There was a time when part of my job description was confined inside a wooden box that allowed me to hear voices of other people without seeing their faces. They told me their secrets, they shared their guilt, and they expected some kind of release from the burden of their mischief. Names are not required. Proof of identity is not needed. And although it is an exclusive Catholic ritual, there is no explicit evidence that all parties involved are authentic members of the Catholic Church.
In some occasions, the ritual did not provide a box. I heard voices and saw faces. In the same token, they also heard and saw both the verbal and nonverbal messages I conveyed. The revelation of misdeeds between acquaintances is an awkward experience. Disclosing wrong doings to a stranger requires courage. I was a stranger, but despite it, I used to listen to a litany of sins: petty, serious, grave and horrendous. For my part, most of them believed that I should in turn allow them to do things that could delete their guilt and help them to start fresh. Such is the simplistic description of the Sacrament of Confession, or the rites of reconciliation as more current documents would imply. From the perspective of some non-Catholics, it is a controversial and debatable practice. God alone can provide us with the grace that takes away our guilt. Why is there a need for a priest as a faux medium between the misdeeds we have committed and the forgiveness that we seek for?
Secrets. We are all entitled to them. We have a right to keep things within our own life, away from the awareness of other people, beloved or otherwise. There is no mandate that obliges anyone to disclose everything. It’s our choice and prerogative to seal some parts of our lives from the knowledge of other people, regardless of who they are. And if we decide to do so, nothing wrong has been committed. Truthfulness does not refer to the total disclosure of our lives. Secrets are not lies. Truthfulness is the revelation of the facts we choose to share, not the facts we decide to keep for ourselves.
The job I used to do did the opposite. I listened to secrets, deep and dark portions of lives from strangers who trusted me with their secrets. For my part, I was ethically bound to seal my lips and forget their crimes. It was called the “seal of confession”, something like HIPPAA for those in the medical field or lawyer-client relationship among those in the legal profession. I was privy to so many secrets, the disclosure of which could have damaged those who were involved.
A biblical precept states that the “truth will set us free”. Human reality proves that truth is painful, so painful that that there are legal boundaries to facts that can be disclosed and whom they can be shared with. Our medical and health condition are truths between ourselves, our health care providers, and those we deem appropriate. There are occasions when we cannot keep them secret, moments when they must be divulged, and situations when we have the right to keep them sealed. If such is the case for our medical and health conditions, then the same principles would also apply to the other variances of truths we keep. “That all depends”, I hear you say. Depends on what? Is it always good for an adopted child to know the truth about his or her biological parents, regardless of whatever conditions prevail? Should a groom tell his bride about all the girls he has dated and women who shared his bed? Should a job applicant always disclose every past detail of a former employment, clean or imperfect?
The truth shall set us free, yet we have a right to keep a secret. I guess that depends on which truth and what kind of secret, the complexity of which depends upon the boundaries of human relations, conditions with other individuals, and definitions imposed by rules of conduct and social mores. Secrets are simple. We don’t say anything. Truth is complicated. We are required to explain.
When I used to listen to the secrets of penitents, there are times when I told them to disclose what they did to the right authority. I appealed for justice. No amount of rosaries or acts of penance could ever rebalance the anomalies of a wrong doing. Justice requires specific corrections for specific events. A wrong deed with a dire consequence is corrected with the right action. And even with the right action, only the consequence can be corrected and not the deed itself.
Is keeping a secret the same as telling a lie? No. Lies are an intent to distort truth and not to keep it. Telling lies require consistency, memory, a good imagination and a strong conviction. Lying is the skill of a story teller immersed in his own belief. Since truth is distorted and not kept, the morality of lying is questionable. When we deliver a wrong information, deception is inevitable. The intent may not be malicious; it may even be benevolent. But since the form is distorted, there is no evidence of an apparent good. The absence of good produces the perception of evil, for which reason lying is never a justified good.
The hacking of “Ashley Madison” internet dating service poured out facts that should always be a secret. Private lives are private. Will it affect you if your married plumber is dating your married beautician who is not his wife? And if your pastor who professed the vow of celibacy went out for dinner with the choir leader who is single, will it dent your faith? If Bishop Desmond were seen trading salacious texts with Sister Prudence, can that be the downfall of your Church?
So what secrets do you have? What sins do you have to confess? I am no longer bound by the seal of confession, but for some strange reasons, there are still strangers who share with me their secrets. Blame the social media. Many of them remain anonymous. They disclose their truths without disclosing who they are. They seek release from guilt without the need to change. They seek for counsel without justice. They seek for compassion without commitment.
Someone once said that “the greatest advantage of telling the truth is that you do not need to remember what you said”. And to that I add that the greatest advantage of keeping a secret is that you do not need to remember anything. While the greatest disadvantage of lying is that you have to remember everything, even those that do not exist and those without reality.
Is there a need to lie? Not when it is a malicious intent to distort the truth. Yes, when it is an indirect way to keep a mandated secret. And maybe depending upon the circumstances surrounding a reality.
What is your secret? Hush, I do not need to know.