Father Kenneth Doyle

Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. During the 1970s, at least in our part of the country, there were many priests who smoked cigarettes or cigars. Yet some of them were effective in their ministry and obviously loved God greatly. When they die, as some of them already have, can they still go to heaven? Does Jesus’ admonition, “Nothing that goes into a man can harm him, but only that which comes out of him — avarice, greed, etc.” apply here? (Bridgewater, New Jersey)

A. I’m confident that the priests of the 1970s who smoked tobacco products are probably in heaven — certainly, those of them who, as you say, “were effective in their ministry and loved God greatly.”

At that time, evidence of the long-term health hazards of smoking was only starting to be assembled. As recently as 1997, the Catechism of the Catholic Church said in No. 2290 that the virtue of temperance cautions against excess and therefore forbids “the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine” — the clear implication being that smoking was not an intrinsic moral evil.

Today, though, there might well be a stricter moral calculus as information grows about the risks of tobacco use. The World Health Organization says, for example, that every 6.5 seconds someone dies from tobacco-related causes.

Such scientific documentation is making inroads on the ethical judgments of the Catholic Church — as seen in a 2004 article in the scholarly Jesuit review La Civilta Cattolica which, while stopping short of branding smoking as per se sinful, declared that smokers cannot damage their health and that of others “without moral responsibility.” (Significant here is that articles in La Civilta Cattolica are prescreened for doctrinal orthodoxy by the Vatican Secretariat of State.)

As for the quote you mention from Matthew 15:11 (the New American Bible has it as, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one”), that passage does not exculpate smokers. Its context was a comment by Jesus on Jewish dietary laws, and it has nothing to do with ingesting products that are medically harmful.

Q. Why can’t penitents have the option of confessing their sins either face to face or in a traditional confessional? Since some find it uncomfortable to sit directly in front of the priest and be identified, why do some churches force that method? (City of origin withheld)

A. Catholic penitents do, in fact, have the right to anonymity in confession if they so desire. The Code of Canon Law says (in No. 964.2): “The conference of bishops is to establish norms regarding the confessional; it is to take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.”

Many people do feel comfortable sitting in front of a priest and confessing face to face.

When I hear confessions each Saturday afternoon, probably 85 percent of penitents choose the face-to-face option, while the others kneel or sit behind an opaque screen — and the choice seems to bear no relationship to the age of the penitent. (One elderly gentleman said recently, “I prefer you to know who I am; I wouldn’t go to a doctor unless he knew my medical history.”)

Still, care must be taken to accommodate those who prefer the traditional manner of confessing; and so confessional rooms are typically constructed to allow either option, and at a penance service, when there are several individual confessors, at least one of the priests should be seated behind a screen or grate to allow for the choice of anonymity.