The Code of Canon Law forbids a priest to betray the confidence of a penitent for any reason, even to save his own life.
Last month, California's Senate passed a bill (S.B. 360) that would require priests to report crimes of child abuse they hear in confession. It doesn't apply to all penitents -- only, roughly speaking, to other priests or church employees. Failure to report would be punishable by a fine or imprisonment. The lower house of the legislature is expected to take the bill up in September.
The Code of Canon Law forbids a priest to betray the confidence of a penitent for any reason, even to save his own life. The penalty for doing so is automatic excommunication. S.B. 360 thus puts priests to a stark choice: Separate yourself from the Christian community or go to prison.
To be sure, it is difficult to see how the law could be enforced. It applies to a small subset of child abusers. And those, if they seek the sacrament at all, can confess anonymously, behind a screen. Even if the penitent were known to the priest, only the two of them would know of the communication, and both would have reason to keep it secret.
If it were enforced, I trust the courts would hold it unconstitutional. The First Amendment says that the government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion, and it is hard to imagine a more obvious violation than this. It's as close as a constitutional democracy can get to behaving as the Islamic State group does ("renounce your faith or die") toward Christian and Yazidi captives.
I have been thinking, though, about how we got to this surprising turn of events. It is dismaying that the California Senate has so little concern for the sacrament of reconciliation. But in that regard it is not unlike most Catholics.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported in 2008 that three-fourths of all Catholics never go to confession, or go less than once a year. Many of the 30 parishes in Sacramento, where the California legislature sits, offer the sacrament just 30-45 minutes per week, or only by appointment.
The decline is similar to the fall-off in Mass attendance, but even steeper. Fifty years ago 2 in 3 Catholics attended Mass weekly. Today it's fewer than 4 in 10.
I can only speculate about why the Sacrament of Reconciliation has fallen into greater disfavor. One likely reason is that Catholics today, like other Americans, have lost our sense of sin. We make mistakes. We have addictions. We mix up our priorities. We address our problems with 12-step programs and self-help manuals. But we don't weep because we have offended God and seek his forgiveness.
We have also lost our sense of the sacred. There was a time, not so long ago, when confession and Communion were connected. The rites of Saturday prepared us for Sunday because, like the centurion, we worried about having a fitting abode to receive the Lord. For many Massgoers today, reception of the Eucharist is a more informal thing, sort of like a business casual self-serve brunch.
Catholics and other serious believers have worried a lot this past decade about religious freedom. I share their concern, and S.B. 360 is a good example of what we are worried about. But in the long run religious freedom will only matter if religion matters. We have ourselves to blame for the direction the law is heading.
This is what the Lord said to Jeremiah. "And when they ask, 'Why has the Lord our God done all these things to us?' say to them, 'As you have abandoned me ..., so you shall serve foreigners in a land not your own.'"
- Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.