Keeping The Seal
Keeping The Seal
Australia has been presented with plans to force priests to break the seal of confession. Fr John Michael McDermott SJ explains why the seal must never be broken.
Any Catholic reading the report of Australia’s Royal Commission of Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse must be appalled by the multiple instances of abuse in ecclesial institutions perpetrated by priests, religious, and laity, women as well as men. That similar abuses occurred in other churches and religions in no way excuses the Catholic Church from culpability. The offence is especially grave for those pledged by vows to testify to Christ’s transcendence of earthly fulfillment and to serve Him in the least of His brethren, for Catholics place a greater trust in them.
We easily understand the cry for justice on behalf of the victims, many of whom were entrusted to the Church’s care precisely because their relations with their families were strained or non-existent. . The Royal Commission rightly insisted on institutional changes to prevent such abuse from continuing in the future. The Australian bishops accepted most of its recommendations. Other recommendations they referred to Rome. But on one point they unanimously refused to change the Church’s practice: the seal of confession. To understand their adamant determination some reflections on the role of confession and its seal can be helpful. For abolishing the seal would acerbate rather than alleviate the problem.
The Reign of Sin
The secular mind has difficulty understanding the seal’s purpose and necessity since it uncritically adopts an ideology in which religion is considered a private matter whose truth cannot be objectively ascertained. It relegates religion to the private concern of individuals who feel a need for consolations and support. Secularism rejects any notion of original sin, in which the transgression of original parents entails suffering and loss of salvation for their descendants. Yet post-modern culture’s widespread sexual license with its consequent weakening of family structures should make people rethink the dismissal of original sin. Most of the abused children came from disrupted families. Predatorpriests often groomed children who, lacking a caring father at home, were seeking a male paternal figure with whom they might identify.
If the destruction of basic relationships within a family render children vulnerable to exploitation by others, might not the sins of our primordial ancestors have disastrous repercussions through the ages? Plato certainly thought so (Laws 9:854b). Greek tragedy, e.g., the Oresteia and the Oedipus cycle, trace the calamitous consequences of original sins in a family’s and a nation’s history. No man is an island. Every human being receives from parents, family, and clan not only physical life but also a sense of dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. When we are loved, the world makes sense. When love is lacking, individuals struggle with feelings of isolation, rejection, and despair. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that original sin is the sole doctrine for which the Catholic Church can offer empirical proof, a truth all the more obvious in our current society where all pay for the breakdown of the family.
The dogma of original sin is fundamental to Catholic truth since Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died in torment on a cross. He was condemned for calling men to convert to God’s selfsacrificial love. Sinners dislike being confronted by their sins. Precisely because original sin penetrates so profoundly human society, we all try to justify ourselves. We build walls to lessen our vulnerability and protect ourselves against others. We accumulate property and power. This search to augment control over others and enjoy fleshly allurements, financial security, and political or social domination too often comes at the expense of others.
Jesus’ Call to Conversion
In His day Jesus called His audience to radical conversion. If from eternity God saw that the cross was necessary for the human race’s salvation, how great must have been the obstacle to love in human beings? The cross would be a most repulsive way of expressing love unless it were the only way of bringing people to love, to sharing in God’s life. Christian love entails the self-emptying which Jesus manifested most clearly on the cross. The true lover must first sacrifice himself for his beloved in order to experience the joy which love’s mutual response involves. “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and die, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24).
Jesus died on the cross and rose to demonstrate what true love requires and to assure sinners that love is stronger than sin and death. He demands of His followers that they follow Him to the cross and give their lives for Him and their fellow men. Disciples’ love is a responding love.
Concupiscence, disordered desire, influences each of us profoundly. We are internally pulled in diverse directions by our desires to be loved, to render ourselves invulnerable, to elevate ourselves, and to attain justice for ourselves and others, not to mention the power of carnal attractions over our lives. It is so easy to justify ourselves by reason. Life daily bears witness to that truth.
To prevent the reduction of love’s requirements to one-sided juridical claims Jesus laid down His life for others. The norm of justice has been surpassed by self-emptying love, and Jesus issued moral judgments. He also left the interpretation and application of the moral law to His Church lest love be misinterpreted and believers disagree on the conduct expected from fellow Christians. Hence the Church is charged with remaining faithful to Jesus’ ordinances and summoning all to conversion.
Because through weakness even well-intentioned believers fail in observing His commands of love, Jesus established a remedy for sins committed after baptism. Following His resurrection, He breathed upon His disciples, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you retained, they are retained” (Jn. 20:22-23). Sin is not merely a rejection of God’s will by an isolated individual. We live in relation to others since they are created for the freedom of love. That truth is realized compellingly in the Body of Christ. Consequently, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 11:26). Therefore reconciliation is mediated by the ecclesial community. We sin against the ecclesial Body of Christ as well as against God. Yet the priest in confession represents not the community alone. Since the sin is directed ultimately against God, he represents God in pronouncing the words of absolution. Which brings us to the seal of confession.
The Seal of Confession
The notion of “seal” is borrowed from the ancient practice of impressing a seal on a document to guarantee its authority and to preserve secrecy. Anyone wanting to learn its contents must break the seal and thus give himself away. The sacrament of penance places under an inviolable seal all information revealed in view of obtaining sacramental absolution. The seal is inviolable in all cases and the priest is bound most strictly in conscience both to reveal to no one the penitent’s sins and to refrain from any nonsacramental use of information harmful to the penitent. This obligation to secrecy allows no exception. Even if the confession is sacrilegious or interrupted, even if absolution is denied or deferred – the priest must ascertain the penitent’s sincere intention of repentance – the seal covers what the penitent confesses in view of absolution. No circumstance, no matter what harm to an individual or the common good, justifies breaking the seal. Any priest, who knowingly and willingly both indicates the penitent and reveals his sin(s) directly, not only commits a most grave sin but also incurs an automatic excommunication (latae sententiae) reserved to the Pope.
Under the seal fall every mortal sin, generic or specific, as well as specific venial sins committed by the penitent. The priest may not announce generically, “He committed mortal sins.” He may indicate that a penitent committed venial sins since every penitent entering the confessional is presupposed to seek forgiveness for some sin, but he may not mention individual venial sins. He should not even mention the counsel given or the penance imposed (except the minimal penance) if they are connected to the sin confessed and might manifest it. Included under the seal are necessary, useful, or superfluous bits of information expressed in declaring or explaining a sin.
A priest is also prohibited from violating the seal indirectly, eg when knowledge obtained only in the confessional is revealed unintentionally or with proximate danger of betraying the penitent, ie when a probable and prudent suspicion regarding the sin and the particular sinner might arise. A simple rule for resolving doubts is offered: a violation of the seal occurs “if a sin is reported with the danger of indicating a person, or when a person is designated with the danger of arousing suspicion of the sin.” For example, if a priest says that a particular person was not absolved, or praises another penitent above others, or declares a vice prevalent in a certain parish or institution, or reprimands a penitent’s sin in a loud voice audible outside the confessional, he subjects himself to ecclesial penalties: e.g., suspension from celebrating Mass and hearing confession (even perpetually), and, in serious matters, removal from the office of priesthood.
A priest is also prohibited from using confessional knowledge even when harm to himself may result. For example, someone confesses his participation in a plot, now regretted, to kill the priest on his way home in a certain spot; the priest may not avoid that spot unless he has other knowledge of the plot or if a plausible reason for avoiding it may be legitimately discovered. Otherwise he would be in danger of divulging the matter of the penitent’s confession: the plotters would plausibly connect his knowledge with his penitent. Similarly he may not reveal what he or a penitent said in confession, even if he is wrongly accused by the penitent – unless it can be proven that the alleged penitent intended a fraudulent confession or deliberate entrapment. While not bound by the seal, the penitent may be bound by a natural secret regarding the advice obtained in confession – some advice may apply only to him – but if he is troubled by the advice he may prudently consult others. If the confessor solicits him to do something improper, however, the penitent should inform the proper authorities.
In difficult cases exceeding the confessor’s knowledge he may, with the penitent’s free, explicit permission, consult another priest, eg an expert canonist, or theologian, provided that the penitent’s identity remains concealed. If the conditions are such that the penitent’s identity may be surmised, the expert too is gravely bound to silence by a natural secret. More seriously, if the confessor must appeal to a higher authority to obtain faculties for absolving a reserved sin, that authority is bound. Indeed, if through chance or design anyone overhears a confession, the natural obligation to secrecy gravely prohibits that person from revealing the matter to anyone. Disclosure of the confessional secret, besides being sinful, can issue in various ecclesial penalties, even excommunication. The same restriction applies to anyone acting as translator or interpreter for a confession. Similarly a priest may not mention a penitent’s sin outside confession unless the penitent initiates the conversation about it, thereby indicating implicitly his permission to discuss it. Yet outside the confessional a person cannot oblige a priest to silence by saying that he or she wishes to place a communication “under the seal.” At most, only a natural obligation to secrecy can be invoked. Inversely, if child c in confession spoke of being abused, the priest could advise the child to tell someone, even himself, outside confession in order that the proper authorities be summoned to provide proper support for the child and to prevent further crimes by the abuser.
The reasons for the obligation are varied. On the level of natural morality, detraction -- a grievous sin — involves unjustly injuring another’s good name by manifesting his true, but hidden, fault. Further, an implicit contract arises between the penitent and priest not to reveal what is confessed since it involves the penitent’s interior life before God. Finally, the seal’s deepest foundation derives from the sacrament’s institution by Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The priest represents Christ the judge since only God can forgive sins. What is revealed to God cannot be publicised by man. Were a priest allowed to reveal sacramental matter, the faithful would be deterred from frequenting the sacrament, thus frustrating Christ’s intention of providing absolution for post-baptismal sins. Even under oath a priest cannot reveal transpired in the confessional; he possesses no communicable knowledge. In the life of the Church, many priests preferred death to breaking the seal: e.g., St. John Nepomucene, St. Mateo Corves, Andreas Faulhaber, Felipe Ciscar, Fernando Omedo, Petro Marieluz Garces.
The Impossible Demand
Some Australian states have codified a civil obligation to reveal instances of child abuse confessed under the seal of confession. This demands the morally impossible and imposes an unjust burden on priests. Their free exercise of religion, guaranteed by the Australian Constitution, prohibits priests from complying with the law. Such a law is unjustly imposed since obligations to God outweigh all human legislation. However pure the politicians’ intentions the law’s effect would be counterproductive.
If the seal does not bind the priest to silence, Catholics would be dissuaded from confessing their sins sacramentally. This would be deleterious on two levels. First, a repentant child-abuser would have no one to whom he or she might turn for advice and counsel, whereas a confessor could and should advise and warn a penitent to seek help lest he commit further wicked crimes against defenseless children.
Second, while civil laws seek to abolish the seal only with regard to the confessed abuse of children, people could conclude that, if one exception is made, others can and will follow. That would lead Catholics to shun confessing their sins, which would harm both individuals and society. Unacknowledged guilt festers in the sinner and warps his moral perceptions. Acts previously unmentionable become tolerated. It seems clear that society’s moral level has declined in recent decades with the prevalence of addiction to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, with divorce, abortion, exploitation of the poor, etc. It is surely more than coincidence that the increase in child-molestation corresponded to the decline in use of the sacrament of penance in recent decades. Starting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been a revival of the Church’s traditional teaching and discipline. Regular confession is again being preached and lived. More than ever the sacrament should be encouraged.
If the Australian states impede the return to confession, inadvertently or not they contribute to society’s loss of a sense of sin. The blessing mediated by sacramental confession consist in this: sinners can openly confront their sins, ask for absolution and assistance, and resolve not to sin again. By opening the confessional to sinners for counsel, sympathy, encouragement, and, most of all, forgiveness, priests perform an immense, though unrecognized, service to humanity. Only through God’s word of absolution do sinners dare to hope that God’s love is stronger than sin and that they can be changed for the better. Ecclesial authorities have the responsibility of reparation to those sexually exploited in Catholic institutions and of preventing, as much as possible, a recurrence. Their insistence on preserving intact confession’s seal shows that they wish to fulfill their duty to Christ and their fellow men.
With thanks to the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
i P. Palazzini, “Sigillum Sacramentale,” Dictionarium Morale et Canonicum, ed. P. Palazzini, vol. 2 (Rome: Catholic Book Agency,