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Catholic Church in Hong Kong won’t budge on Confession


Marco Mega | Shutterstock

J-P Mauro - published on 03/20/24

A proposed national security law would require Catholic priests in Hong Kong to report treason and sedition learned about through the Sacrament of Confession.

As Hong Kong legislators are pushing for the quick passage of a new national security law, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong is seeking to reassure the faithful that the seal of confession will remain intact. The proposed law would increase penalties for sedition and treason, with steep charges proposed for priests who neglect to report national security crimes revealed during a religious confession. 

In the Catholic Church, the seal of confession is sacrosanct, with the priest standing in for Jesus as the faithful admit their sins and seek absolution through reconciliation. A priest who breaks this seal would face severe penalties within the Church, from laicization to excommunication.

The Financial Times reports that the proposed law would set life-sentences for treason, increased sentences for sedition, and up to 14 years imprisonment for those who learn of treasonous actors and fail to report them. Hong Kong intends for this stipulation to extend to priests in regard to national security crimes learned about through religious confession, with an adviser to city leader John Lee confirming that priests could face such charges under the new law.

Indeed, Paul Lam, the territory’s justice minister, has reiterated this intention to lawmakers, stating: 

“If someone confesses that they are planning to assemble an army tomorrow and subvert the Hong Kong special administrative region or attack the country, these are very extreme scenarios . . . [but] it is difficult for us to make exceptions.”

The Catholic Church in Hong Kong is already pushing back against the notion. On Friday, March 15, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong stated that the legislation would not “alter the confidential nature of Confession (Sacrament of Reconciliation) of the Church.” The diocese did, however, agree that “citizens have an obligation to ensure national security.”

Of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population, it is estimated that nearly 400,000 are Catholic, with 268 priests in active ministry. The city is a special administrative region of China that allows greater freedom of religious practice, but the Church has still had to toe the line on many issues, especially since the 2019 pro-democracy protests. For example, it has not held commemorative Masses for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre for the past two years.

One Catholic researcher, who remained anonymous, noted to the Financial Times that many Catholics of Hong Kong are pro-democracy. The unnamed correspondent mused that those who would foment national security crimes would most likely not view such actions as a sin and therefore would be unlikely to bring up their actions in Confession

Only time will tell of how this development will affect the relationship between the city and Diocese of Hong Kong. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government has stated: 

“In any case, freedom of religion is not for protecting anyone who has committed serious offenses from legal sanctions.”

ConfessionHong KongLaw
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