Chills ran down the spines of Catholics on January 12 when North Dakota lawmakers announced their intention to amend the state’s Century Code relating to mandatory reporting. Under the current law, “a member of the clergy…is not required to report [knowledge or suspicion of child abuse] if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of a spiritual advisor,” a category that includes sacramental confession. But SB 2180 would delete this exception, making it a failure to report suspected abuse or neglect, even if learned in the confessional, punishable by up to thirty days in prison and/or a fine of $1500.
Abstract discussions about religious liberty abruptly take on an existential immediacy with news like this. Cancel culture is right on the doorstep of the Catholic Church, and woke America seems to be breathing down our throats. It is a moment redolent of Henry II’s drunken lament in 1170 when he moaned to his barons, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” North Dakota’s proposed revocation of the ancient privilege of the seal of the confessional is a second lament, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome Church?”
Libertas ecclesiae was front and center back in the 12th century, and is today as well. Libertas ecclesiae is the sovereign right of the Church to exercise her work of saving souls in the ancient fashion of her divine constitution. But the creeping fascism on display in these past several weeks demonstrates how deadly serious the threat to the Church’s liberty has become. Mussolini’s chilling prescription for the omnipresent State rings in our ears with an eerie shiver: “Everything within the state; nothing against the state; nothing outside the state.” Modernity has already reduced the church’s bright flame to a fragile flicker. Motions like North Dakota’s threaten to blow out the flame entirely.
Only the fire of the Church’s presence keeps society whole and honest; her robust presence is the protection of man from himself, and from the grip of the ubiquitous State. The blood of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom was the seed that blossomed in the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. The Church’s bold resistance in the 12th century created the template for the proper distinction of Church and State.
The Holy Church tutored Western civilization on the proper nature of the State, its rights and prerogatives, as well as those of the Church. When those boundaries are respected, unity is produced and peace prospers. In 1969 the great theologian Cardinal Jean Danielou wrote a landmark book, Prayer as a Political Problem—an enigmatic title for a thoroughly unenigmatic masterpiece. He argued that society (politics), without the energetic presence of the Church (prayer), leaves man to a descent into inhumanity:
A city which does not possess Churches as well as factories, is not fit for men. It is inhuman. The task of politics is to assure men a city in which it will be possible to fulfill themselves completely, to have a full material, fraternal and spiritual life. It is for this reason that we consider prayer as a political problem; for a city that would make prayer impossible would fail to fulfill its role as a city.
If the State’s totalism is permitted to grow unchecked, the dignity of the human person becomes imperilled. Is it intemperate to see this moment in our nation’s life as following such a trajectory? How else is there to interpret North Dakota’s frightful amendment? The Church alone stands between the long reach of the State, and man’s inalienable freedom. The heroism of Iron Curtain bishops such as Mindszenty, Stepinac, and countless others stands as proof of this. Each became the solitary shelter of the Catholic people in those slave nations, shielding them from some of the most crushing barbarities of Communism.
Even today, God is raising up similar champions of the Faith such as Cardinal Zen, whose fragile voice marches into battle against the cruel Chinese Communist Party, and even against a Vatican drunk with Ostpolitick. These times cause us to return over and over to the words of the late Cardinal George: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” North Dakota’s vote to annul the inviolable seal of the confessional makes that fate closer to every Catholic priest.
The seal of the Confessional is the Church’s pledge that she is the privileged encounter between man and God, where no other men will ever trespass. So sacred is this protection that the priest is committed to die, rather than divulge secrets told him in the confessional. No place on earth affords such a sublime freedom to man. It is utterly without exception—as is man’s dignity—which Mother Church will always safeguard. In fact, man’s dignity is given no greater honor than in the confessional, where his deepest disclosures are protected by such a wall of impregnable silence. No utilitarian or political self-serving will gain hearing in these hallowed precincts. The State’s insistence on absolute power crumbles here. Audiences around the world had this gleaming jewel of the Church’s crown dramatized with artistic force in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film I Confess. It must have been the director’s paean to the great comforts he himself often received in the dark protection of the confessional boxes of his life.
If North Dakota persists in her attempt to breach the citadel of the Church’s sacramental exercise, it will meet the fate that all other usurpers have met throughout history. Priests may be flung into prisons in North Dakota, but God will triumph, as He always has. Man’s vanity is no match for the power of the Blessed Trinity. Thomas Babington Macaulay, an English protestant Evangelical, wrote an essay on Ranke’s History of the Popes in the 1840 Edinburgh Review. In a now oft quoted passage, he gave a rousing acclaim to the victorious Catholic Church:
There is not, and never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church…No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian Amphitheatre…The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with St. Augustine, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila…Not do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s?”
North Dakota, beware.
[Photo Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA]