What the Italian Confession Scandal Reveals

A friend wrote recently that he was puzzled by the effort of certain prelates to change Church teaching about the divorced and civilly remarried at the recent Synod. He observed that the proposed solution seems rather unnecessary since the discipline about receiving Communion is already widely ignored both here and abroad. In the rather subjective and lax approach to such questions, most divorced and civilly remarried people are hardly likely to observe Church discipline when they have already rejected the doctrine upon which it is based. If they want to go to Communion, it’s very unlikely that they will seek anyone’s permission.

In Italy, an undercover female journalist recently violated the sanctity of the confessional to get material for an article she was writing on this precise question. The reaction has been rather enlightening. She went to confession and sought advice about whether she, as a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic, could receive Communion – a ploy to see if confessional practice was keeping pace with the enlightened movement among the progressive bishops.

The confessor had some interesting bits of advice. The fundamental advice was based upon a radical notion of private conscience: he simply told her to follow her own conscience. In other words, if she was subjectively convinced that her second marriage was a true marriage, in spite of Church teaching, she should receive Communion, since her conscience is telling her that she is not in a state of sin.

He also advised her that she might also consider changing her parish, so as to avoid scandal (which indicates that the priest was quite aware of Church teaching, as are many of the parishioners in his parish). And then he encouraged her to seek an annulment, but one has to wonder why, if she is convinced in conscience that she is truly married and has a right to the sacraments. Why bother?

This confessor then tries to excuse himself and perhaps soothe his own conscience when he goes on to “advise” the woman, “I am telling you what the Church is asking, but at the end it is you who must make a choice. . . .It’s clear that from my position, I will never tell you that you can take the communion, as long as the Church recognizes only one matrimony. But I will never tell you either that you cannot take it.”

“La Confessione” [detail] by Giuseppe Molteni, 1838 [Gallerie di Piazza Scala, Milan]

In all, a rather pathetic dereliction of the confessor’s own duty, which leaves all the responsibility on the penitent. He sounds like a civil servant simply reading some regulation to someone and then saying it’s up to you what you do with it. I am not telling you that should follow the law. I’m just reading it to you and explaining its meaning in case you can’t read or can’t understand its meaning.

What the confessor never does is try to help the penitent properly and correctly form her conscience, that is, in accordance with the teaching and law of the Church. He simply dodges that in favor a totally subjective understanding of the obligation to follow one’s conscience, which properly understood is indeed the teaching of the Church. It’s so easy on the confessor: Whenever you face a hard teaching, just throw the whole thing back on the penitent’s subjective conscience. At least where the Sixth Commandment is concerned. Would such a confessor give the same advice if the penitent was confessing a temptation to murder – “I will only read the Fifth Commandment to you, but then you must follow your own conscience on this matter.”

In this mishmash of confessional “advice,” there are two exit points from the Church’s discipline as related to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried: private conscience and easy annulments. Follow your own conscience has been the escape clause for confessors to properly handle confession of common sexual irregularities  – and still remain popular. It has long been the practical pastoral solution for bishops and priests who wanted to hold on to their jobs and also be loved by those who reject Church teaching on contraception. That’s where all this “just follow your own conscience” advice really got started, even before Humanae Vitae and Vatican II.

Indeed, one way to interpret the efforts of the progressive bishops and the birth control commission to change the Church’s moral teaching on contraception is that they were simply trying to solve a problem for confessors and a teaching problem for intellectuals and prelates. Catholics were already practicing contraception in large and growing numbers by the end of the Second World War, and this trend exploded with the production of the pill just a few years before the Council. The easy solution was to change the teaching of the Church and “liberate” confessors and teachers from this teaching.

A similar post facto solution is being applied today with the divorce and remarriage problem, since more and more Catholics are in this situation. But if they are already free – via private conscience – to receive Communion, as many believe themselves to be, among those who bother with the Church at all, why the big effort to change the discipline? My friend suggests that it most likely has to do with the paychecks of Church employees, as more and more such employees divorce and remarry, but want security in their jobs.

Under present Church discipline, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot hold Church positions. What a problem that must be for German Church employees. Is it any wonder who is leading the charge for change at the Synod?

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.

  • Howard Kainz

    Good question. According to my former pastor, he and innumerable fellow confessors frequently grant a dispensation for divorced and remarried to receive communion, relying on the canonical “praxis in foro interno.” (Pope Benedict as a theologian in 1972 expressed some support for this rule, but later reversed himself because of restrictions in Pope John Paul II’s 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, “familiaris consortio.”) So if this pastoral practice with regard to divorced and remarried is a widespread “fait accompli” on the parish level (perhaps like allowing contraception if your conscience is OK with it), it seems the horse has gotten out of the barn.

    • John F. Kennedy

      There is no barn left.

  • … the discipline about receiving Communion …
    Thank you for the article Father but isn’t it more than just “discipline?” Without stating on what the discipline is based upon, one reading this article might go away thinking that such discipline can be changed when given the words of the LORD and Apostle Paul, the perennial teaching of the Church and practice up to Pope Benedict XVI, this “discipline” cannot change.

  • Colin

    How can we know this Italian article is the real thing? After all, the journalist claims to have lied in confessing sins of a fictional ruse…has her source affirmed the truth of his comments? This smells like propaganda to me…

    • TBill

      Interesting question. If it’s a fake confession, would it be a sin for the priest to reveal its contents? Even if not, probably best to maintain silence given how it would appear.

    • Burger Fan

      But the priest could always just come forward and say she’s lying … oh that’s right, he can’t. So she can basically make up anything she wants.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “Under present Church discipline, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot hold Church positions. What a problem that must be for German Church employees. Is it any wonder who is leading the charge for change at the Synod?” A stinging — and necessary — indictment.

  • helensatmary

    Stick to the tried and true if you want to keep your soul…..Trust no one who tells you otherwise..The tenets of the Church have kept us safe for 2,000 years. Do not let new but cloudy thinking send you in a direction you will eternally regret. God’s laws do not change,

  • Bill Beckman

    It’s more than paychecks for German Church employees. It’s the German tax system and the huge revenue stream to dioceses there based upon registered members. Let’s be honest, it’s about the money. That’s why the German bishops are leading the charge. So why should the faithful throughout the world be sacrificed for the sake of propping up German/European apostasy? I can’t think of one good reason.

  • robert bunselmeyer

    Conscience without the guidance of scripture and Tradition–i.e. outside the teaching of the Church– is a misleading illusion. It is man sailing by his own compass and another concession to feel-good culture.

  • Fred

    Some woman journalist admits to us that she lied to a confessor to get a good story, and we’re supposed to believe anything she writes about the experience (if it even happened)? What a waste of time, Father Pilon.

  • Rene

    Small wonder that Pope Paul VI stated that the smoke of Satan had entered the vestibule of the Church.

  • Helen_Warren

    I love it when people use the expression “properly understood.” They nearly always mean that they are not going to actually address a reasoned point brought to counter their position, but rather they’re going to dismiss that point by suggesting that by merely acknowledging it they have already somehow disposed of it… properly understood.

    Authentically contracted marriages may fail. Contracted second marriages may succeed. These are truths most Catholics understand because they are readily demonstrated in life. Argue as much as you will, yet these Catholics cannot honestly regard such second marriages as sinful, because you argue against the truth of what is plainly set before them. Properly understood.

    If God may put together, then let the Church, who can bind and loose, and act on God’s behalf, formalize dissolution and bless second marriages. Let her recognize the truth in all it’s messy manifestations and deal with it, like the good priest in the confessional.

    • John F. Kennedy

      “Authentically contracted marriages may fail. Contracted second marriages may succeed.” If the first marriage is as you say “Authentically contracted” then there can be no other or second or third, etc marriages. What you are describing is a happy concubinage. This is no different than someone having a “second” Baptism. There is only the one.

    • Kano Hansen

      As far as it goes, and properly understood, your point is well taken. Yet, could you please weigh in on third and fourth marriages as well or is two the new arbitrary limit? Sometimes practice makes perfect I’m told. It could take several to finally catch the gold ring.

      • Helen_Warren

        No, it is not a question of limits, but of reality. Marriage is not a game divorced from reality and to which one arbitrarily applies extrinsically formulated rules; on the contrary, it possesses a nature that reflects the authentic nature of those who participate in it. The proof of this is that while quite a number of those who marry will divorce once and remarry once, far fewer proportionately will do it a second time. This is because those who marry seek to succeed in their marriages. And most of those who divorce and remarry do not do it lightly or flippantly, as if they were playing a game counting how many lives they have left. They do it in the light of acquired experience and greater understanding of who they are, why they failed in the first place, and how best to succeed in their new marriage.

        People are historical beings who are differently circumstanced and who grow and change in time. Decisions made in good faith and with the best of intentions at one time of their life may just not work out, no matter how hard they try. This is true. And nobody who is in a failed marriage doesn’t suffer for it. We in the Church need to get real. We are the ones who need to stop treating marriage as if it were a game of lives: one life and your out, period.

        • Kano Hansen

          Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

          With the very best of intentions, deep introspection regarding personal history, growth and evolution including careful and sober reflection concerning one’s conscience how many marriages should be viewed by the Church as authentic and licit? If one were to concede arguendo that multiple sacramental marriages could be possible it seems logical that as the number gets larger the “sacrament” suffers increasingly greater harm, loss of credibility and even practical extinction. Is there a number of marriages that could be proposed as at least a guideline for the faithful, something to shoot for in their struggles that would also allow the traditional Matthew 19:3-6 to be proclaimed in their serial array of weddings without scandal or scoffing?

          • Helen_Warren

            Really, I feel that would be up to the Church to decide on a case-by-case basis. The Church would not be obliged to grant a divorce or remarriage if it thought either party were unserious, just as it is not obliged to marry an ill-prepared couple today.

            And just as with confession, I think it is neither right nor logical to place a limit on the number of times a man may validly attend the sacrament, but if a man were to turn up week-by-week confessing to pillage, murder, and rape, say, I think the priest should become increasingly more stringent of the terms in which he doles out absolution.

          • Mohammed Hafazz

            Please forgive me for jumping in but the proposed solution bears a strong conceptual resemblance to the errant reconciliation practice that got this conversation started earlier today. Peace.

          • John F. Kennedy

            Stop with the “feelings”. Use your brain. The Church doesn’t “grant” divorces. It establishes whether OR not there has been a marriage.

          • Anthony Zarrella

            Here’s the problem, Helen. Confession is not a “one and done” Sacrament, so it makes sense that just because someone didn’t take it seriously enough one time, they are not barred from receiving it again.

            Marriage, according to Christ Himself is eternal (at least, while both spouses are alive).

            Now, yes, the Church has the power to bind and loose. But specific rules always trump generalities. This is just a basic principle of rule interpretation – God says, “Eat from any tree you want,” then He says, “Do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge.” Could Adam and Eve have argued, “Yeah, You said don’t eat, but You also said eat anything you want, so we had permission to eat from the Tree of Knowledge”??? Of course not.

            Likewise, Christ gave the Church general power to bind and loose, but then specifically said, regarding marriage, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.” In other words, “Bind and loose, but you may not loose this specific bond.”

            To allow and/or accept “remarriage” after civil divorce (assuming the first marriage was valid in the first place – which most of them are) is to do one of two things (with no middle ground):
            1) To assert that a valid marriage can (contrary to Christ) be “put asunder,” leaving the spouses unmarried and free to marry, OR
            2) To assert that a married person may, under some circumstances, validly marry a second spouse (i.e. permitting bigamy and polygamy).

            Besides, for all the talk of mercy and “historical beings who are differently experienced”, where is the mercy for the unwilling divorcee? What happens when one person (let’s just say the wife, for example only) decides her marriage has “failed” and wants to divorce and move on to greener pastures, but her husband wants to keep working at it and fix their broken marriage? How is it “merciful” to him to tell him that his “as long as we both shall live” marriage is now over, and that the woman he still sincerely (and rightly) believes to be his wife is now free to commit adultery against him and call another man her husband?

            Moreover, if accepting the reality of individual circumstances is your ultimate yardstick for recognition of marriages, then why not gay “marriages”? Why not polygamy? Why not “marriage” between consenting adult siblings? Maybe they’ll be happy together and the “marriage” will “work”.

            it possesses a nature that reflects the authentic nature of those who participate in it.

            No, like all Sacraments, it possesses a nature that is independent of the flaws and failings of its ministers (the couple). It possesses a nature ordained by God, and “differently experienced” “historical” human beings have no power or authority to change that.

            Any time someone talks about making the “rules” conform to or acknowledge “practical realities” or “lived experiences,” it is never anything more than a fancy way of saying, “People are going to sin, and we can’t stop them, so let’s stop making them uncomfortable about it.”

            God’s laws do not change to accommodate Man’s failings. Man’s failings must change to accommodate God’s laws.

          • John F. Kennedy

            You are too funny!

        • BPS

          In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 60 percent of second marriages and 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce.

        • ScottG

          I agree with you Helen, but you will not get far on this forum when you speak of “experiential faith” and real life circumstances. Many here reject the spirit of V2 and express outright disdain for the new Pope’s insistence on refocusing our efforts on the gospel priority, which is of course the heart of Christ and His teachings. I sincerely applaud your efforts, you have clearly and beautifully stated a compassionate and well-reasoned argument. Nonetheless, hearts and minds must be open to grasp and understand this message. Do not be discouraged, our loving God and Savior is more than capable of providing this grace!

    • Joanna Ionescu

      What makes a marriage to be authentically contracted? Good intentions and sincerity? Experience teaches, and the truth of this is plain to see, that good and sincere intentions are not enough. To be an authentic Catholic means to be firstly informed about Catholic teachings and secondly to adhere to those teachings. It is true that the Catechism places the conscience of the individual above everything else. It does not follow that the Church should change its teachings if more and more individuals cannot accept them. It follows that the individuals who cannot accept the teachings should leave the Church in order to be in good conscience. There are many other christian churches that allow divorce. It comes to no surprise that more and more Catholics cannot accept certain teachings of the Catholic church given the cultural and secular influences that affect us all. After all we do live in a militant secular society which grants no fault divorce and gay marriage with non-monogamous marriage lurking in the wings.

      As far as marriage is concerned, the Catholic Church does not allow for divorce. An annulment is a declaration by the Church that a valid (the word is valid not authentic) marriage did not occur in the first place. Many Catholic divorced couples are not even aware that their failed marriages may not have been valid to begin with. The criteria for validity are clear and objective. One has the duty to educate oneself about those. And the duty of the priest in the confessional, it goes without saying, is to advice the penitents correctly.

  • CB

    I trust the journalist, a putative Catholic, will now be publicly excommunicated for this serious abuse of the sacrament. If she isn’t, no one is going to take the current leadership of the Church seriously.

  • Francis Miller

    The article makes plain what is implicit in appeals to conscience as the ultimate guide of the faithful. As it must be. The important adjective left out is ‘informed’. A formless conscience is no help to anyone except the evil one. In this case, we are to accept the words of a reporter who clearly is a liar. That is no problem for most of us today as she only offers another opinion which must be held as equal to any other. Again evidence of the evil one. If there is one great loss incurred by the Post Vatican II initiatives it was the effort to inform the conscience of the faithful. It takes grace, prayer, effort, reflection and good teaching. Each of these are exquisitely undone by the guidance allegedly given this reporter.
    As far as excommunication goes, I imagine the reporter once so removed would take the advantage of going to Church and receiving then interviewing the minister of Eucharist for their opinion on offering her communion in her current excluded state. It would mean she is in a state of mortal sin. But if she were clever she would pursue this to some other cleric to get a conflicting interpretation of sin in general and mortal sin specifically. She will have a cottage industry.

  • Patti Day

    A priest who tells someone in confession, “here’s what the Church teaches, but in the end you have to follow your own conscience”, might as well be saying, “Go and sin again.” God will not be mocked.

  • Dave Fladlien

    This question seems to keep coming around, and always in the same unnecessarily confusing form (mixing the “what is right” question with the “how should we treat people” question). There are actually 2 questions: 1) what is right, and 2) how is the Church to treat those who are doing something it deems *objectively* wrong, though the persons *may* be acting in good conscience (not every case has the same level of sincerity of course).

    I think there is a huge difference between what we tolerate and what we condone or advocate. I think Pope Francis is trying to get to the heart of (at least) parts of those distinctions. And I do think we need to get to the heart of those distinctions. It makes a huge difference. We cannot take on an “anything goes” attitude, but we also have to remember that if everyone committing sins were excluded from the Church or the sacraments, we would all be excluded. We are all sinners!

  • Paul Vander Voort

    Excellent article. Sums up one of the major problems I’ve observed in your Church. The story would probably have been the same for some other sins IMO. Or would artificial birth control, homosexual activity, abortion been treated differently?

  • SnowBlossoms

    When this story first broke, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I wanted to cry. Thank you for writing about it, it was so deeply disturbing. That this woman played into Satan’s game and defiled the Sacrament of Confession in this manner says it all. She is literally playing with “fire”. Father forgive them, they know not what they do!