ROME — The inviolability of the sacramental seal and the importance of internal form in the life of the Church were firmly reaffirmed in a note published July 1 by the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

The statement was provoked by the controversies surrounding measures passed recently or being promoted by several governments, including in Australia, California and Chile, in order to force priests to break the seal of confession for sins such as sexual abuse that fall within the scope of penal law.

While recalling the “inestimable value” of the secret of confession as a pillar of the Catholic Church, the note deplores the loss of landmarks in the perception of sin and redemption.

“In this context, the Apostolic Penitentiary considered it urgent to recall, in the first place, the absolute inviolability of the sacramental seal, which is based on divine law and does not admit any exception,” said Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the head of the penitentiary, in a presentation accompanying the document. “The priest confessor, acting in persona Christi capitis, knows the sins of the penitent not as a man, but as God, according to a well-known expression of St. Thomas Aquinas.”

The text also clarifies the importance of respecting secrecy in the nonsacramental internal forum, which includes spiritual direction. By clearly reaffirming the confidential nature of spiritual direction, the text likens internal forum to the confessional secret.

The aim of such a note, as mentioned in Cardinal Piacenza’s presentation, is to promote “a better understanding of concepts that currently seem to be widely misunderstood or even, in some cases, opposed.” Indeed, this statement came in response to recent legislative attacks on the seal. These measures, according to their supporters, are designed to better fight the scourge of sexual abuse within the Church.

 

The Purpose of Confession

These moves against the sacredness of the seal of confession immediately caused an outcry on the part of the Church, which saw in it a fundamental attack on religious freedom and, more generally, on freedom of conscience, in addition to denouncing the counterproductive nature of these measures.

“I understand that, in the current context, some people might not understand the purpose of this Vatican note and see it as a step backward from the Pope’s efforts in the crisis of sexual abuse,” Father Cédric Burgun, vice dean of the faculty of canon law of the Catholic University of Paris, told the Register. “But we need to understand that confession is not a judicial decision-making body; it is the place where someone can open one’s consciousness to God.”

Such openness at the heart of the sacrament belongs, according to Father Burgun, to freedom of conscience, which has always been protected by the law in Western democracies. Indeed, the removal of a place where someone can “grow in the desire to shed light on the act he committed” would be a clear “violation of the dignity of the human person, no matter what this person did, as freedom of conscience is due to everyone,” he said.

Recalling the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the uninterrupted magisterium of the Church, Msgr. Krzysztof Józef Nykiel, the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, highlighted the fact that the confessor “doesn’t own the sacrament but is just an instrument” between God and the penitent.

“The penitent confesses his sins to God, and it is God only that grants forgiveness,” he told the Register, adding that the abolition of the secrecy of confession would represent a “real sacrilege” against the sanctity of the sacrament of reconciliation.

 

A Counterproductive Measure

Moreover, the clergymen who are protesting against the legislative threats in their countries insist there is empirical evidence that such measures would yield little benefit in the fight against sexual abuse.

“The general perception is that it’s a simple choice between child safety and that the seal is the linchpin of a whole culture of cover-up,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, told the Register, blaming the campaign against the seal as being based upon an “unrealistic and hypothetical understanding of what actually happens in confession.”

The first pernicious impact of the law against the seal of confession would be to take sinners away from penance, preventing them from acknowledging their own guilt, he said.

“Beside the theological motive, inherent in the very nature of the sacrament, the possibility or the obligation for a priest to report a penitent for committing certain offenses would, of course, undermine the faithful’s trust, who would then hesitate before going to the confessional,” Msgr. Nykiel said, adding that the seal of confession actually has been, and will continue to be, an instrument in the fight against sexual abuses. That’s because, through it, “the Lord purifies the heart of the penitent and puts him on the way to conversion.”

Such a view is shared by Father Burgun. As he points out, secrecy is protected by the Church not to hide crimes, but to help people get to the truth.

“The less we maintain protected places where a guilty man can open his consciousness to tell what he really did and then be accompanied, the less we will favor the free openness of his consciousness so that justice can be done,” he told the Register, adding that culprits could retreat into silence even more deeply than before.

And the deterring effects of legislation requiring breaches of the seal of confession are already being witnessed by some priests in California, even though the bill there remains under legislative debate.

“A priest reported to me that, because of publicity surrounding this bill, teenagers on his confirmation retreat hesitated to go to confession recently, as they thought the priests were now required to divulge their sins to law enforcement,” Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland told the Register.

The unproductive character of the abolition of the seal of confession in the specific context of sexual abuse was evidenced by the hearings on the bill in California, which, according to Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, did not present a single case where breaking the seal could have helped prevent sexual abuse.

“This bill is not just counterproductive, but strikes at the very salvation of souls,” Bishop Barber said. “This is why we must strenuously protect and defend our right to celebrate this sacrament as Christ gave it to us.”

 

Attack on Religious Freedom

The Australian and Californian bishops have mobilized to protest against what they consider to be an intolerable interference of the state in religious life. They are facing the possibility of legislative assemblies to directly infringe on the ecclesiastical tradition, in a way that is relatively unprecedented in democratic Western countries. In fact, the law has already come into force in some Australian jurisdictions.

“The bishops are currently considering how best to help priests and the faithful, but this new Vatican statement will help to reassure everyone that the sacramental seal is inviolable and nonnegotiable,” Archbishop Coleridge said, warning that moves against the seal amount to a legal prohibition of the sacrament as Catholics experience it.

“There is some anxiety about fake confessions which seek to set the confessor up, and we’re looking at how to deal with that,” he said.

Asked about the Church’s room to maneuver in the face of such civil legislation, Msgr. Nykiel responded that the Church “won’t remain defenseless and accept such interferences,” as actions against the seal of confession would be “a very serious violation of religious freedom, which is laid down in the inherent rights of the human person.”

Recalling that canon law provides for the excommunication latae sententiae (automatic) for those who break the seal of confession, Msgr. Nykiel invited all priests to protect the indissolubility of the sacrament “even if this may cost them prison sentences, persecutions or even their own life.”

“The history of the Church offers a number of examples of confessors that paid a heavy price for their defense of the sacramental seal,” he said, mentioning the emblematic case of St. John of Nepomuk, who died a martyr to protect the seal of confession in the 14th century and who is considered the patron of confessors.

“God’s law is higher than human law, and no one may require us to break God’s law,” Bishop Barber said. “As priests, we make a public, sacred promise to celebrate ‘faithfully and reverently’ the sacrament of reconciliation ‘for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people.’ That makes it perfectly clear to me what every priest is required to do in the face of such legislation.”

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.