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Sunday 13 November 2016

Confession: A Degradation Ceremony?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 27th November 2015

Conservative Catholics usually enthuse about the 'sacrament' of confession, although liberal Catholics don't bother with it. Many LGBT Catholics are critical of the practice. Why?

Pope Innocent III introduced the practice of confession for adults after the church held the Lateran Council in 1215. Before this, there had been loud and ostentatious acts of public penance for wrongs done to individual clergy or the institutional church. It involved a male priest sitting in a bisected box in which he painstakingly subjected the layperson on the other end to psychological scrutiny for conformity or infractions committed against the church's code of conduct. Particularly, the priest was enjoined to discern whether or not the layperson had committed 'mortal sins'. There are supposed to be seven 'deadly' violations of church teaching- envy, greed, anger, pride, gluttony, laziness and lust. Invariably, however, the emphasis was on 'illicit sexual acts' within this context. The only 'licit' form of sexuality was reproductive heterosexuality within the context of marriage. This meant that a whole series of 'sexual sins' appeared in priestly guidebooks- masturbation, fornication (unmarried straight sex), adultery (sex outside straight marriage) and sodomy (straight or gay anal sex). These consensual adult acts were judged as more serious than non-consensual acts- rape, pedophilia, incest and animal sexual abuse. The hapless layperson had to endure being castigated by a voyeuristic and invasive church official who supposedly had no experience of the practices in question. However, the laity weren't absolute masochists and even though the Counter-Reformation's Council of Trent made attendance at confession mandatory for Catholics on the pain of excommunication, Catholic authors were scathing about priests who raped women and clergy pedophiles when they encountered them, as were fundamentalist Protestants during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even worse, arch-reactionary Pope Pius X subjected children to the practice. As we know now, this also exposed them to risks from pedophiles within the Catholic priesthood. Pius X was frightened of modern democratic institutions, scientific development and critical inquiry, and tried to shut the church away into a time loop, endlessly recounting medieval philosophy as if it were verifiable, absolute 'truths.'

This had consequences. Young upwardly mobile Catholic working class youth left the church in disgust over hard-line Catholic anti-communism and straight Catholic married couples ignored church teaching and used contraception, whether barrier methods like condoms, or the Pill when it was developed in the early sixties. Although Vatican II held out some hope for modernisation under the reformist Pope John XXIII, Paul VI institutedHumanae Vitae,declaring contraception and abortion "forbidden." In 1975, the Congregation for Defence of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition) also ruled that homosexuality was an 'objective' moral 'disorder', which meant that celibacy was enjoined on observant Catholics. There were divergent responses to this- an educated lay counter-culture arose to challenge the 'moral' authority of the Pope and church hierarchy, consisting of Catholic feminists, and later, LGBT Catholics as well. In the United States, this gave rise to the Catholic abortion rights organisation Catholics for A Free Choice, the Conference for Catholic Lesbians and Dignity. Unfortunately, the next two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were arch-conservative obscurantists, although Vatican II had made some concessions to modernity and lay assertiveness by relegating confession to an optional activity. While the two popes tried to repackage it as a therapeutic and egalitarian activity, liberal Catholics stayed away and carried other lay Catholics with them. Only conservative Catholics still follow the practice.

Unfortunately, this includes some conservative Catholic lesbians and gay men. They tend to follow a 'bulimic' approach to their sexual identity and conservative religious derogation which is annoyingly cyclical. First, have gay or lesbian sex. Then, feel guilty about it because the church says so. Then, confess it to a conservative priest who will lambast and humiliate you for it, and force you to recant in verbal penance. Then, feel virtuous until the next time after you have sex. This whole dreary process is psychologically and intellectually damaging and doesn't make conservative Catholic lesbians or gay men pleasant people to be around, given their emotional volatility and circumscribed intellectual life. Fortunately, insofar as New Zealand goes, only a few pockets of conservative Catholicism still exist in this country, in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Southland. They are embattled though, which is truly good news- as one may recall, Ireland overwhelmingly voted for marriage equality, in retaliation and as a consequence of the loss of church moral authority over the Catholic clergy pedophilia scandal.

Happily, the confessional doors are now wide open and the black box is neglected and cobwebbed. Here endeth the (wrong) lesson.


John Cornwall:The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession:London: Profile Books: 2015.

[Graphic: Confessional]

Craig Young - 27th November 2015

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