Michigan Confessions

There is a fascinating legal case that is occurring in Michigan right now regarding something very near and dear to my own life: the Sacrament of Absolution; normally referred to as Confession or Confession and Absolution.

For those not familiar with the concept, it is pretty simple if it will be a little new to some of you. In sacramental churches there is normally an understanding of the Office of the Holy Ministry that sees the Pastor/Priest as standing in statu Christi or in the state/stead of Christ while exercising various functions. That is, when the Pastor does something as a Minister of the Gospel, he does these things as though Christ Himself actually does these things. So, when the Pastor does a thing, Christ Himself is doing that thing. Of course, that only applies to those times when the Pastor is exercising the proper functions of his vocation as Pastor, so he doesn’t for example cook his dinner in the stead of Christ, or watch hockey in the stead of Christ. See? If not, try looking at this description.

Now, within this practice of my and other denominations (for those counting, the vast majority of Christians worldwide today and today throughout history have practiced Confession) there is an understanding of something called the Confessional Seal. This is an understanding that the Father-Confessor (the Pastor hearing your Confession) will never under any circumstances ever divulge what has been confessed. Ever. For any reason. That gives the penitent the freedom to confess anything and everything that troubles her/his conscience, unburdening her/himself of whatever it is that troubles and allows the Pastor to speak specific forgiveness to that sin. This is one of the most important factors of this practice. I cannot stress this enough.

This is so important and has been fought for centuries under hundreds of governments all over the world. Governments and interest groups of all types have attacked this practice in order to get Father-Confessors to inform or pass along information pertaining to the inmost thoughts of their congregants. In some cases, particularly under the Soviet system, they were successful in recruiting the church as informants, which is truly sad, but should illustrate the pressure the Church has been under to break the Seal of the Confessional. But most Western democracies have protected this communication as privileged, akin to communication between clients and lawyers.

And this is where the Michigan case comes in, please read the article:

According to court documents, Samuel Bragg confessed in 2009 to the Rev. John Vaprezsan at Metro Baptist Church in Belleville about the 2007 assault of a 9-year-old girl when he was 15. Vaprezsan testified last March in the case against Bragg, who is charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

That is, a Pastor may have heard the Confession of a young parishioner and is now being made to testify against that same parishioner based on information that was gleaned during the “sealed” conversation.

This finds me terribly torn. On one hand the crime that the accused allegedly committed is completely abhorrent. As a father of a young girl I find myself incensed and want to see these crimes prosecuted to their fullest extent under the law. This enrages me to a point that I cannot possibly express in words.

On the other hand, this court case could set a precedent in the United States that could find the Seal of the Confessional in the law destroyed. That would mean that any Pastor who has any parishioner who commits any crime could be subpoenaed. That is terrifying. That is terrifying for the Pastor, who would now have to think twice before attempting to help (in this way) the very people of his congregation that probably need it the most, and it is terrifying for me, as someone who frequents Confession and unburdens himself. I mean, I am not planning on committing any crimes at all, but if I am even accused (or my equivalent in the States) that means that the Pastor involved could be forced under the law, perhaps facing penalties including imprisonment, to divulge everything the I have ever said.

Now this particular case has some legal entanglements that will come into play as to the laws of the land in Michigan which are contained in the above article. It seems that there may be some details that pertain to this case such as the fact that the accused’s mother was present and that there is some question as to whether this “counts” as Confession in this case.

Theologically, I find it interesting that there this Pastor belongs to a denomination normally sacramentarian (a person who maintains that the sacraments have only symbolic significance and are not corporeal manifestations of Christ) and have, to my knowledge, no formal practice of Confession and Absolution. Thus, I wonder what protections that would be assumed under such a situation. Did the parishioner reasonably expect that there would be a Confessional Seal? Why does the Pastor seem such a willing participant in this situation? Can the protection of the Confessional Seal be extended to people who don’t believe in the efficacy of the act?

Interesting stuff to say the least. What do you think?

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