Secrecy of Confession Is Absolute
The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed. The priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that a person confesses. For this reason, confessionals were developed with screens to protect the anonymity of the penitent. This secrecy is called "the sacramental seal," "the seal of the confessional," or "the seal of confession."
The sacramental seal is inviolable. Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, "...It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason" (No. 2490). A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person's confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g. as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action. A Decree from the Holy Office (Nov. 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would "displease" the penitent or reveal his identity.
(Just as an aside, a great movie which deals with this very topic is Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess," which deals with a priest who hears a murder confession and then is framed for the murder. As a priest, I was in agony during much of the movie.)
However, a priest may ask the penitent for a release from the sacramental seal to discuss the confession with the person himself or others. For instance, if the penitent wants to discuss the subject matter of a previous confession a particular sin, fault, temptation, circumstance in a counseling session or in a conversation with the same priest, that priest will need the permission of the penitent to do so. For instance, especially with the advent of "face-to-face confession," I have had individuals come up to me and say, "Father, remember that problem I spoke to you about in confession?" I have to say, "Please refresh my memory," or "Do you give me permission to discuss this with you now?"
Or if a priest needs guidance from a more experienced confessor to deal with a difficult case of conscience, he first must ask the permission of the penitent to discuss the matter. Even in this case, the priest must keep the identity of the person secret.
What happens if a priest violates the seal of confession? The Catechism (No. 1467) cites the Code of Canon Law (No. 1388.1) in addressing this issue, which states, "A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if he does so only indirectly, he is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the offense." From the severity of the punishment, we can clearly see how sacred the sacramental seal of confession is in the eyes of the Church.
Actually, the Church's position in this matter has long-standing credibility. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) produced one of the first comprehensive teachings concerning the Sacrament of Penance. Addressing various problems ranging from abuses to heretical stands against the sacrament, the council defended the sacrament itself, stipulated the need for the yearly sacramental confession of sins and reception of the Holy Eucharist, and imposed disciplinary measures upon priest confessors. The council decreed, "Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance."
A beautiful story (perhaps embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague. King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened to be the Queen's confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became increasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her conduct. Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen's confessions, he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned on March 20, 1393.
Each priest realizes that he is the ordained mediator of a very sacred and precious sacrament. He knows that in the confessional, the penitent speaks not so much to him, but through him to the Lord. Therefore, humbled by his position, the priest knows that whatever is said in confession must remain secret at all costs.
Another interesting side to this question is the obligation of the laity: An interpreter needed for someone to make a confession or anyone who gains knowledge of a confession (such as overhearing someones confession) is also obligated to preserve secrecy (Code of Canon Law, No. 983.2). For such a person to violate the secrecy of another persons confession is a mortal sin and warrants "a just penalty, not excluding excommunication" (No. 1388.2). A person who falsely accuses a priest of breaking the seal of the confession incurs a mortal sin and perhaps other canonical penalties, including excommunication.
Clearly, the Church regards the seal of confession as sacred. Every person whether priest or laity must take the obligation to preserve the secrecy of confession absolutely seriously.
A book by Fr. Saunders entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available with 100 "straight answers" about the faith. This book may be purchased directly or through mail order from the Queen of Apostles Family Gift Shop (703/354-0742), and the Pauline Book and Media Center (703/549-3806).
Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
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