French bishops waffle on the confessional seal
“The seal of confession is imposed on us, and in this it is stronger than the laws of the Republic.” Those were the words of Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the president of the French bishops’ conference, in interview last week with FranceInfo.
This week, the archbishop issued an apologetic statement about the “clumsy wording” (formulation maladroite) of that statement.
Granted, the statement had not been very well phrased. A professional wordsmith might have come up with a better formulation. But the archbishop was responding to a question, and his answer was quite clear—and accurate. The duty imposed on Catholic priests by the confessional seal is stronger than any secular law. So why did the archbishop feel a need to apologize?
Some background, for those who have not been following the developments in France:
- Last week an independent investigating commission issued a scathing report about widespread sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church. Among its recommendations was a suggestion that the confessional seal should not apply to reports of sexual abuse.
- French law already makes it a criminal offense to fail to report sexual abuse of young or vulnerable people. The law does not make any provision for the confessional seal.
- When Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort made his statement to FranceInfo, therefore, he stirred up angry protests, both from abuse victims and from government officials. The French interior minister, Gerald Darmanian, summoned the archbishop to a meeting to discuss his remark. It was after that trip to the woodshed that the archbishop spoke about the “clumsy wording” of his original statement.
But where does that leave us? The statement may have been clumsy, but it was also correct. The archbishop did not retract it, but he certainly did not reinforce it, either. After mentioning the clumsiness of the original, a new statement issued by the French bishops’ conference—presumably designed to clarify the matter—continued:
The role of the state is to organize social life and regulate public order. For us Christians, faith appeals to every conscience, it calls us to seek the good tirelessly, which one cannot do without respecting the laws of one’s country.
There is no clumsy wording in those two sentences. Nor is there clarity. Are the French bishops now saying that they will obey the law, and instruct priests to violate the confessional seal when they hear of sexual abuse? A Reuters report reached that conclusion:
France’s top bishop said on Tuesday that the secrecy of the confession should not take precedence over French laws on sex crimes against children, reversing his previous position after he was summoned by interior minister Gerald Darmanin.
The Reuters report is not quite accurate. Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort did not retract his first statement; he merely said that it was poorly worded. And the ensuing verbiage in the statement from the episcopal conference did not authorize a violation of the confessional seal; it merely made the observation that good citizens should obey the laws. Under ordinary circumstances that observation would be unremarkable. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
The Catholic Church has always taught that the confessional seal is absolute and inviolable. The Code of Canon Law (#1388) stipulates that a priest-confessor who violates the seal incurs a penalty of excommunication. The Vatican confirmed in 2019 that the absolute prohibition still holds its force, in a powerful statement from the apostolic penitentiary. Also in 2019, Pope Francis said: “The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor can lay any claim to it.” That statement, too, was infelicitously phrased (at least in the official English translation), but like the first statement from Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort, it was admirably clear. The Church is not ready to compromise on the seal.
Nor is the French government inclined to compromise. Darmanian, the interior minister, emerged from his meeting with the archbishop to tell reporters: “The French Republic respects all religions from the moment they respect the Republic and the laws of the Republic.” Which seems to imply that the government does not respect a religion that will not acknowledge the supremacy of secular law.
Here we have a clear Church-state conflict, in which government officials are speaking clearly and Church leaders are not. Neither side is willing to compromise, but one side—the French hierarchy—is willing to give every appearance of a willingness to compromise. So in the political world the issue is all but settled. Still more important, in the life of the Church, French Catholics are bound to wonder how vigorously their priests will defend the confessional seal, when their bishops were so reluctant to uphold it.
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