In January of this year, the U.S. Supreme court declined to intervene in a case in which the prosecutor wants to force Fr. Jeff Bayhi, a priest of the diocese of Baton Rouge, to testify about a confession in court. He allegedly told a fourteen year-old in 2008 to forget about the sexual abuse she had suffered from a family member. If Fr. Bayhi indeed did this, he will have to take responsibility for this despicable and unpastoral act at a higher, heavenly courtbut he cannot be expected to discuss the contents of a confession in a U.S. court of law.
After marriage, confession has always been the most contentious sacrament in the struggle between church and state. Already in the late middle ages Christian rulers felt offended that their rule should find limits in the confessional. The patron saint of confessors is St. John Nepomuk. This fourteenth-century Bohemian general vicar of the archdiocese of Prague was drowned in the river Moldau for not revealing the sins that the queen, the wife of king Wenceslaus IV, had confessed.
Although he was venerated in Bohemia for centuries he was not canonized until 1729, when Pope Innocent XIII declared him a saint for the universal Church. The reason for this sudden decision was not just a series of miracles attributed to him but also political opportunity: The pope declared him a saint in a time when the absolutist states increasingly infringed upon the life of the church and also tried to undermine the seal of the confessional. To elevate John Nepomuk to the honor of the altars as the first martyr who died for the confessional was therefore also a statement that the authority of the state reaches its limit when it touches the integrity of the sacraments. The state has no right to pressure priests to give up what Christ demanded must be kept sacred. It was also a reminder for all priests of the Church how important the integrity of the sacrament was, especially because a number of priests in Portugal had broken the holy seal in the eighteenth century. From 1729 onwards, the Holy Inquisition increased its work to prosecute clerical violators with the greatest severity.
Yet, there is another, usually forgotten example (and one could add countless more from the twentieth century), namely that of chaplain Andreas Faulhaber of Glatz in Silesia. When Faulhaber’s city was occupied by the troops of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, whom historians praise as an “enlightened absolutist ruler,” the former members of the defeated Austrian army were interned. They had to take an oath not to escape and if they did so would be treated as traitors and executed. Two men escaped and were soon afterwards arrested. Franz Rentwig, however, tried to save his skin and blamed the local priest Andreas Faulhaber. He had supposedly asked the priest: “Is it a great sin if I desert and do not keep my oath to a Lutheran king although I am Catholic?” To which the priest allegedly answered: “Of course this is a great sin, but not too big to be forgiven.”
Faulhaber was immediately arrested and interrogated. He was charged with downplaying the oath to the king and thus undermining his authority. All he said was: “I cannot confess anything and will not confess anything, and that because of the sanctity of the sacrament of confession and my priestly dignity.” Rentwig recanted his lie, the priest was released, but on the pressure of his officers renewed his accusation ten days later. On 29 December, 1757, Faulhaber was sentenced on personal command of the king to death as a spy and executed the next day by hanging. His request to see a fellow priest for confession and last rites was denied. Faulhaber’s body remained on the scaffold as a warning sign for others until the Austrians recaptured the city two years later.
These episodes from church history, however, also remind us about the importance of keeping the seal of the confessional sacred and should instill in us courage against unjust laws and against a state that oversteps its boundaries. If the secrecy of confession falls, how could we ever be brutally honest against ourselves again in the presence of a priest? And what would the priest be but a secondary agent of the government?
Ulrich L. Lehner is professor of religious history and theology at Marquette University and the author of the forthcoming book The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten Story of a Global Movement (Oxford).