Louisiana Supreme Court orders priest to testify about confession

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by Ed Morrissey,

from HotAir,

Many observers misunderstood the Hobby Lobby dispute and others like it as a First Amendment case, but it wasn’t. It primarily related to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with an indirect reference to the constitutional freedom of religious expression. A case in Louisiana may be the real McCoy, though. The Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that a priest must testify in a case about what he heard in a confessional — an order that would result in automatic excommunication and damnation, according to the doctrine and canon law of the Catholic Church.

This case gets complicated for a couple of reasons. While the common perception has been that priests cannot be forced to testify about confessions in the US because of ministerial privilege and the First Amendment, that privilege gets defined by each state separately. In Louisiana, the privilege attaches to the person offering the confession and not the priest. Once the penitent has revealed what was said — or perhaps more to the specific point in this case, alleges to have revealed what was said — the state can subpoena the priest to confirm or deny the testimony. In that sense, it’s akin to the lawyer-client privilege, which can be broken by the client.

On the other hand, lawyers don’t face eternal disbarment for testifying once a client has waived the privilege. Priests do, and face automatic expulsion from the Catholic Church for complying. There is nothing in church doctrine that requires a penitent to keep quiet about what transpires in the confessional, but the canon law is clear on this point. Can. 983 states that “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” The punishment for breaking the seal is explicitly noted in Can. 1388: “A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae [by the commission of the act] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.”

In this case, the trap is even more complex. The court wants the priest to corroborate the girl’s testimony about the confession. Assuming the priest recalls the confession at all — it was five or more years ago, and priests hear a lot of confessions, and most of them anonymously — he’d have to violate canon law just by talking about it. Plus, if he testifies that the witness is not telling the truth about the confession, he’d be violating the seal of the confessional even more profoundly. Either way, the court would in essence force the priest into betraying his faith and violating his oath or face prison time for contempt of court.

Rod Dreher warns that this is a direct attack on religious freedom:

I agree. In order for Catholics to enjoy the free expression of their faith, they have to know that the confessional is inviolable no matter what issues may be at play. For that to happen, priests — who deserve the same freedom of religious expression as everyone else in the US — have to know that they do not risk jail time for the act of hearing confessions. The interest of the state in this civil lawsuit is far outweighed by the need to protect this freedom, and any restriction on privilege set up at the state level that fails to recognize this should be overturned by federal courts on the basis of the First Amendment.

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