Confession and Absolution: Imperiled Treasure

MV5BMTY5OTYxNDg4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjI4ODI5._V1_SX214_AL_The Anglican church in Australia recently approved allowing their priests to reveal sins confessed. As getreligion notes, this is hardly surprising, since

Private confession in the Anglican world is not a sacrament, and was denounced as one of the abuses practiced by the Medieval church and was dropped by the English Church following the Reformation.

(The whole article is worthwhile, but a word of caution: If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 masterpiece “I Confess”, skip the first few paragraphs. He doesn’t just have a spoiler, he gives the entire plot away. Then go rent the movie from Netflix. You need to see it.)

The original article, in the Melbourne Herald Sun, headlines the article this way, “Anglican priests freed to report serious crimes, including child abuse”. Again, a not-surprising headline, given today’s confusion about the role of the confession in the life of the church.

Sadly, our own CTCR in it’s otherwise good report on the topic takes essentially the same stand – contra every statement on the topic ever by Lutheran theologians, and in contradiction to the rest of it’s own report. The qualification at the end of the report makes the entire report not only worthless, but one of the most harmful things the CTCR has ever done.

But the real stand-out line in this news story for me is from “Australia’s most powerful Catholic, Archbishop of Sydney George Pell”. (An aside: What does “most powerful” even mean in this context? Best at Bench Press? Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?) And, of course, this isn’t in quotes, which means the reporter is summarizing/inventing this part, not quoting the Archbishop.

He said priests should avoid taking confessions from colleagues suspected of being pedophiles but that they cannot then report the crime to police.

Assuming that he actually said that, that he actually means what he says, and that his statement is in line with official church teaching on the subject, then it would highlight another drastic difference between the Roman Catholic and a truly Lutheran view of the Sacrament of Holy Absolution.

A prospective pastor can refuse ordination. But once he is ordained, he can not refuse to hear confession. Indeed, the pastor must hear the confession of a penitent. It is not optional. “I think you might have some really bad sins, so I can’t hear them” means, “The Gospel is not for you.” Our confessions could not be clearer that private absolution, though voluntary for the penitent, is not voluntary for pastors. They must hear confessions and pronounce absolution (or in the case of the impenitent, they must use the binding key). And they must never reveal sins confessed. If they can not agree to this, then the solution is very simple: They can not serve as a Lutheran pastor.

But then, there is what is taught in our confessions and what is practiced in our synod. Sadly, many district presidents agree with “Australia’s most powerful catholic.” They will not hear confessions, because their de jiure humano (humanly instituted) office might conflict with their de iure divino (divinely instituted) office. But if the goal of the synod is to serve the Word of God, the resolution would seem to be very simple. God before men. But such is not the way of legalities and bureaucracies. So, we have, once again, a practice that does not measure up to our confession.

Such is always the case. (See Saint Peter for details on this) But we’re working on it.

 

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