Sacred and/or Secret, Confession and Other Forms of Religious Secrecy: A Scholarly Discussion


At the European Sociological Association’s RN34 conference, a panel discussed contemporary criticism of secrecy in religion, from the Catholic Church to Scientology

by Alessandro Amicarelli

The University of Groningen, host of the (virtual) ESA-RN34 conference. Credits.

The Sociology of Religion Research Network (RN34) of the European Sociological Association (ESA) held its biennial conference on “Religion in an Unstable World: Challenges, Transformations and Future Prospects” in Groningen, -Low, but online due to COVID concerns, July 13-15, 2022.

One of the panels was devoted to the theme “Sacred and/or secret: confession and other forms of religious secrecy”. Inspiration for the panel came from the recent book “Religious Confession and Evidential Privilege in the 21st Century”, edited by Mark Hill and A. Keith Thompson (Cleveland, Queensland: Connor Court Publishing, and Fremantle, Western Australia: University of Notre Dame Australia Press, 2021). Indeed, the publication of this book was followed with great interest by scholars of religions, and panels have also been held at other academic conferences.

The book brings together jurists and clerics from Australia, Ireland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden and Norway to discuss the issue of denominational secrecy and two conflicting impulses in modern western societies. The first is to extend the protection of denominational secrecy, from a privilege granted to certain Christian churches to a broader right to confidentiality for ministers of all religions. The second is to limit the protection afforded to secrecy, after its alleged misuse by the Catholic Church and other faiths to protect perpetrators of child sexual abuse. In several countries, there are now statutes or draft statutes, resisted by the churches concerned, which oblige priests and pastors to disclose information received in confession if it is relevant to identifying the perpetrators of sexual abuse of children.

The panel went beyond the text by raising broader questions about secrecy and religion, both with regard to Christian churches and the Church of Scientology, which has been embroiled in controversies over secrecy and confidentiality.

Based on her 25 years of experience as a diplomat who has worked, among others, in United Nations and European Union institutions dealing with issues of human rights, privacy and religious freedom, Rosita Šorytė examined the evolution of attitudes regarding the presence of secrets in religious and spiritual organizations. At 19e century, especially in the United States, there had already been campaigns against the supposed immorality of three secrets: of the Catholic confession, of the Masonic lodges and of the rituals of the Mormon temples. At the beginning of the 20e century, Georg Simmel’s studies have often been used (or misused) to claim that secret organizations were dangerous.

Later in the 20e century, however, Šorytė said, it was generally accepted that certain religious and spiritual organizations had, by their very nature, secrets, especially since their teachings were part of the tradition of Western esotericism. At 21st century, however, Šorytė noted, there has been a return to a culture of suspicion against secrets kept by religious and spiritual groups, after the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church and revelations that secrecy has been used as a tool to cover up sexual abuse in groups led by esoteric or oriental masters. She argued that while abuses do and do happen and cannot be shielded by self-serving references to religious freedom, keeping certain teachings and practices secret is an age-old feature of many religions and should not necessarily be seen as sinister. Sometimes, including in the case of Scientology, the secret is tied to the teachings themselves.

Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who is executive director of CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions), discussed contemporary controversies over confession. Due to cases of pedophile Catholic priests, provisions requiring priests and pastors who learn of sexual abuse in confession to disclose what they learn to secular authorities have been passed or proposed in nearly every state and territory of Australia, Ireland and some states in the United States The Catholic Church responds that the secrecy of confession is inviolable and that priests who violate the seal of confession will be excommunicated, regardless of what civil law prescribes.

In fact, Introvigne noted, the problem goes beyond the Catholic Church. Eastern Orthodox churches and some Lutheran and Anglican churches maintain practices similar to the Catholic faith. Several different groups, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Church of Scientology, have argued that they have practices that should be protected as well. Introvigne first reviewed the arguments put forward by those who claim that the privilege granted by law to the secrecy of confessions should be abolished, particularly in the case of sexual abuse of children, then the arguments of their opponents. The Italian sociologist concluded that the secrecy of confession in a secular society cannot be maintained as a privilege protecting specific religions, be it the Catholic Church or the national Orthodox or Protestant Churches in some European countries, and in that sense is or soon will become “a thing of the past”, with some limited geographical exceptions. But it can be reformulated, and perhaps socially accepted, he said, as part of a privilege of confidential religious exchanges applicable to all religions. In this sense, the international convention on freedom of religion or belief requires that denominational privilege be respected, Introvigne concluded.

Donald Westbrook presents his article.
Donald Westbrook presents his article.

Donald Westbrook, a lecturer in the School of Information at San Jose State University and the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of both a landmark study on the daily experience of Scientologists and a recent book on Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, noted that the Church of Scientology is often depicted in popular culture and the media as controversial and secretive. Westbrook explored the relationship and intersection between “Scientology Studies” and “Secret Studies”, both of which have emerged in recent years as fruitful sub-disciplines of value within Religious Studies and Sociology. of religion.

But in what sense, Westbrook asked, are the Church of Scientology (as an institution) and Scientology (as a religious system) described as “secret, and how have they been explored in the literature? secondary? What did L. Ron Hubbard have to say about the role of secrecy and confidentiality, both administratively and theologically? Much attention is usually given to the confidential nature of the Operational Thetan (OT) levels, which can be understood as expressions of Scientology’s Western esotericism and gnosticism. But most Scientologists, Westbrook said, have not reached the confidential OT levels, which take years to complete and are offered to members only by invitation. As of early 2022, less than 10,000 members have already reached the highest of the available OT levels (c. reported.

Indeed, according to Westbrook, the “ordinary Scientologist” tends to be far more concerned with auditing (counselling, which is covered by the privilege of the penitent priest), training auditors, and volunteering for organizations such as The Way to Happiness, Citizens Commission on Human Rights, applied scholastics, volunteer ministers and others. While the confidentiality of the Church of Scientology should be respected, Westbrook said, there is a wealth of material available for scholars to research Scientology in its history and theology, rather than just focusing on controversies. In fact, Scientology studies seem to be moving into a “2.0” stage where scholars are discussing the Church of Scientology as they would any other religion.

Eric Lieberman, a New York lawyer and the author of a chapter on Scientology in the book edited by Hill and Thompson, noted that the United States Constitution provides two interrelated protections for religious liberty, the establishment and the free exercise clause. Yet, due to accidents of history, the privilege protecting secret communications between parishioners and ministers has rarely been analyzed in terms of constitutional protection. On the contrary, privilege has been recognized as a matter of common law. This has led to differential treatment of privilege in state and federal courts, often with constitutionally suspect results.

According to Lieberman, however, an analysis of modern legal, social, and doctrinal developments compels the conclusion that privilege must enjoy constitutional protection, including the protection of the religious practices of some churches which provide that privileged communications may be heard by more of a minister and discussed by ministers with their church superiors. Unlike the Catholic confession, the practice of auditing in Scientology may involve more than one minister simultaneously receiving a “confession” from the parishioner, and allows ministers to take notes and share them with their supervisor or line manager.

These practices, Lieberman explained, are not unique to Scientology, and indeed there have been court cases in the United States involving Baptists and Latter-day Saints, where “confession” also does not follow the individual Catholic model. Courts have generally recognized that these practices are also protected. Regardless of what may happen in other countries, the unique American approach to religious liberty, if tested, will likely provide protection for Scientology’s audit confidentiality, Lieberman concluded.


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