live?) within rather than outside of us?

“Now what is the meaning of that which exists? That it should exist and should be the image of God the Everlasting. And what is the meaning of that which is alive? That it should live, bring forth its essence, and bloom as a natural
manifestation of the living God.” – Romano Guardini