What is the Seal of Confession?
A Q&A with Cardinal Mauro Piacenza of the Vatican's Apostolic Penitentiary
The release this month of a watershed report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France has sparked another debate over the secrecy of confession.
The Catholic Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is obliged, under the severest legal penalties, to keep absolute secrecy concerning everything learned in the context of sacramental confession.
French law has long recognized the Church’s strict rules about the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but the government is contemplating amending the law for confessors, as it has done with lawyers and other secular professionals, who are required to report child sexual abuse if they learn of it.
In comments to the National Catholic Register on Wednesday, the spokeswoman for France’s bishops’ conference, Karine Dalle, clarified that the country’s Catholic leaders do not intend to compromise on the Church’s teaching that the confessional seal is sacrosanct.
To learn more about the seal of confession, ACI Stampa, EWTN New's Italian language news agency, spoke to Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary.
Why is the seal of confession so important? What is it and where does the law come from?
The nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation consists in the personal encounter of the sinner with the Merciful Father. The object of the sacrament is the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and with the Church, and the restoration of filial dignity by virtue of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.
The Church’s teaching on confession is briefly presented in paragraph 1422 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which collects the teachings in Vatican II’s [constitution] Lumen gentium and canon 959 of the Code of Canon Law.
It is essential to emphasize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation, being an act of worship, cannot and must not be confused with a psychological session or a form of counseling. As a sacramental act, this sacrament must be protected in the name of religious freedom and any interference must be considered illegitimate and harmful to the rights of conscience.
So the priest hearing confessions must keep the seal, but at the same time, shouldn't he help report crimes to the ecclesial and civil authorities? How can he do that?
Everything said in confession from the moment in which this act of worship begins with the sign of the cross to the moment in which it ends, either with absolution or with absolution denied, is under absolutely inviolable seal. All information referred to in confession is “sealed” because it is given to God alone, so it is not usable by the priest confessor (cf. canons 983-984 CIC; 733-734 CCEO).
Even in the specific case in which, for example, during confession a minor reveals that he has been abused, the conversation must, by its nature, always and in every situation, remain sealed. This does not prevent the confessor from strongly recommending that the minor himself report the abuse to his parents, educators, and the police.
In the case that someone confesses to having committed abuse, if the confessor has no doubt about the penitent disposition of the person asking for absolution it cannot be denied or postponed (cf. canon 980). There is certainly a duty to make amends for a perpetrated injustice and to sincerely commit to preventing the abuse from happening again, resorting, if necessary, to competent help, but these serious duties linked to the path of conversion do not involve self-denunciation. The confessor must in any case invite the penitent to a deeper reflection and to evaluate the consequences of his actions, especially when another person has been suspected or unjustly condemned.
How can we respond to bishops who are tempted, even if for a just cause, to concede a part of the obligation of secrecy in confession? How does the seal of confession differ from professional secrecy or confidentiality?
Comparing the sacramental seal to the professional secrecy which, for example, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, etc. are required to keep, must be absolutely avoided.
Apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there is no [professional] secret that cannot yield to requirements to the contrary established by law or by a judge, by ethical codes or by the interested party who authorizes its disclosure.
The secret of confession, on the other hand, is not an obligation imposed from outside, but an intrinsic requirement of the sacrament, and as such cannot be dissolved even by the penitent himself (cf. canon 1550, §2, n.2 CIC; canon 1231, §2, n.2 CCEO).
The penitent does not speak to the human confessor, but to God, so that to take possession of what belongs to God would be sacrilege. The safeguard of the sacrament, instituted by Christ to be a sure haven of salvation for all sinners, is accepted.
If the faithful lose confidence in the seal, reception of the sacrament of confession could nosedive, causing very serious damage to souls and to the whole work of evangelization.
It is essential to insist that the seal of confession cannot be compared to professional secrecy, in order to prevent secular legislation from applying the justifiable exceptions of professional secrecy to the inviolable secrecy of confession.