Can a Priest Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession? (Part II)

Q1: I would like to put before you a question with regards to revealing of confessional substance under the permission granted by the penitent.  My question is “Whether by the penitent’s permission, a priest may reveal to another a sin which he knows under the seal of confession?”  Thank you! –Father R.

Q2: I am studying Canon Law as part of my basic theological studies (I am a religious seminarian). I am reading a Commentary on Canon Law [in another language] about sacraments. In the part speaking about the seal of confession, the author goes into great lengths with regard to everything the priest cannot do with the confession information. He even tells an imaginary story, when a penitent tells the priest that the Mass wine he is about to use for Mass is poisoned and according to the author, the priest cannot change the Mass wine, for that would reveal the evil intent of the penitent! He can only escape or celebrate the Mass nonetheless. I found that example extremely strange and exaggerated…. Can you help me to understand this issue? –Pat

A: Apart from the subject-matter, both of these questions share something else in common: they come from non-Christian, missionary countries where Catholics comprise only a tiny percentage of the population.  This isn’t a coincidence, either.  In those parts of the world which don’t have a strong, longstanding Catholic presence, and/or where the culture hasn’t (yet) been imbued with Catholicism, one frequently finds that Catholics don’t always have a good “feel” for when and how to apply the Church’s rules to everyday life.  So let’s take a look at what the Church says—and doesn’t say—about the practical application of its very strict rules on the confessional seal to some concrete, realistic situations.

As we saw in “Can a Priest Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession? (Part I),” the Church’s position on priests revealing the contents of a penitent’s confession is unequivocal: canon 983.1 tells us that the sacramental seal is inviolable, and it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent, for any reason whatsoever, either by word or in any other fashion.  In short, penitents should always rest assured that what is confessed in the confessional, stays in the confessional.  Nobody should ever need to worry that the priest hearing his confession will go out and repeat it to others—and if the unthinkable happened, the priest would incur a latae sententiae excommunication as per canon 1388.1.  (See “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for an in-depth discussion of what the term latae sententiae means.)

While the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses different wording in its description of the sacramental seal, the information it contains is substantively the same:

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.  He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives.  This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament. (CCC 1467)

It seems very black-and-white—and in a sense it is.  But as our questioners indicate, there are countless instances where a priest might want (or be asked) to repeat something that was mentioned in the confessional without directly implicating the penitent, or to use information he gained from a person’s confession in some indirect way.  For example, let’s imagine that the penitent is an army officer, and during his confession he mentions in passing that his military unit is going to be deployed next Tuesday.  Since this particular info doesn’t involve a sin that the penitent confessed, can the priest repeat it?  Or what about a scenario consistent with Father R’s question: if someone confesses that he committed a crime, and is willing to turn himself in to the authorities provided that the priest will accompany him to the police station and act as a mediator, can a confessor agree to do this?

Suddenly the wording of canon 983.1 doesn’t seem terribly helpful, does it?  What are the Church’s rules about these more specific sorts of things?  The answer might surprise you: there are no official, written guidelines governing these situations.

At first, this may seem to be a glaring omission!  Why would the Church say nothing, instead of explaining to clergy and laity alike what exactly a confessor is permitted to say, and what he isn’t?  One would think that such directives would be extremely helpful.

But after pondering the issue a little more, it should become clear that Rome’s silence is totally deliberate, and makes complete sense.  What the Church apparently wants to avoid is the classic “slippery slope,” in which any further discussion of the seal of confession could appear to be constituting exceptions to the rule, which end up damaging the overall integrity of the seal.  Let’s focus on only one aspect of this complicated issue for a moment, and imagine that the Church officially stated in writing that if a penitent gives his confessor permission, then the confessor can repeat what was confessed.  That might strike everyone as being totally reasonable, right?  But now envision the kinds of problems that could quickly arise if such a statement were in existence.

For example, let’s say George asks Fr. Mark if he would talk to George’s wife, in an attempt to patch up their failing marriage.  George suggests that the priest could repeat what George said in his last confession, and Fr. Mark agrees (note that in our imaginary scenario, the Vatican has formally stated that this is permitted).  But George assumed the priest would talk about only the sins directly relating to his marital problems, and never imagined that Fr. Mike would also mention that George had confessed to lying to his sister-in-law. What a confused mess this kind of misunderstanding could cause!  When it’s time for George to go to confession again, will he want to?  For that matter, will his wife or his sister-in-law want to?

Or instead, let’s imagine that Fr. John tells 15-year-old Susan that he wants to “help her” by talking to her parents about the shoplifting that she confessed.  (Remember that in our fictitious scenario, both of them are aware that the Church has officially allowed this.) Susan definitely does not want him to do this; but rightly or wrongly, she feels pressured to acquiesce.  Soon, word gets around in the parish that Fr. John occasionally offers to help penitents by repeating contents of their confessions to relevant parties with their permission; but since he has a naturally strong personality, his offer is (again, rightly or wrongly) interpreted by many parishioners as bullying.  What will parishioners who are already hesitant to approach the confessional be inclined to do?

You get the idea.  The fact is, if the Church were formally to approve this kind of exception, it would naturally put the whole idea into the heads of both well-intentioned clergy and equally well-intentioned laity, who otherwise would never have thought of it in the first place.  And as we can see from these two entirely fictitious cases, the mere existence of such an official statement from the Vatican would end up vitiating the integrity of the sacramental seal.  Before you know it, everyone could find themselves playing fast-and-loose with confessional matter: to invent yet another example, Fr. Rob might say to a penitent, “Joe, your situation ties into the homily I’m preparing.  Could I repeat your story when I preach at Sunday Mass?”  And Joe might respond, “Yeah sure, whatever!”  Ultimately, the confessional seal could become almost meaningless.  That, in a nutshell, is why you won’t find any rules on this subject.

At the same time, however, the absence of any official directives on this subject doesn’t automatically mean that it’s forbidden, either.  Theologians have been discussing confession-scenarios like those raised by our questioners for centuries!  Applying logic, they have reached their own, reasonable conclusions—always aware, of course, that the opinion of a theologian, or even a dozen theologians, doesn’t in itself constitute official church teaching.

Back in the 1200’s, St. Thomas Aquinas himself opined on a couple of different situations relevant to our subject.  Here’s a question that he raised and answered, that directly applies to the case of our mythical military officer, mentioned previously:

Whether the seal of confession extends to other matters than those which have reference to confession?

…I answer that, the seal of confession does not extend directly to other matters than those which have reference to sacramental confession, yet indirectly matters also which are not connected with sacramental confession are affected by the seal of confession, those, for instance, which might lead to the discovery of a sinner or of his sin. Nevertheless these matters also must be most carefully hidden, both on account of scandal, and to avoid leading others into sin through their becoming familiar with it. (Suppl. Q 11 Art. 2 co.)

In other words, it was Aquinas’ opinion that something mentioned during a confession apart from actual sins—like the fact that our military officer’s unit is going to be deployed next Tuesday—is not directly covered by the seal of confession.  (We ourselves could then extrapolate from his opinion, and conclude that therefore a priest who revealed such a thing would presumably not incur latae sententiae excommunication as per canon 1388.1)  Nevertheless, Aquinas holds that confessors still should refrain from revealing this sort of information, learned in the confessional.

It’s an entirely reasonable, logical opinion; but that’s all it is.  This wasn’t official church teaching back in the 13th century, and it still isn’t official today.

Similarly, Aquinas addressed the very question raised by Father R.:

Whether by the penitent’s permission, a priest may reveal to another a sin which he knows under the seal of confession?

…I answer that, there are two reasons for which the priest is bound to keep a sin secret: first and chiefly, because this very secrecy is essential to the sacrament, in so far as the priest knows that sin, as it is known to God, Whose place he holds in confession: secondly, in order to avoid scandal. Now the penitent can make the priest know, as a man, what he knew before only as God knows it, and he does this when he allows him to divulge it: so that if the priest does reveal it, he does not break the seal of confession. Nevertheless he should beware of giving scandal by revealing the sin, lest he be deemed to have broken the seal. (Suppl. Q 11 Art. 4 co.)

In other words, if Father R. lived back in the 1200’s and submitted his question to Thomas Aquinas, the answer would have been “yes,” with the addition of some very strong cautionary words.  But once again, bear in mind that even though Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Catholic Church, this is only an opinion.

So what should we take away from all this?  It’s quite simple: in matters pertaining to the seal of confession, when in doubt, don’t.

That said, there are a couple of different ways that confessors/penitents can legitimately get around this.  Everyone agrees, for example, that if a penitent wants his confessor to reveal something which he mentioned in confession, the penitent merely has to repeat it to the confessor again, outside the confessional.  Very easy!  If the priest hears it outside the context of a confession, then the seal of confession does not apply.

And speaking of hearing things outside the confessional, it’s worth mentioning at this point that if a priest hears of a penitent’s sin though any other outside source (assuming, of course, that the other source wasn’t someone else’s confession!), he could conceivably repeat it.  For example, if Senator X confessed to Fr. Bill that he had committed adultery, and Fr. Bill reads about the Senator’s adulterous relationship in the newspapers, he is certainly not prevented from mentioning it.  True, Fr. Bill could not specify to anyone that Senator X himself had told him this in confession; but he could certainly reference the mere fact of the Senator’s adultery, since he had heard about it from sources other than the confessional.

By now, Father R.’s question has been answered, so let’s turn to Pat’s.  As mentioned before, Pat is a seminarian, studying in a non-Christian country; and since the language of instruction is not English or any other major western language, the textbooks are presumably written by local clergy.  This perhaps accounts for the bizarre example Pat found in a canonical discussion of the sacramental seal.  Let’s take the story apart and see what conclusions we can reach.

In this fictitious account, a penitent confesses that he has poisoned the wine that is currently sitting on the altar, to be used at the next Mass.  What can/should the priest do?  Well, as we’ve already seen above, one thing a priest-confessor can always do is ask the penitent to tell him this information outside of the confessional.  (In this case, the confessor might even make absolution contingent upon the penitent doing this.)  Another option would be for the confessor to order the penitent (perhaps as part of his penance?), to walk out of the confessional and get rid of that poisoned wine right now!

But now let’s say that for whatever reason, the penitent is unwilling to do this.  According to Pat’s textbook, the priest has only two choices: celebrate the Mass and be poisoned, or “escape.”  That’s because the textbook-author claims the priest cannot go up to the altar after hearing confessions, and change the Mass wine.  To this one can only reply, why not?  How would this action directly betray the penitent, by revealing his confession to others?  Why would anybody even make a connection between the fact that the priest was just hearing confessions a moment ago, and his removal of the cruet of wine from the sanctuary?

You have to wonder what the author of this improbable story was thinking.  To be fair, it could be that in this region of the world, there have been problems with clergy maintaining the seal of confession—and so this writer may have been overcompensating, in an attempt to emphasize its seriousness to seminarians.  But there are lots of wholly innocent reasons why a priest might be rearranging/changing such items before Mass, that have nothing whatsoever to do with hearing a particular person’s confession.  You’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that in such an unrealistic situation, the priest violated the sacramental seal.

A year or two ago, I was sitting in a Roman parish church before Mass, while a priest was hearing confessions a few yards away.  Suddenly the priest rushed out of the confessional; he was literally shaking and pulled his rosary from his pocket.

A few moments later, a man (who was not a regular parishioner) emerged from the other side of the confessional.  He grinned in amusement at the priest, who pointedly turned his back on the man and clutched his rosary.  The man walked out of the church, still grinning, while the priest took deep breaths to compose himself before he returned to the confessional box.

It’s pretty obvious that this was not a run-of-the-mill confessional experience!  We can all form our own ideas about what might have happened in there—but our ideas probably wouldn’t all be identical, and we might all be wrong.  No reasonable person could suggest that this poor priest violated the seal of confession, and betrayed the “penitent” by his actions—although this seems to be the conclusion one would have to draw from reading Pat’s seminary textbook.  In fact, the priest (who didn’t say a word through all this) wasn’t intending to telegraph information to anyone else sitting there in the church; his only wish was to get away from what was apparently a horrible situation.  Since he knew what had just happened and we don’t, we can only defer to his judgment.

God only knows the sorts of things that Catholic priests hear in the confessional and are required to keep to themselves.  As discussed above, this requirement exists to protect the integrity of the sacrament of penance; without it, countless Catholics would be afraid to approach the confessional to unburden themselves of their sins—since they’d naturally object to the possibility that the priest would tell others what they’d said.  The Church’s strict rules show her great wisdom and understanding of sinful human nature!  Let’s pray for priests, who have to refrain from sharing what they hear in the confessional, sometimes at great emotional cost.  And let’s thank God for the gift of the sacramental seal, which allows us to confess even the most embarassing sins without fear that they’ll be repeated to others.

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