Monday, July 14, 2014

The Seal of Confession

Earlier this month, the Anglican Church of Australia altered its canons (church laws) to permit clergy to reveal the contents of a penitent's confession if it included a serious crime which had not already been reported to the police. This overturned the long established (arguably centuries old) Seal of the Confession whereby the person hearing a confession (normally a priest or bishop) was not to disclose the content of the penitent's confession under any circumstances. Apparently there was already provision in the Australian canons for a confessor to reveal information with the consent of the penitent, though that would already be a departure from catholic norms.  Coverage of the story can be found here and here. One of the principal campaigners for the measure offers his apologia here. New Zealand priest Bosco Peters offers some good analysis here.

The motivation for the measure, understandably, is related to the scandal of sexual abuse - and in particular sexual abuse by clergy. And the scandal of abuse has, in many cases, been aggravated by inaction or evasion on the part of church authorities when abuse has been revealed. There is no defence to be offered for either the abuse itself or for the negligence and complicity of those who ignored or covered it up.

But the moral failure of church authorities is quite independent of the issue of the Seal of Confession. It was not through the Sacrament of Reconciliation that church authorities were discovering cases of abuse, but from the reports of victims and their parents or other advocates. The Seal of Confession, intact or otherwise, had no bearing on the failure of those in authority to address the issue.

In most Canadian jurisdictions, the laws makes it compulsory to report cases or suspected cases of the sexual, physical or emotional abuse of children. In some jurisdictions, including here in Saskatchewan, the Seal of Confession is expressly and specifically singled out as not constituting an exception to this requirement. If one hears a confession about the abuse of a child, the obligations to the church and to the state are in clear and unequivocal conflict.

That said, a priest still has some capacity to effect a positive outcome. We are not obliged to pronounce absolution if we are not persuaded that the penitent is, in fact, penitent. The most effective and reliable sign of true repentance would be for the penitent to make another confession ... to the civil authorities.  In any event, in an Anglican context - where our discipline around Confession is that "all may, some should, none must" - it strikes me unlikely that a person would disclose any serious sin, including child abuse, unless there was sincere repentance.

I think Fr Bosco is correct. The most likely outcome of this sort of change is that those guilty of such grave sins - and possibly of sins far less grave - will be less likely to avail themselves of the sacrament. Instead, they will simply continue to struggle on their own (assuming they really are penitent), and will be more likely to repeat the offence.

Indeed, one could argue that a blanket reporting requirement may actually keep some abusers from seeking any sort of help to address their behaviour. I have two pieces of anecdotal evidence to support this.

Some 25 years ago, I had dealings with several men who were at various points in the legal system after having sexually abused their children. In two of the cases, the abuse had gone on over a long period of time. In both of those cases, the men had come to understand that their behaviour was wrong and had also realized that they needed help.

Both of the men sought out professional help through a public agency. After their initial intake session, they were asked to wait in a room while the counselors, in accordance with the law, contacted the police. Both men were arrested, charged and convicted. By the time I had met them, both had completed their initial sentences but were still in the parole system. I did not have a confessor - penitent relationship with either man.

Neither man questioned the fairness of what had happened to him. Both agreed that the counselling they had been able to access through the corrections system made them less likely to reoffend. Both felt they had gotten a punishment commensurate with their crime.

But both of them were honest enough to acknowledge that, had they known of the compulsory reporting requirement, they likely would not have sought help. And both believed that it was at least possible, and probably likely that, had they not sought help, the abuse would have continued.

This is not an easy question, and I certainly see that a person of good faith might come to another conclusion. But I am far from persuaded that removing the Seal of Confession will do anything substantive to enhance the safety of children. It will, however, discourage many people - and not only those guilty of so grave a sin - from accessing a means of grace to the detriment of their souls.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Peace by Peace

When I was 18, I held a Nobel Prize.

I was in New York when I met Mairead Corrigan (now Maguire) and Betty Williams, co-founders of the group Peace People in Northern Ireland.

It was less than two years earlier that Corrigan Maguire's sister, niece and two nephews were struck by a car driven by wounded Provisional IRA terrorist Danny Lennon who had been shot by British troops. The young girl and one of the boys died at the scene. the younger boy the following day. The children's mother was eventually driven to suicide by the events of that day. Williams had witnessed the event and was moved to begin a petition across sectarian lines calling for an end to the violence. The two women became "the joint leaders of a virtually spontaneous mass movement."

I thought of these two unlikely Nobel Laureates when I read this story about the families of murdered Israeli teen Naftali Fraenkel and murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir comforting each other in their loss.

The witness of Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams helped bring an end to The Troubles. May the witness of Rachel Fraenkel and Hussein Abu Khdeir have a similar outcome.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Way

The parish where I hang my biretta has St. James the Apostle as its patron. St. James is also the patron of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Compostella, Spain, the terminus of the ancient yet still very popular pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. As our parish leadership has worked over the past while to develop a Mission Action Plan for the parish, we have looked often to the image of pilgrimage as an icon and model of the Christian life.

It is this connection that recently led me to look for the 2010 movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen. Adapted for the screen and produced by Sheen's son Emilio Estevez, it is the story of a man who travels to France to identify and reclaim the body of his son who died in a storm on his first day on the Camino. He decides to complete the journey his son began.

I am increasingly intrigued by the idea of pilgrimage both as spiritual devotion and spiritual pilgrimage. The earliest Christians referred to our faith as The Way. Roads and journey's occur again and again in the salvation history. Deuteronomy calls on us to acknowledge a wandering Aramean as our ancestor. Joseph journeys to Egypt and, generations later, the Hebrews journey back to the land of promise. The story of Jesus begins with a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and much of the story of his ministry is set on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, culminating in the Way of the Cross. 

Starting with the Camino may be a little presumptuous. Perhaps some smaller scale pilgrimages are a place to begin. But to be a Christian is to be a pilgrim. And like any journey, that pilgrimage begins with a step.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Next and First Member of Parliament for Regina Lewvan

It was a beautiful day to be outside, mostly. But instead I was inside in a crowded room in Regina participating in grassroots democracy. When it was all over, the Regina Lewvan New Democrats nominated economist Erin Weir as our candidate in the next federal election.

I've known Erin since he was a young man in high school, so I guess I'm beginning to show my age. Erin is better known in recent years as a frequent sparring partner for far right CBC talking head Kevin O'Leary. After the Chairman of Goldman Sachs said that the Occupy movement was right on income inequality, someone on Twitter opined that O'Leary's head might explode. Having not seen that story, I assumed the cause of the explosion would be Erin's nomination win.

And with that in mind, here's Erin appearing as part of a panel on the CBC's Lang and O'Leary Exchange.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Local initiative featured in Radio Vatican story

More than three years ago, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and the Anglican Diocese of Qu'Appelle entered into a Covenant relationship in which both partners committed to:
  • Hold a prayer service each year during Eastertide, alternating between the two cathedrals and involving planning and participation from both churches;
  • Remembering each other and the Covenant relationship in prayer, including in the intercessions at the Eucharist;
  • Working together on justice issues;
  • Meeting jointly with First Nations elders to promote healing and reconciliation; and
  • Committing to communicate with each other when issues arise which may affect the relationship.

How that Covenant is lived out in other places I'm not sure. Where I hang my biretta, it has meant a deepening of our relationship with our down the back alley neighbours at St. Cecilia's. It has also meant the creation of a weekly rotation of prayer intentions for a list of our ecumenical partners, including all of the Roman Catholic parishes within our parish boundaries as well as both Evangelical Lutheran parishes and the other member churches of the neighbourhood ecumenical group.

Bishop Don Bolen, Roman Catholic Co-Chair of the
International Anglican - Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission

One of the people driving the creation of this Covenant was then Monsignor Don Bolen. Don had previously worked in the Vatican at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and he had sent a draft of the proposed Covenant to his former colleagues for their comments and insights.

Don has since become the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saskatoon and more recently the Roman Catholic Co-Chair of the International Anglican - Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission. In that latter role, it is perfectly natural that he would be interviewed by Vatican Radio in their coverage of Archbishop of Centerbury Justin Welby's visit to Rome this weekend. But of particular note to me was that Don chose to highlight our Saskatchewan based Covenant as an example of best ecumenical practices.

Is this the big time?

The story can be found here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

RINOs, DINOs and Elephinos

There's a very old and very bad "crossing" joke:
Q: What do you get if you cross and elephant with a rhinoceros?A: Elephino.
(Really, it's funnier if you say it than if you just read it.)

In American politics of late, there is much lamenting from the outward edges of the two major parties that various other members of their respective parties are either RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) or DINOs (Democrats In Name Only). It is natural that any party's ideologues are a trifle distrusting of the party elites, and especially of those  pragmatic souls prepared to take a little water in their wine if they believe it can advance their agenda. But it is also a condemnation of those who come to a party after an exercise in party outreach and a broadening of the tent.

For Tea Party style Republicans, the RINO label covers off any mainstream (ie, nationally electable) Republican who does not hold true to a list of hardline shibboleths about abortion, equal marriage, immigration reform, firearms regulation and so forth. It can also include actual earth-dwelling Republicans who don't believe that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist.

The Democrats, having spent much of the 70s and 80s in the political wilderness, at least with regard to national elections, seem a little less inclined to such arbitrary litmus testing. Even so, some southern and Blue Dog Democrats have been called out as DINOs by some elements of the Democratic base.

In Canada, we see some of the same tendencies, albeit mostly within the New Democratic Party. Witness the recent Ontario case where 34 people who claimed to be NDP supporters (and some of whom may actually be NDP members) deliberately attempted to sabotage the ONDP campaign with a leaked letter attacking the leader for departing from certain arbitrary orthodoxies. I blogged about it here.

What makes the Canadian version of this tendency a trifle different is that it is the critics who seem to have the loyalty problem. Indeed, for the past 25 years or so, every federal NDP campaign and every Ontario NDP campaign has been subjected to this kind of sabotage. And in every case, it has been crystal clear that the saboteurs efforts were intended to derail the NDP campaign and to buoy up an often-flagging Liberal Party.

There were two major variations on the attack narrative. Well, the first two parts of the narrative were pretty constant. It was only the third part which varied, depending on whether the NDP campaign was actually appealing to voters or was trying to appease its critics.

1. These Conservatives are dangerous wild eyed radicals who will destroy everything we hold dear. 
2. The Liberals, despite decades of breaking progressive promises once safely ensconced in power, will actually keep their promises this time. 
3a. (If the NDP was trying to appeal to real voters) The NDP is no longer ideologically pure and so progressives should vote Liberal.
3b. (If the NDP campaign was trying to appease internal critics) The NDP can't win and so progressives should vote Liberal.

While in the US model, the Gang of 34 would have been calling out Andrea Horwath as a NewDINO, it is actually the attackers to whom the In Name Only appellation applies. But since a significant number of the signiatories haven't held an NDP card in years, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe them as ELEPHINOs. The irony of the ELEPHINO attacks over the years is that the long term result was precisely the opposite of what the critics have claimed they wanted to see.

Yes, in the short term they often got the Liberal governments they wanted. (And those Liberal governments all immediately jettisoned the progressive promises they'd made in the campaign.)

Through the 90s and into the 00s, a marginalized NDP meant the Liberals had little incentive to tack left, and thus the mainstream political discourse was driven by the Reform / Alliance federally and  by the Harris Conservatives provincially. Then, in the 00s and into the current decade, as it became obvious that the party's left wing critics could never be appeased, party leaders and strategists simply stopped paying attention to them.

This is really what drove the petulant tone of the Gang of 34 letter and the increasingly angry tone of their defenders. They have rendered themselves irrelevant. And in politics, irrelevance is the last step before extinction.

Some election soon, I hope to see the last of the ELEPHINOs.

And here's a further riff on that joke.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Hazards of Swimming the Tiber

Among Anglicans, particularly Anglicans of a particular type, it is not uncommon to find periodic outbursts of Roman Fever. Given our high view of the importance of catholicity, it is not that unusual that some should pursue catholicity by moving to the institution which claims that it alone possesses such catholicity. 

Conversions to Roman Catholicism happen from time to time. Most often these are driven by pastoral considerations such as an Anglican spouse choosing to worship with their partner. I recall a retired Anglican priest who converted, not out of any theological conviction particularly, but because his children had both married and then become Roman Catholics and he wanted to worship with them and with his grandchildren. Sometimes conversions are driven by a calmly reached theological conviction, though conversions in anger due to some development in Anglicanism seem more common.

There is a tale of a certain priest in Toronto who left a note in the sacristy after the early service saying simply:
Have gone to Rome. Ask Father X to take the 11:00.
One retired Episcopal bishop made the trip to Rome only to return a few years later. He then re-reconverted. Some sort of ecclesiastical Air Miles I guess.

In a bit of geographical humour, a conversion to Rome is sometimes called Swimming the Tiber. Although conversions the other way are at least equally common, neither Swimming the Thames nor Swimming the Channel seem to have developed the same currency.

I've never been particularly tempted by the glory that was or is Rome. Even during the period when I was out of active ministry and quite alienated from my own church, I clearly knew that Rome was not for me. There were too many issues - the way in which authority was exercised being not the least of them.

There was a minor earthquake on the fringes of the Anglican world this week when Greg Griffith, a major lay soldier in the Anglican culture wars of the past several years, announced on his blog that he and his family had been received into the Roman Catholic Church. In keeping with past practice, I do not link to toxic blogsites, so even though Greg's piece on his conversion is relatively eirenic - at least by the standards of that site - you'll have too Google Stand Firm (the site) and Waypoints (the article) for yourself.

It is a trifle risky to comment on someone else's spiritual journey. This is particularly true when the other person has been engaged on the other side of a shared conflict. I want to be clear that my goal here is not to take any shots at Greg Griffith, nor in any way to imply an attitude of "good riddance."

I do want to acknowledge that feeling alienated from your own religious body - whether the faith of your childhood or the faith of your choosing (both Greg and I were converts to Anglicanism) - is a profoundly disturbing experience. I've been there. I get it. It can be soul destroying. It is for many.

I disagree with Greg on just about every point under dispute in 21st century Anglicanism. I don't agree with his views and I have serious issues with the way he has argued those views, personalized issues and raised the temperature at every opportunity. But I am still saddened to see his walk away from the shared table.

In his apologia, however, Greg makes two points which I find odd coming from one who has just been received into the Roman Catholic Church. 

First, there is his dismissive comment about Pope Francis. I get that Francis isn't the favourite of every Roman Catholic, especially those of a more conservative hue. But it nonetheless strikes me as passing strange that Greg feels the need to make dismissive comments about his new Pontiff, whom he describes as:
somewhere between a disappointment and a disaster.

Second, and more significant to me, is his stated intention to continue managing Stand Firm as a site for those still engaged in the Anglican wars. I've always been told that the most important part of leaving is to leave. Continuing to engage in Anglicanism's internal flamewars is rather like the departed partner in a broken marriage assiduously working to screw up the former spouse's subsequent relationships.

I hope Greg Griffith finds some peace in his choice to swim the Tiber. Unless he slips the hawsers mooring him alongside Anglicanism, his swim will be dangerous at the very least and he will be unlikely to make landfall on the other side.