Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics in India are watching with concern a Supreme Court case about confession. Last week, the Supreme Court of India agreed to consider a petition by three lay members of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, who argue that the requirement of mandatory annual confession in their denomination violates the Constitutionally protected right to privacy.

The lawsuit follows two criminal cases, which started in 2018, where priests of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kerala were accused of abusing confession to solicit female penitents into sexual relationships, and blackmail their husbands by threatening to reveal their wives’ secrets. The criminal cases are pending, with some of the priests in jail, but a parallel canonical investigation of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church concluded that the priests were guilty, and they were defrocked.

After this incident, a lay member of the Church filed a lawsuit with the Kerala High Court, asking the judges to declare that the requirement to confess one’s sins to a priest is a violation of India’s Constitutional provisions protecting individual liberty and privacy. The court disagreed, commenting that the freedom of the church members is protected by their right to leave the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and join a different denomination where auricular confession is not required.

This decision was consistent with international case law, which regards as an intrinsic part of religious freedom the principle that secular courts should not interfere on the internal organisation of a religion. Members dissatisfied with how their religion is organised may simply leave it.

Now, however, three laymen have taken the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that they have no chance to prevail in Kerala. The case accepted by the Supreme Court also includes a request to rule that the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church’s requirement that each member contributes financially to the church is against the Constitution.

The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church requires that members take confession at least once a year. Parishes keep a register of the confessions, and theoretically members who do not take confessions, or refuse to contribute financially, can be excluded from the community, although the church insists that this almost never happens.

The powerful National Commission for Women stated that forbidding mandatory confession is just a first step, and called for a law forbidding auricular confession in general, claiming it can be used for the sexual abuse of women. This elicited a strong reaction by the Roman Catholic Church, which also asks its members to take auricular confession at least yearly (although there are no sanctions for those who don’t).

The proposed confession ban “betrays a total lack of understanding of the nature, meaning, sanctity and importance of this Sacrament for our people; and also an ignorance of the strict laws of the Church to prevent any abuse,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai and a member of the Vatican’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, the so-called C-7. Such a ban “would be a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the country’s constitution,” Gracias said.

The Supreme Court case represents a danger for two reasons. First, a decision asking the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church to eliminate its requirements that devotees take confession at least yearly, and contribute financially to the church’s needs, would represent a clear interference of the secular state into the internal affairs of a religious body, and create a dangerous precedent. Second, it may in fact lead to a ban against auricular confession altogether.

It has happened in history that confession has been abused by priests, including for sexual purposes. The Catholic Church regards this “crime of soliciting” (sexual favours through the confession) as one of the most serious crimes a priest may commit, and as ground for immediate defrocking and even excommunication. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church also took quick action against the rogue priests who misused confessions.

Abuse is always possible, but is not a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Sermons may be used to incite violence, but this is not a reason to forbid religious sermons in general. Romans of old already said it in the clearest possible way: abusus non tollit usum, the abuse of a practice is not a reason to forbid it. The risk is that, in present-day Indian cultural climate, what may be promoted will be abuse of Christianity.

This article has been republished with permission from Bitter Winter.

PierLuigi Zoccatelli

PierLuigi Zoccatelli teaches Sociology of Religions at Pontifical Salesian University, Torino, Italy, and is deputy director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions. He is the author of several...