I was recently swapping war stories with another gay Catholic, and he shared with me an experience from a couple of his friends. I’ve never had this experience myself, but the more I become aware of the complicated nature of the Church, the less I’m surprised by experiences like this. Apparently, his friends had confessed gay sex in confession, and the priest had responded by saying that this sin was unforgivable.
It should go without saying that such a comment is unsupported by Catholic moral theology. However, the “issue” of homosexuality can be a source of great insecurity among western clergy. So while I have never had this experience myself, it does not surprise me that this has happened to others.
What can be done? I’ve realize that some priests are incredibly intelligent about how they make harmful statements like this. Some use the cover of the confessional for protection. Because they can neither affirm nor deny statements made in the confessional, priests have a plausible deniability and canonical protection. Their religious superiors canonically can’t take action against them based on what was said in the confessional. These priests also know that the cover of the confessional guards them against many external civil and criminal law suits.
But as a layperson, there are some ways to get around this so that you can hold these priests accountable for harmful advice.
I should start by saying that none of this is legal advice. I am a licensed attorney in the state of Minnesota. If you’re looking for legal advice, you should contact an attorney within your own state. Nonetheless, I’ll share some of my thoughts based on my experiences, what I have seen work for others, and some of my conversations with attorneys who have been involved in lawsuits with the Church.
I should also say that the decision about whether or not to take one of the proposed courses of action I’ll outline here is entirely up to you. Pushing for accountability in the Church can be extremely draining, and some clergy hold such sway that any critique or reporting can result in backlash from the community. These are all things to weigh. It’s not your responsibility to fix the moral failures of clergy, especially if you’ve been a victim of harmful and anti-Catholic comments in the confessional. But if you want to do something, here’s one idea.
If a priest says in the confessional that gay sex is unforgivable, one course of action would be to talk to the priest outside of the confessional. Engage him in a casual conversation. Bring along another person who can back you up later on what was said. Tell the priest that you’re not looking for spiritual counsel or advice or necessarily pastoral support, but that you have a theological question, and you were hoping that he could help clarify. Then ask the priest whether gay sex is an unforgivable sin. Tell him that this is something you’d heard from a priest. You and he both know that he is the priest, but don’t acknowledge this in the conversation. Don’t touch on the specific confession. Keep it all more or less hypothetical. This, in some states, can help shield you from the priest-penitent privilege, a privilege that many priests use to shield themselves from having to testify in cases and to avoid legal liability themselves (again, verify this with an attorney in your state).
This can also help to protect you canonically. What a priest tells you in the confessional is generally not something that you can bring to their superiors. They can’t take action for things said under the seal of the confession. However, what a priest tells you within the context of just exploring a moral question in a casual conversation is absolutely something you can bring to religious superiors.
If he says that gay sex is not an unforgivable sin, follow up with the following questions: “What should I do in the hypothetical situation that a priest tells me that it is unforgivable? Should I just ignore it and take it as bad theology?” If he tells you yes, then you can smile to yourself and to him, knowing exactly what he’s done and allowing him to see that.
However, if he tells you that gay sex is an unforgivable sin, this is what you do next. You get out your phone or a notebook and a pen. You then say, “So I asked you, ‘Is gay sex an unforgivable sin?'” Write that in the notebook, word for word. Then say, “And you said the answer is, ‘Yes’? I just want to make sure I understand this correctly.” Read it back and have him confirm. Send your notes and an overview of what happened to his religious superior. Be sure to keep copies for yourself.
If you’re in a single-party consent state for recording, consider discreetly recording the conversation with your phone and then sending it to his religious superior. And don’t feel bad. Some people may say you’re being vindictive. If you are, that’s not good, and you should work on it. You’ll probably want to confess it. But you’re also telling the truth. This isn’t about destroying him. It’s about helping the Church address a serious problem. And that’s good.
If he’s the sort of priest who would affirm firing a gay employee following investigations into that employee’s personal life, then you’re really just taking a page out of his book. Thank him for that page.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.
I am not a Catholic and not familiar with the nuances of confession. In the Episcopal tradition, we mostly use the general confession in the liturgy. However we do have the sacrament of reconciliation as a rite; it is “under-used.” However, the liturgy we do have allows for the Priest to withhold absolution. This possibility ups the ante in terms of the solemnity of the event, also, it introduces an element of risk and fear. In general, I think no reason is given for withholding absolution. In the case of saying something is unforgivable, I think this goes beyond what ought to be allowable. It strikes me as hubris on the part of the Priest, going beyond mere withholding.