Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, has an article in today’s Detroit News on the recent conviction of Rev. Christian von Wernich, a Catholic priest sentenced to life in prison for his role in supporting the totalitarian regime during Argentina’s National Reorganization Process. Rev. von Wernich, a police chaplain, was accused of sharing the conversations he received with prisoners in the confessional with the police who then used them as evidence against those prisoners and in making further arrests of accomplices.
Sirico explains that the priest was clearly in the wrong to be sharing the secrets of the confessional with the state not only because the Church forbids it, but because there are some aspects of life that the state does not and should not ever control, namely our conscience. Sirico writes:
No matter what the sin is, the priest is under a moral obligation not to reveal it, and never to act upon the information he received. It is more than a secret in a regular sense. The priest in the confessional is acting in the person of Christ, hearing and offering forgiveness not on his behalf but on behalf of Christ. Priests are urged not even to think about what they have heard in the confessional afterwards.
The state has no right to access the confessional. Christ, not the state, has the first claim on the conscience of the individual. The sad story of von Wernich is again a reminder of the lesson of the Gospel that some things, but not all things, belong to Caesar; some aspects of life belong to God alone.