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The confessional seal will remain inviolable.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 21, 2023

Unless you’ve been living in your crawl space, you know that the sacramental seal of the confessional has been increasingly under attack in recent years, especially amid the growing recognition of child sexual abuse throughout our society, including among Catholic clergy. One may well be astonished at the modern world’s inability to connect the dots between disordered sexuality generally and child sexual abuse in particular, and one might even be astonished by the disproportionate punishment of the Catholic Church as compared with State institutions such as the public schools. But disproportionately punishing the Church is actually a sign of an instinctive recognition that the Church is somehow different from all other institutions.

If the Church is not being both loved and hated in accordance with this difference, then we would be even worse off than we are now. In any case, despite extreme pressure over the past generation or so, it is hard to find cases of the Church’s ministers breaking the seal. True, some have advocated a change in Church law on this subject. For example, the Lepanto Institute has recently raised concern about the constant attacks on the seal by a retired priest and former vice-chancellor of the Diocese of Milwaukee, Fr. James E. Connell. Fr. Connell has been largely ignored so far—which is good on the part of the State though bad on the part of the Church.

Fortunately, it is still a widely-recognized principle even in modern Western secular societies that when it comes to troubled people seeking help—as one does when when one engages an attorney or a physician or psychologist or a priest in confession—a guarantee of confidentiality is to be honored. Without it, many people would not seek that help. But even if the law changes, what are the odds that the confessional seal will be broken going forward?

Sacramental reality

It is interesting that in our culture, it is the Sacrament of Penance that is the sticking point. After all, we live at a time when the tendency of the Church has been to devalue the sacraments. While recently there has been an effort to reform significant abuses in the sacrament of baptism (for example, “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier”), follow-up formation in “Catholic” families is very weak, and everyone is aware of the crisis of reverence that has afflicted the Eucharist, with only a minority believing it is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. How to get Confirmation to be taken seriously in a secular culture remains an enormous problem, and of course Matrimony is in a shambles partly because it is almost inescapably undercut by the widespread practice of divorce. Astonishingly, in most Catholic jurisdictions, the ability to seek an annulment actually depends on a prior divorce.

There are no easy answers to any of these problems, but it is certainly good to know that the Church stands remarkably firm on the seal of the confessional even when she seems incapable of standing firm on almost anything else. It is a powerful grace, I think, which defends this sacrament, and with it the privacy of those who confess their sins. It is a grace so signally impressive, in fact, that the Sacrament of Penance is experiencing something of a comeback wherever it is emphasized, even in the secularized West. It is not only surprising but astonishing that a Church which has been all too happy to accommodate the State even in the matter of disallowing access to Mass during the COVID pandemic, has been almost uniformly willing to “just say no” to any and all attempts by the State to override the Confessional Seal by law.

I’m not sure what it is about this Sacrament. But no matter how much fiddling they have permitted with the Mass itself, or even how much fiddling with general absolution over the past fifty years, nearly all priests and bishops find themselves in a “just say no” moment when it comes to any encroachment on the Seal. For some reason which must be rooted very deeply in the Catholic soul, it is apparently extraordinarily difficult for any priest who has ever heard a confession to bring himself to reveal what has been confessed. We can say that any other course would be disastrous, but we have had and still have a great many disastrous courses set throughout the Church. Yet this appears to be the sticking point.

Not here. Not now. Not on my watch.

Priests won’t go there.

Sometimes we can get the impression that everything is up for grabs in the Church. But there are levels of betrayal, and we are wise to distinguish the personal sins of a priest from the betrayals he commits in the course of fulfilling his priestly duties. The vast majority of such betrayals are perpetrated out of priestly confusion, an unrecognized corruption of a priest’s ministry by either the dominant culture or his own peculiar ideas. When, for example, a priest tampers with the liturgy or gives bad spiritual counsel to sinners, he is almost certainly acting out of a confusion between good and evil fostered by the culture in which he has been formed. He is most likely, so to speak, betraying souls for their own good.

But it is quite another thing for a priest to find himself thinking it is, on the whole, a better thing to tell others of a penitent’s sins than to keep that knowledge privately sacrosanct. I seriously doubt that even the elderly Father Connell would be confused on that score: Advocating for a change in Church law (however confused, however impossible) is not the same thing as betraying a particular soul whose confession you have heard. Even a very confused priest will go to the mat on that issue, precisely because the betrayal is neither theoretical nor general. It is so blindingly obvious that neither normal human confusion nor normal human laxity can make it seem right.

Can it happen? Inadvertently, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, certainly. And under extreme duress, of course; anybody can commit such a sin. But even when other priestly sins are widespread, known instances of betrayal of the confessional seal are extraordinarily rare. Far more often, even a relatively sinful priest will balk at breaking the seal under any circumstances whatsoever. In the great wash of news coverage designed to denigrate the Catholic Church in our era alone, how many stories have we seen about priests who have broken the seal? In over sixty years of noticing one story after another about Catholic failures generally and priestly failures in particular, I cannot remember even one.

When this temptation arises, it is not a matter of general theory or even of cultural conditioning. A priest can hardly avoid recognizing it for what it is. Huge numbers of sins arise out of confusion—even a more or less deliberate confusion—but it is very close to impossible for even a bad priest to be confused about this. To paraphrase St. Paul, the priest can scarcely help remembering under such pressure that he bears in his soul the marks of Jesus (6:17). Whatever bad spiritual counsel he may have given so confusedly in the past, he must very deliberately and very directly renounce these marks to break the seal.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 22, 2023 11:58 AM ET USA

    Great points, Dr. Mirus! I think that the primary purpose of the attacks on the seal of Confession is twofold, 1) To create a loophole to entrap and indict faithful, but politically inconvenient, Catholic priests, and 2) To undermine the integrity and importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in perception of ordinary Catholics. The same individuals and organizations who attack the seal of Confession "for the sake of the children" will openly support and promote "drag queen story hours."

  • Posted by: Gramps - Mar. 21, 2023 9:41 PM ET USA

    The seal of Confession does not make much difference if priests and bishops do not promote this necessary sacrament.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Mar. 21, 2023 7:59 PM ET USA

    One of my friends knew a priest many years ago who heard a confession from a child molester. He had the local Mafia go beat him up. He is no longer a priest.