Monday, February 05, 2007

Give Thanks to the Lord For He Is Good -- His Mercy Endures... Off-Record

So the Italians are all lathered up over a recent piece in L'Espresso magazine. The journal sent one of its reporters to play penitent at a bunch of different places, making up sins and recording what the various confessors would say, and L'Osservatore Romano promptly decried the stunt as "disgusting, unworthy, disrespectful and particularly offensive."

Some may -- and, maybe, should -- be tempted to see the development through more of an encouraging lens. That's a challenging thing to do given the tactic, but then again that the article's gotten the buzz it's gotten is a significant sign that the popular imagination remains quite aware and intrigued about the sacrament of reconciliation.

In a culture which, despite being confessional to an almost unprecedented extent, people have a lot of misconceptions about "the box," and thus avoid it like the plague, if its demystification prompts but one soul to queue up to confess after a long absence, then it's had a good effect. And we could be given to thinking that it there's likely more than just one it's spoken to.

As for the rest, NCR's John Allen -- in his blogging incarnation -- breaks it down:
In one of the most predictable findings in the history of investigatory journalism, what the priests said was often different than abstract statements of Church policy.

When the journalist told a priest that his father had been paralyzed for many years until a doctor finally allowed the family to discontinue the respirator, for example, the priest’s response was understanding.

“If I had a wife, a father or a son who for years was alive only because of artificial life support, I would pull the plug too,” he reportedly said, giving the reporter absolution.

In another case, the reporter faked being HIV positive and was reportedly told by a priest that whether he used a condom in order not to pass the virus to the woman he loved was “a very personal matter of conscience.”

Apart from abortion, which all 24 priests unanimously condemned, the reporter said he received conflicting advice on divorce, stem-cell research and prostitution.

One can certainly debate the counsel given in particular cases, but the fact that priests in a confessional take a more sympathetic and pastoral approach than one might find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is, in fact, built into the church's system. It’s one of the reasons that the Vatican and other church officials issue statements which, because they’re so clear-cut, can sometimes sound harsh; they’re trying to make policy which must transcend differences of geography, language, and culture, realizing that the necessary human sympathy and flexibility will be applied one-on-one in the pastoral trenches.

It's undoubtedly true that some priests simply disagree with aspects of the church's official teaching, which also shouldn't shock anyone. But none of the quotes adduced actually involve a priest saying, "the church is wrong about x." Instead, they show priests acknowledging the agonies of a particular situation, or stating that some decisions have to be made in conscience. That's not dissent, but a matter of struggling to discern what a norm implies in a specific context, when conflicting values are often in play.

Perhaps one reason Catholics have had problems explaining this is that sometimes we don’t like to talk about it ourselves. For some Catholic conservatives, acknowledging a role for casuistry can sound like going soft on principles; for some liberals, admitting that the church has a pastoral side can blur their case for reform of its teachings.

(I can confirm this from personal experience. Shortly before the Vatican issued its document on admission of gays to seminaries in November 2005, I published an op/ed piece in the New York Times arguing that whatever else it might mean, it did not mean that in the future, no homosexual would ever be ordained a priest. Bishops and religious superiors, I said, would still make prudential judgments in individual cases. Some conservatives complained that I was encouraging disobedience, while some liberals said I was “apologizing” for the Vatican.)

In the end, some confessors may be too lax, and others may use the church’s moral code to bludgeon people, but most priests probably strive to strike an appropriate balance between fidelity to principles and understanding of complex human situations.