Excommunication and the Seal of Confession (Sanctions, Part VI)

Q: My question relates to the seal of the confessional because I am wondering if I broke it.  I know I acted imprudently, but whether or not I broke it is somewhat unclear to me….

I was hearing confessions and a person whose confession I had heard before made a confession.  I have also once or twice previously helped this person with spiritual things outside of the confessional.  They made their confession and then immediately after they finished their confession they asked me a question about something related to their spiritual life.  In the course of our conversation I started a sentence with “If you remember from a previous confession…..”  Obviously, that was deeply imprudent.

I then related some information that I had given them before within confession. The information that I related was not their sin itself so much as something directly related to the sin….  Part of what I said was something that they had revealed to me outside of a confession, but part of it was also known within the confessional only.  So does that constitute a violation of the seal? —Father C

A: Father had been ordained relatively recently when this incident occurred, and was in anguish over what happened—as indeed he should be.  As we can reasonably assume is the case with all Catholic priests, he knew full well that in accord with canon 1386.1, a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.  (See “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” for more on what a latae sententiae penalty is.)

But before we dive into this issue, it’s important to note that there are actually two general absolution, sealseparate issues here.  The first is, did Father C violate the seal of confession?  And the second question is, if Father C violated the seal of confession, did he incur excommunication latae sententiae?  While these questions are obviously interrelated, they are not synonymous (more on that later).  Let’s start by looking at what the code tells us about the seal of confession.

As we saw in “Can Priests Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession? (Part I),” canon 983.1 tells us bluntly that “the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”  Traditionally, this “betrayal” has been interpreted as including any references made to the penitent himself.

The substance of this canon is echoed in the Catechism, which explains the same concept using less juridic terminology:

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)

That certainly doesn’t sound like it leaves a priest with much wiggle-room, does it?  This is why seminarians routinely—and quite rightly—have it hammered into them that there are no exceptions, period.  Just don’t repeat what you hear in the confessional to anybody!

That said, from time immemorial, real-life situations have arisen which constitute genuine grey areas.  For example, theologians have long discussed whether or not it’s possible for a penitent to give a confessor permission to repeat what he was told in confession (as discussed in “Can a Priest Ever Real What is Said in Confession? (Part II)”).  Similarly, there is perennial, sincere disagreement about whether it’s okay to repeat unrelated statements made by the penitent after his confession is finished, but while he is still in the confessional.  Is this kind of post-confession chatting covered by the seal too?  And what about matters referenced in the course of a confession which have nothing whatsoever to do with sin: if a penitent mentions in passing that (let’s say) he just bought a new house, or that his sister recently had a baby, is the confessor “violating the seal” if he mentions this info later?  There has been no official, public statement by Rome on such matters—no doubt because the Church doesn’t ever want to give the impression that there’s any kind of exception to the rule.  Priests know that when in doubt, don’t.

Given all this information, if you reread what Father C tells us about what actually happened, you can certainly conclude that yes, he violated the seal of confession, because he mentioned to a penitent something which the penitent had told him “within the confessional only.”  At the same time, it’s not 100% clear because, as Father put it, “The information that I related was not their sin itself so much as something directly related to the sin.”  We don’t know what that information is—thank goodness!—and so it’s difficult to state unequivocally that the seal was definitely violated in this case.  It would take a team of sacramental theologians (not canonists), possessing a lot more details, to make any real determination here; and since Father C obviously can’t provide more details, this would require the penitent’s own voluntary input.  What we can conclude is that Father is right when he declares, “that was deeply imprudent.”

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Father C definitely did violate the seal of confession in this case.  The next question we must ask is, was he excommunicated latae sententiae as per canon 1386.1, referenced above?

The fact is, there’s nothing automatic about excommunication.  That’s because, as was discussed at length in “Am I Excommunicated?  Sanctions, Part I,” a Catholic can’t “accidentally” or “unknowingly” incur the penalty of excommunication—ever.  As canon 1323 explains, there are a whole list of conditions, all of which must be fulfilled, for a Catholic to incur this sanction.  If even one of the items of this list does not apply in a given situation, then no sanction was incurred—even if you did commit an action that is punishable by excommunication.

It can be extremely frustrating to encounter ignorant Catholics who, for whatever reason, have the notion that excommunication can somehow happen without one intending it, or even realizing it!  The reality is that excommunication is a censure which it’s impossible to incur if you don’t understand and fully consent to commission of the excommunicable offense—in advance.  In short, it’s extremely difficult to get yourself excommunicated, even if you’re perverse enough to try.

If we look now at the conditions listed in the abovementioned canon 1323, we see that n. 2 says this:

The following are not subject to a penalty when they have violated a law or precept:
…n.2 a person who without negligence was ignorant that he or she violated a law or precept; inadvertence and error are equivalent to ignorance. (Emphasis added)

Father C hasn’t provided us with too many specifics (which is as it should be), but one thing that seems safe to say is this: he didn’t knowingly, deliberately, freely choose up-front to tell the penitent something which he’d learned only in the confessional.  On the contrary, it sounds like in the course of providing advice to the penitent, Father mixed up
(a) matter which he’d been told outside of confession,
(b) matter which he’d been told both inside and outside of confession, and
(c) matter which he’d been told only in confession.
Father knew full well that he could repeat to the penitent both (a) and (b), but not (c); but since the subject-matter was all connected, Father slipped up, and realized this when it was too late.  If only we could hit a “rewind” button on our conversations!  Father C clearly would have handled this discussion differently, if he could have started all over again.  This, by the way, is where youth and relative inexperience come into play.

At the same time, this is where canon 1323 n. 2 comes into play as well.  If Father C spoke without thinking, focusing on the subject-matter rather than the distinction between (a), (b), and (c) above, and  realized he shouldn’t have mentioned (c) only after the words were already out of his mouth … that constitutes “inadvertence,” which gets him off the canonical hook.  Father didn’t intend to violate the seal, and he most certainly didn’t intend to commit an excommunicable offense!  Yet without this imputability, there is no way to incur a sanction.

This likewise applies to all crimes to which the sanction of excommunication (or any other sanction, for that matter) applies.  By way of example, take a look at canon 1382.1, which states that “one who throws away the consecrated species” incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Holy See (see “How Does an Excommunicated Catholic Have the Sanction Lifted? (Part I)” and “(Part II)” for more on sanctions reserved to the Holy See).  If you “throw away” a consecrated Host, or Precious Blood from the chalice, this canon applies to you.

But now imagine a situation where there’s a horrible car accident near the parish church, and a Catholic victim lies there dying.  The priest is called and hurries out to the street to administer the Last Rites, including Viaticum (see “Can We Receive Communion Twice on Christmas Day?” for more on what Viaticum is).  Let’s say it’s raining; and in his haste, the priest slips on the curb … and drops the Host into the water-filled gutter, where It is quickly washed down the sewer.

Well, strictly speaking, you could indeed say that this priest just “threw away the consecrated species.”  And yes, it could be that he was somewhat negligent, failing to take adequate care as he rushed to the scene in the rain, carrying the Sacred Host—which would render him responsible for this act, at least to some extent.  But did he incur excommunication latae sententiae?  Hardly!  True, every situation will be different, and so the degree to which a priest in such circumstances is culpable may vary widely; but the notion that he did this deliberately and freely (or that he was so lax and irreverent in carrying the Host that he really didn’t care whether It fell into the gutter or not) is pretty close to zero.  Once again, canon 1323 n. 2 would apply.

Far too many Catholics out there seem to think that canonical sanctions work much like a mouse-trap, which will snap shut the instant that one inadvertently touches it.  Yet this mindset makes absolutely no sense, either theologically or juridically!  As was discussed in “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” already mentioned above, the Code of Canon Law regards excommunication as a medicinal penalty (cf. c. 1312.1 n. 1); and like ordinary medicine, such a penalty is imposed for a person’s own good, not with any intent to cause him harm.  It’s meant to serve as a loud wake-up call to the offender, to alert him to the fact that by his action(s), he has left communion with the Catholic Church—and the Church wants him to come back.

If we return to Father C’s situation, it should be evident by now that this does not apply in his case.  Yes, he was “deeply imprudent,” as he admits, and beyond a doubt should not have spoken to the penitent as he did; but given the circumstances it’s safe to say that he did not incur the sanction envisioned by canon 1386.1.  It’s probably equally safe to say that Father C will never, ever do this again.

This is Part VI in an occasional series on the topic of Sanctions.  Previous articles on the same subject can be read here:
Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I
Is She Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part II
Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part III
Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part IV
Are We Under Interdict? Sanctions, Part V

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