Chills ran down the spines of Catholics on January 12 when North Dakota lawmakers announced their intention to amend the state’s Century Code relating to mandatory reporting. Under the current law, “a member of the clergy…is not required to report [knowledge or suspicion of child abuse] if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of a spiritual advisor,” a category that includes sacramental confession. But SB 2180 would delete this exception, making it a failure to report suspected abuse or neglect, even if learned in the confessional, punishable by up to thirty days in prison and/or a fine of $1500.
Abstract discussions about religious liberty abruptly take on an existential immediacy with news like this. Cancel culture is right on the doorstep of the Catholic Church, and woke America seems to be breathing down our throats. It is a moment redolent of Henry II’s drunken lament in 1170 when he moaned to his barons, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” North Dakota’s proposed revocation of the ancient privilege of the seal of the confessional is a second lament, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome Church?”
Libertas ecclesiae was front and center back in the 12th century, and is today as well. Libertas ecclesiae is the sovereign right of the Church to exercise her work of saving souls in the ancient fashion of her divine constitution. But the creeping fascism on display in these past several weeks demonstrates how deadly serious the threat to the Church’s liberty has become. Mussolini’s chilling prescription for the omnipresent State rings in our ears with an eerie shiver: “Everything within the state; nothing against the state; nothing outside the state.” Modernity has already reduced the church’s bright flame to a fragile flicker. Motions like North Dakota’s threaten to blow out the flame entirely.