If the following article is not clear enough, then it is an example of the kind of moral fault that we find among highly-placed religious authorities at the time of this writing. However, we would like to state from the outset that we neither wish neither to focus on any particular contemporary scandal, nor to serve prurient interests. While trying to be as inclusive as possible, (even though the reader may suspect that the focus is more on one religion than any other), we will deliver the facts in such a way that it could be no more offensive than a 1950s sermon delivered on a Sunday morning to entire families. We answer a somewhat naïve question which someone once asked, “What sins do nuns commit?” The most shocking possible answer – a very reasonable one, really – used to exist in a certain environment which would make the fault – one hopes – rare. The current moral climate is otherwise.
Again, what we say may be true across a broad spectrum of religions, but we would also hope, where appropriate, the specific religion which this article does not name (but may as well have), would consider returning to the more stable norms of the past, and examine its own conscience, to see how the present, lamentable state of affairs has come about.
What the religious confess, as stated in this article, should be taken as conjecture based on the logic of what books on moral theology discuss as sins. The couple of books mentioned herein, have provided us with more concrete clues.
The original idea for this article was to focus on nuns and monks. Both groups are found in Western and Eastern religious traditions: Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Methodism (if limited), Orthodox Christianity, and Roman Catholicism from the European traditions; while in Asia, representation is found within the Buddhist and Hindu faiths; and some others, including “religions” which do not have a deity. By extension, (and no desire exists to exclude these), we would have to include in our purview priests and ministers of religions; and finally, any individual who lives a life similar to that of a monk or nun. We salute those of the aforementioned groups which are above reproach, and whom thus could not serve as anything other than the most general material for our analysis.
References to confession are also valid for various religions, while the format and precise belief about its efficacy may vary. It is only found (to this writer’s knowledge) within the Abrahamic religions. A section was intended to deal with sins priests may commit at the time that he hears Confessions, but this, save for a couple of comments, has been deemed to controversial, and subject to error on the part of the present writer.
“What Do Nuns Confess?”
This question occurred to someone who wrongly assumed that in these modern times a woman of the veil would have nothing to confess.
Nothing precludes that we might substitute some other word for “nun”, such as “priest” or “monk”, but the question presupposed that women of the cloth are holier than their male equivalents.
The quick reply given to the questioner was that they might speak badly about others. The grave danger of such a practice was well-illustrated in the 2008 movie, Doubt, when it was requested that torn pieces of paper blown like leaves in the wind be gathered again. The idea was that the retraction of slander would never become known (or even possibly be considered true) by all those who had become cognizant of the original story.
In this sense, our penitent would truly have been guilty of a grave fault, but we are not here interested in things too boring for a modern confessor to listen to. I say the following facetiously – I strongly suspect that the only sins the priest wants to hear about nowadays are those committed by “the rich” against “the poor”. He could then say, in the words of a clergyman I once knew, “Give until it hurts!”
Really Now, What Would Priests and Nuns Confess?
Because of their position, priests had obligations that might seem especially onerous to someone leaving the secular world behind. The old Roman Catholic Canon Law of 1917, for example, prohibited hunting, as it was a blood sport.
We will now include what would almost seem silly, from a book called Casos de Conciencia, (Jesus Buhanda, 2a ed. update by Estanislao Olivares) [Madrid: Razón y Fe, 1963]. Our “Cases of Conscience” in this little work often seem to be directed at an audience of lay people, so it is surprising that there are examples for the clergy. Cases 449 and 450, pp. 265-6, mention a priest playing cards with some friends for penny-ante amounts. Sometimes he buys a lottery ticket, or goes into a bar for a glass of wine or a shot of liqueur. The latter was considered a minor fault, the former, because of the small stakes involved, unimportant. The Canon Law in force at the time of the writing of that book, however, viewed as a grave fault the purchase of goods for the purpose of selling them at a better price. However, to use the words of modern economists, if a purchase was made, and value added before the sale (if the specific rules of, for example, a monastery so allowed), no blame was incurred. It is thus that we have seen, for example, a Franciscan Basilica selling honey and beauty projects of apian derivation.
Case 427 (p. 252-3) mentions superiors who, out of fear, relax religious discipline; or inversely, who treat their charges to harshly, with concomitant harm to the community. They are considered to have sinned gravely.
The next case the book gives mentions an individual who, while living a Christian life, violates all the rules about silence, attendance, punctuality, and the like. He too, is considered to have sinned gravely, and for the good of the community, it is recommended that he be expelled. This point can be tied in with the previous one – will the superior refuse to discipline the fun-loving individual?
This writer has heard a story that some women are trapped into becoming nuns. If this is true, if is against all the rules. There was a movie in the last decade or so – French, probably, in which an overzealous candidate for a monastery is sent out into the world for a while, so that he would be sure if the religious life would be right for him. Something of a similar nature happens in the real-life story of Maria Augusta Trapp (of Trapp Family Singers fame). Allthough she desired to be a nun, it was suggested that she marry. Whether fact or fiction, the movie this author saw about 60 years ago seemed to show her as a somewhat frivolous novice.
By logic, and so without recourse to any books, we can also state, that even the best of religious people may occasionally be guilty of serious lying or anger. On the other hand, we would like to believe that they do not sin against God by profaning his Holy Name, working on the Sabbath, or the like.
But there is one sin that may come as a surprise. We mention it here as we read it, and leave it to the reader to translate. It is taken from Curso Breve de la Teología Ascética by Ludovico Hertling, trans. Ignacio Granero [Buenos Aires: Grupo de Editores Católicos, 1947], p. 34; and cites a work by Próspero Lambertini (later Benedict XIV) from a work which translates into Spanish as De la Beatificacion de los Siervos de Dios y de la Canonización de los Beatos, [Latin title: De Servorum Dei beatificatione et Beatorum canonizatione] Bolonia, 1734-8: …dije que era inverosímil y exagerado lo que decían algunos testigos, que afirmaban, que éste o aquél siervo de Dios no había sido tentado por la carne, y que había llegado a tan alto grado de castidad , que jamás había experimentado la rebelión de su mente ni de su cuerpo.
We note that P. Lambertini made such a conclusion based on the lives of “good” people much before Sigmund Freud discovered such thoughts in the lives of the his assortment of Viennese patients.
With respect to la rebelión de su mente, or an unruly mind, – bad thoughts – we can consider three broad categories: (1) enjoying, in the imagination, a sin committed in the past; (2) any enjoyment of other sinful thoughts; and (3) (a) a desire to do wrong when the opportunity arises, or (b) the wish that conditions were propitious for a sinful action.
In some circles, the concern about purity of thought, which was taught to any seven-year old back in the 50s through Baltimore Catechism No. 1 (question 370), was carried so far as to concern oneself about those occurring in one’s sleep. Reading conservative web-sites, one is forced to conclude that all the above has become irrelevant. Why was it, then, that back before the times of innovation, we had, in a prayer, the following words:
Procul recedant somnia, Et noctium phantasmata; Hostem que nos comprime Ne polluantur corpora. [public domain text]
The preceding is from the evening prayer Te lucis ante terminum, and was found in the Römisches Sonntagsmeßbuch, Benediktinern der Erzabtei Beuron, [Freiberg: Herder, 1963], p. 669. Two English translations were found on line, but they were not as clear in meaning as the original words in Latin, or the Mass Book’s translation into German.
So, there we have it: the sum of what one hoped would be the limit of sins for “holy” people.
On a related matter, we have seen a textbook which demands, from the physical point of view, a prolonged period of continence before a candidate can be administed into the priesthood. A grave sin involving no other complications excluded a candidate for a period of six months, at least. The complications involved can included something as little as any type of “bad” thought against the virture of purity.
When we see that in such cases there is always a spiritual director involved, we are forced to ask ourselves, “What happens if a candidate lies in his confessions about his sins of commission or omission? What happens if the spiritual director actively weakens the conscience of the candidate? We have seen the allegation made that this actually was taking place in some seminaries, and leading to a decline in vocations among the more serious.
Some Problems with Confession
The gravest sin a confessor could commit is violating the secrecy of the confessional. This might be debated by some – but it is an area which others cover, and we do not intend to go over this ground with our relatively sterile observations.
If one observes churches of different cultures, sometimes even when one compares new and old buildings in the same city, one can find different lay-outs of the confessional. Some of these are more conducive to guaranteeing confessional secrecy than others. Serious priests maintain a schedule, and are inside the confessional at the stated hour. If these do not allow the priest to see the penitent, we have maximum secrecy (unless we are worried about voice recognition). As long as he is more lit up than the penitent (like the prisoner being interrogated in a police station, with other police watching behind a one-way mirror), identification of the penitent should be impossible. Back in the 60s, these were considered by some to be “sin-bins”. On the other hand, in some Latin-cultures, it is common to see confessionals where the penitent can be seen by anyone on his or her side of the confessional. We have also seen confessionals where both priest and penitent are visible, behind glass doors. An interesting arrangement in one church allowed the priest to enter his part of the confessional without his being seen by – or his seeing – the penitent. Then, there are arrangements where the person confessing has the option of going in front of the priest, or staying behind a screen. If the penitent is to feel uncomfortable in this arrangement, he kneels. Churches that prefer the comfort of the sinner offer a chair.
We personally agree (somewhat) with the view of a person who once claimed that if you state what your vote will be, you are violating voting secrecy laws. For this reason, we are against the most modern (although it was practised in the past, especially in the case of necessity) face-to-face confession. Only the most serious confessor cannot fail to be influenced by the aspect of the penitent. In fact, one book we have seen, states that the priest should consider if the expression of the penitent shows true remorse. (The last we have read about instructions to confessors is that the priest should not doubt the sincerity of the “penitent”.) At any rate, tourists in major world cathedrals during hours of confession might notice how some penitents who face the priest are met with a friendly smile, and others with indifferent expressions. This is not quite right.
A most serious abuse, committed during the First World War (and perhaps the Second), mentioned by a French writer, was the refusal of Catholic priests to administer to dying soldiers of the enemy lines. I believe the English title of this book was The treason of the intellectuals, or La trahison des clercs, by Julien Bendas.
Some priests speak too loudly. This sounds very close to revealing a confessional secret. A little known rule states that if a person outside of the confessional hears anything of the matters discussed inside, he is also bound to secrecy. This may not be enough to assuage the misgivings of a person to whom a priest spoke without the required prudence. (I have witnessed this on the part of a one-time columnist, who should have known better.)
Final Notes on Problems Related to Authority
A theme which we have often found in our reading of web pages, was that of the obedience due to authority, as stated in Romans 13: 1-7. Some people believe this to be absolutely binding in all cases, but it is easy to show that if this were true, many evils would result.
We believe that we have discovered a potential problem in the transition from pre-Vatican II instruction of children, to that which followed. Here is our argument:
Young children, through the first Baltimore Catechism, mentioned above, learned that they must obey our parents in all that is not sin, and that this obedience extends to magistrates, teachers, and other lawful superiors. [Questions 362-3]. Not only might the concept of a magistrate be completely above the head of a seven-year-old, but there is also the problem of parents or other lawful superiors who would decide for the weaker, younger party, the definition of what might be a sin in a specific context. Not until we get to Baltimore Catechism #3 – 1891 version – do we get some clarification about the meaning of magistrate, and “We should refuse to obey parents or superiors who command us to sin because they are not then acting with God’s authority, but contrary to it and in violation of His laws.”
It becomes clear that at a time when utmost delicacy was used in speaking of certain sins, children might have been required to use their imagination in understanding all that could be evil. “No loitering in the washroom” was a mysterious command for this writer, who got it accidently right, by wanting to get out of that place as quickly as possible.
Here we see, for the younger years, the importance of parents adding, where necessary, “Doing X is always wrong!”
After the Vatican reforms, the Baltimore Catechism was replaced by a more modern text, which kept some of the old questions, but was more entertaining. Considering that the clergyman we had at that time was a proponent of “obedience to authority”, we can see that suddenly, we have a crop of children who no longer learnt not to obey that which was sinful. Many of the young men of that transition period would end up in the Vietname War. We might think about what they obeyed – and disobeyed. It might also be interesting to have statistics on the serious failing occurring before and after about 1965.
Who was responsible for this watering down of catechesis?
.We had been sceptical, but have read, and now consider the accusation as true, that there was a concerted effort by Communists to subvert the Church. (Conservative churches claim such an attack against Christianity is taking place even now.) The accusation is made, and can be confirmed on-line, that in the 1930s, one Bella Dodd, former member of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., spoke about placing more than 1000 communists and the like into seminaries, with a view to the destruction of the Church from within. (Search terms: “Communist catholic seminaries Bella Dodd testimony” [without the quotation marks]).
In that event, it was the lack of proper vigilance by the seminary authorities (perhaps unintentional) which started the slow rot, by what now would be cadres from and for the left.
It is noteworthy that in the 1960s or 70s (if not both), a U.S. weekly, Our Sunday Visitor, decried the Latin-American Bishops conclusions of the Medellin or Puebla Conferences. The conclusions were considered too leftist for this American publication. This writer left Canada in 1981 when the some Catholic Churches in Ontario had available, in addition to the traditional The Canadian Register (a.k.a. The Catholic Register), a liberal newspaper which spoke in favor of anything which orthodoxy was against.
Priests or nuns, especially those who were trained after the Vatican II reforms, should they want to know if they are truly serving a rock-solid tradition (if they believe in such a thing), would be well-advised to read some material printed before 1960 – not all of which is doctrinally pure. Unfortunately, most of it would be in Latin. Those monks or nuns outside of the Catholic tradition (referring especially to the Roman Rite) are most fortunate in not having suffered such a “revolution”.
There is much more that can be said on this topic, but it would only be a rehash of what has been said elsewhere. In order not to do so, we have suggested several types of sin among the religious – some which are applicable to all – by traditional definition; and some which are the sins of those responsible for the correct governance of those under their care. Without a doubt, the greater fault lies with those in charge of seminaries, convents, monasteries, and the like.
March 26-9, 2019,
© 2019, Paul Karl Moeller