Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jul 26, 2005

A diplomatic pouch is an officially "immune" container that is free from normal search and seizure by police, customs officials, or immigration authorities. Its purpose is to allow diplomats and their sponsoring governments to convey documents to one another with the security necessary to conduct diplomacy. Now say an ambassador uses the diplomatic pouch to transport cocaine safely across borders and sell it for his personal profit. He treats the diplomatic pouch as a "black box," figuring that whatever he chooses to put inside is off limits. By thus exploiting diplomatic immunity he has abused the trust conventionally accorded his office. Were he exposed and denounced by a foreign power, his home country would distinguish sharply between the authentic purpose of immunity and the betrayal of that purpose by the criminal diplomat in question.

Now imagine -- as a purely hypothetical supposition -- that a Catholic bishop had papers in his files that impeached him of criminal wrongdoing. So he thinks, "What kind of 'diplomatic pouch' do I have at my disposal in which I can stash the hot docs?" The seal of the confessional has great immunity, of course, but it's tough to apply it to documents, because if the sins are written down and filed, ipso facto they're not secret in an absolute sense. Nevertheless, the bishop figures that the aura of confessional secrecy has enough residual power in the public imagination that few public officials will be willing to take on the Church in a frontal assault against the Sacred Seal, because it would look as if they were invading the most private of all privacies -- and a constitutionally protected one at that. The bishop knows the DA might decide an aggressive prosecution just isn't worth it in career terms, given that he'd face opposition both from civil rights activists and from Catholics alarmed by government intrusion into sacramental space.

So the bishop invents a kind of black box -- a category of confidentiality that applies to memos and third-party conversations -- and pronounces in his gravest baritone that confessional secrecy applies to its contents. He then declares that the incriminating papers have always been in the black box. Finally he defies the DA to come after them. His gamble, like that of the crooked diplomat who stuffs his pouch with cocaine, is that the honorable conduct of his predecessors with regard to sacred things will inhibit the kind of investigation that would expose his own dishonorable conduct.

Couldn't really happen, of course. We all know a bishop would sooner go to prison than risk damage to the Church he was anointed to defend. Still, it's an interesting fiction.

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