In the legal world, the concept of confidential communication is expressed in certain privileges. The idea being that the communication in certain relationships needs to be protected by law, even if that communication would be relevant to a court proceeding. An example is the attorney-client privilege. Barring some dramatic exceptions (like a confession that the client plans to murder someone) anything that a client says to his/her attorney is protected by the privilege and will not be revealed in court proceedings.
Another privilege, that we don’t hear much about in the church, is the clergy-penitent privilege. A confession to a spiritual leader is protected and confidential.
Divinity students are taught about the nuances of this privilege before they begin their ministries. This privilege also applies to Mormon bishops. Again, with some rather dramatic exceptions, penitent communication with a bishop is protected.
This brings up some rather interesting questions in a church that is staffed with lay clergy, and which extends spiritual stewardship beyond one congregational leader. In some sense, while following the Savior’s mandate “If ye love me, feed my sheep” we all come in contact with the penitent, with the ailing, with the suffering, with the sinners. We all have opportunities, while fulfilling our general ward callings, and doing our visiting or home teaching, to minister to and serve those whose problems are sensitive. More accurately, at times we are the penitent, the ailing, the suffering, and the sinners. We are blessed to be served by those in our ward who selflessly follow Christ. The web of our stewardship and responsibility to our fellow ward and church members goes beyond that contemplated by the law. Our relationships with those who love and serve us, and with those that we love and serve is not legally protected, but shouldn’t we voluntarily be protecting them? Shouldn’t our network of lay-clergy and our tradition of informal service respect the dignity of the struggling while still promoting spiritual growth?
The problem is that our formal discourse, from Sunday School lessons, to Sacrament Meeting talks, to General Conference is peppered with “faith promoting stories.” We all gain inspiration from witnessing others conquer hardship. We have three hours of church every week to fill with uplifting material. We want to make our lessons and talks interesting and inspiring, and so we mine our life experiences–and mine the life experiences of those around us. To what levels should we attempt to protect the dignity of others? Personally I don’t think we try hard enough. I’ve heard stories that make me cringe, and I’ve told stories that now make me cringe–now that my attorney’s eye is focused on confidentiality issues.
I think that one aspect of my testimony is based on knowing that others have lived the commandments despite hardship. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to give up the community of spiritual discourse based on practical problems and their inspiring solutions. However, I think that the line between spiritual and sensational is thin, and the line between sensational and gossip is even thinner. Are we cloaking a certain amount of natural man curiosity about others–the same curiosity that causes rubber-necking traffic jams–in a guise of “righteous” teaching? Where do we draw the line? How do we check our behavior? How do we preserve our community of sharing, while valuing the principle of confidentiality?