Debate revived in Australia over Third Rite confession

third rite

Great shocks to the system often can jar loose utterly new responses from institutions typically given to maintaining the status quo.

Other times, the effect can be to reopen debates from the past which, not so long ago, seemed definitively closed.

That latter scenario may be unfolding in Australia right now, pivoting on once-intense debates over the so-called “Third Rite” of confession, meaning a form of the sacrament celebrated in group form rather than individually.

The Catholic Church in Australia has been living through such a great shock for at least the last five years, after a government-led Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established, which took an especially close look at the Church and its failures.

In the end the commission issued 189 recommendations for reform, including 80 that are specific to the Church.

While the Australian bishops on August 31 said “yes” to some 98 percent of those recommendations, it was their one “no” that’s produced an avalanche of outrage and commentary Down Under – their refusal to erode the seal of the confessional to require confessors to report admissions of child abuse to civil authorities.

Mandatory reporting

Recently, the Labor-led government of the Australian state of Victoria announced it would overhaul existing law to mandate that priests who learn about child abuse in the confessional and fail to report it to the police will face up to three years in prison.

“The safety of children is our highest priority and our biggest responsibility – people in religious ministry are not exempt from this,” said Victoria’s Minister for Children Jenny Mikakos.

In the tempest that’s followed, some progressive-minded Aussie Catholics with long memories are suggesting that had their bishops not caved into the Vatican two decades ago over the “third rite,” we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

In general, the Church recognizes three forms the sacrament of confession, or reconciliation, can take:

  1. Individual confession, where the penintent approaches a priest individually, confesses his or her sins, and is absolved.
  2. A community gathering featuring an opening hymn, a greeting by the priest, and a prayer. The priest allows a brief time of personal reflection after the homily. Then each person confesses to a priest individually and receives absolution.
  3. A service in which there is no individual confession. The priest gives a general absolution of sins after the community have reflected privately and said a prayer expressing their repentance.

Using the Third rite

That “third rite” theoretically is only supposed to be used in emergency situations, such as soldiers heading off into battle or a disaster with eminent threat of death. (Think the deck of the Titanic.)

In Australia in the period after the Second Vatican Council, however, the third rite became widespread, in part as a pastoral response to rural areas where there simply weren’t enough priests to offer individual confessions on a regular basis.

If the Vatican had just left us alone, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

In part, too, it was justified by post-Vatican II understandings that sin isn’t just individual but also collective and structural. It was seen as a more effective way, for instance, of doing penance for the mistreatment of the country’s aboriginal people.

In the late 1990s, the Vatican clamped down aggressively on the use of third rite in Australia, which was part of a wider thrust back to more traditional modes of worship and sacramental practice known as the “Liturgy Wars” in the late Pope John Paul II years.

The rollback in Australia caused wide protest, but over time the third rite gradually became less and less common.

Now, however, some Australian Catholics who agree with the Royal Commission that there should be no space in the Church where a veil of secrecy applies to child abuse are floating the idea of bringing back the third rite.

I spoke to a veteran religious sister in Melbourne on Thursday, for instance, who told me that “if the Vatican had just left us alone, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Whatever the merits of that argument, it doesn’t cut much ice with Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney. Continue reading

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