QUAERITUR: does the Seal of confession apply also to the penitent?

From a reader:

Except when he translates for or overhears another person’s confession, is a layman ever bound–like the priest–by the seal of Confession, such that he cannot mention either what he confessed or what he was told?  I was not able to determine this with certainty, but obviously it would be important to know with certainty if the answer is yes.

 

Except in the cases you mention, that is, when he may serve as a translator or when he overhears the confession of another, a layperson is not bound to keep secret what he or she says or hears from the priest in the confessional.  If a translator or "over-hearer" were to reveal the contents of a confession, they could under the Church’s law be punished with a suitable penalty.  The "Seal" which applies to the confessor does not apply in the same way to the penitent, even if the penitent is a priest.  In the case of a cleric overhearing a confession and then revealing the contents, I suppose a penalty might include dismissal from the clerical state.

But in general a person can reveal he contents of his own confession and what the priest says. 

That said, it is probably better for the penitent not to speak too much about what occurs in the confessional under normal circumstances.  The less said about concrete instances of the sacrament of penance the better. 

There are some exception to this, of course.  Off the top of my head I can think of both positive reasons and negative reasons.  For example, if a priest gave a particularly good piece of advice, perhaps that might be shared if you were not also going to reveal your own sins as a result.   Otherwise, if a priest were to do something outrageously stupid or attempt a crime or the like, the penitent could and should address himself to the priest’s superior about what happened.  The difficulty is, of course, that the priest remains bound by the seal and it could wind up being a matter of the word of penitent "A" against Fr. "B".

So, the long and the short is that a penitent in general can speak of his own confession and the advice and penance received, but in normal circumstances it is better to leave it for the most part in silence.

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24 Responses to QUAERITUR: does the Seal of confession apply also to the penitent?

  1. lofstrr says:

    Just a hypothetical. If the penitent chooses to reveal the contents of their confession and they claim that they were solicited by the priest. Does the priest have any way of defending himself? or is he still bound to not revealing anything? In other words, could he lay claim to what was not said as opposed to what was said so long as the penitent made the choice in breaking the seal?

  2. Scott W. says:

    Just a hypothetical. If the penitent chooses to reveal the contents of their confession and they claim that they were solicited by the priest. Does the priest have any way of defending himself? or is he still bound to not revealing anything? In other words, could he lay claim to what was not said as opposed to what was said so long as the penitent made the choice in breaking the seal?

    In a word, no. That’s what the document Crimen Sollicitationis was trying to address: that the charge has to be taken seriously with the caveat that a priest is essentially defenseless against a charge of a crime in the confessional except for, “I didn’t do it.”

  3. THREEHEARTS says:

    Growing up so long ago in the Church long before a form of private revelations called personal opinions became fashionable, I remember being taught something that surprised me. I can reveal whatever I like about my confessions. I was shocked here because why would I want to boast about my sins. But I was (we were)warned about the sin against the first commandment, making the priest look foolish (deliberately), by making him to be useless or dumb. Words of the teacher. This is a sacrilege against the first commandment. Also we can if we wish to allow the priest to speak about confession but put it in writing and be specific about to whom he can speak. I would answer do not give me absolution for that event but arrange for me to go to confession to the local ordinary. This I think was one of the reasons a bishop could only forgive the sin of abortion. If a priest asks especially for this permission as he may want to get further help and advice from his bishop??? I can think of many reasons for this. Reasons for revelations etc. that need the Bishop to know and to seek to keep good order in the Church. Most priests would shun to minimize errors against the seal just to be on the safe side. Obviously a man who confesses to murder would probably balk at condemning himself in writing.

  4. oldCatholigirl says:

    If a person confesses to doing something that is against the law (e.g., shoplifting, passing bad checks, rape ), I would think that he would only receive absolution on the condition that he make whatever restitution possible. I would also speculate that sometimes he would be required to give himself up to the law, thereby revealing what he confessed. Of course, the priest could in no way be a party to the revelation.

  5. My husband and I find it very helpful to, after praying and discerning most of our sins on our own, to go over each other’s lists to see if there might be an omission. After confession, we sometimes talk about how dead-on the advice the priest gave was. It has always been, while sometimes a painful experience, a very healing experience, even though I know that emotions aren’t supposed to be a factor in the graces received. I hope we aren’t doing anything wrong, but sometimes it’s good to talk to the person closest to you to make sure you’re being totally honest when it comes to confessing sins.

  6. ies0716 says:

    oldCatholicgirl:

    I believe that you are incorrect (and I think that this topic was actually addressed by Fr. Z awhile back). My understanding is that a priest can never, under any circumstances, make the revelation of the sin/crime to public authorities a condition of absolution. He may highly recommend or encourage this, but he may not assign it as a penance or make it a condition of forgiveness. Can Fr. Z or any other priests/theologians corroborate this for me?

  7. smad0142 says:

    I think a Priest could assign that a penitent turn themselves in to the proper authorities. But I also believe that this penance, along with all others, can not be assigned if the penitent can not or is unable to bring themselves to do it. I am not a 100% sure, but those are my $0.02.

  8. RichR says:

    The seal of confession is, in my opinion, one of the more mystical and sacred characteristics of our religion. I think it intrigues outsiders because it is so inviolable. Nothing, nowadays, seems inviolable anymore.

  9. A priest cannot impose a penance that involves self-incrimination, although he may counsel, even strongly, a penitent to do so. Jurisprudence is cumulative, not merely black-letter law, so it is possible to interpret newer law by older. That said, the current Code says:

    Can. 983 §1. 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.

    Notice “in any manner” and effectively ordering the penitent to go confess confessional matter would be “a manner.” Furthermore, no judge can demand self-incrimination. This is confirmed by the 1917 Code, where it is explicitly stated that accused have a right not to incriminate themselves:

    C. 1743.1 The parties [i.e. those questioned by the judge] are bound to answer and manifest the truth to a judge who legitimately questions them, unless is a question of a delict [crime] they themselves have committed.

    If self-incrimination cannot be required by a court, and the confessional is the court of the internal forum, then a confessor, who is the judge of that forum, cannot impose such an obligation.

    By the way, this is also the conclusion of the retired prof. who taugh me moral theology, who is an impeccable Thomist.

  10. Agnes of Prague says:

    Thanks for answering this question, Fr. Z., I was wondering about it recently though I was pretty sure I knew.

  11. Ung Foy says:

    Fr. Z,
    The pentitent holds the privilege and the priest is bound. Under Church law, the penitent ever waive the privilege and allow the priest to speak?

  12. SSHC says:

    Like Suz from Oklahoma, I often share things from my confession with my husband. I feel that we bring our deepest flaws and faults into the confessional with us and it really brings spouses closer to share these things. So often spouses (in particular wives) think that their husbands don’t even know that they have flaws. Discussing confessions takes the discussion of sins you’ve committed out of the judgmental, argumentative type of “discussions” spouses can have and turns them into discussions about how you can take those sins and turn those occasions of sin around and make something good out of them.

    I guess I feel that spouses discussing their confessions, with the priests comments included, is almost a form of marriage counseling.

  13. The important thing here is that nobody can _force_ the penitent to reveal what happened in Confession. Even your parents or spouse or monarch have no right to even ask you or ask for hints as to what you confessed, and no right to be told. In many ways, the seal of confession is a backup to the penitent’s right not to reveal stuff.

    So to prevent awkwardness and inquisitiveness as well as injustice, and to protect other people who are more shy or more in need of secrecy than you, it’s better not to get in the habit of yakking about your experience as a penitent.

    OTOH, a lot of family members are perfectly willing to tell you beforehand to go to Confession and what sins you’ve committed. :)

  14. Of course, the people above who do talk about their stuff on a regular basis are big boys and girls, and everybody’s situation is different and demands different prudential judgments for them to make.

    Personally, I believe in Murphy’s Law and noir movie mystery plots, so will generally err on the side of Huge Freakin’ Paranoia Attack. Which is why I think priests ought to do bug sweeps on their confessionals. :)

  15. RichardT says:

    Similarly legal professional privilege, which has a lot in common with the Seal of the Confessional, is a right of the client not of the lawyer, and so can be breached by the client.

    Of course the fact that the Seal does not cover the person making the confession does not mean that we can automatically talk about our confessions without sin – there may be other ways in which it is wrong to do so. For example by talking about the priest’s advice without giving the full details we may be wronging him, which is particularly bad since he cannot defend himself. We may also be revealing other people’s sins, or spreading gossip.

  16. Random Friar says:

    For me, I find it humorous that so many people expect me to remember what they confessed: “Father, remember when I talked to you about ‘X’ last week?” Ummm, don’t take it personally, but… no. And I’m not feigning ignorance or any great sacramental theology, but living out senior moments, especially when I try to hear as many Confessions as I can.

  17. AnAmericanMother says:

    About the only discussion I’ve heard is “What did YOU get?”

    I like the idea of discussing confession with hubby, but I doubt he’ll bite.

  18. Agnes says:

    Do priests occasionally mix up what they’ve heard in the Confessional with what they’ve discussed “out of the box” with a layperson, either in passing or in spiritual direction? While not bound by the Seal of Confession, I would expect a professional confidentiality if I were to speak with my pastor in his office or even on the sidewalk about a personal matter. Trust is a delicate thing. I’m trying to keep my gunk to the box where I know the Man behind the screen is Christ the High Priest, who is worthy of all trust. Besides, the spiritual direction of a priest may tell me to go pray some more and “offer it up”, but I am only absolved if I’m in Confession anyway.

  19. Athanasius says:

    In general it would seem to me good that a person does not divulge even the advice they received in confession, even if it was good, because if the priest gave advice that was suited to the penitent’s particular case, and they said “Father told me this” and it caused some scandal, the priest is unable to defend himself. There is nothing he can say without infringing on the seal.

    Thus in deference to the priest it seems good to keep it to yourself.

  20. dcs says:

    Under Church law, the penitent ever waive the privilege and allow the priest to speak?

    If I remember correctly, it is debated whether the penitent can release the priest from the seal. I don’t think it can be compared to professional secrets – lawyers and other professionals keep notes, priests don’t.

  21. Thomas S says:

    Didn’t Queen Katharine of Aragon (may she be canonized one day soon) use the confessional to reaffirm she never consummated her marriage to Prince Arthur, and then released her confessor from his silence on the matter?

  22. Random Friar says:

    Agnes: One more reason to prefer screened or anonymous Confession. Someone complimented me tonight after Mass outside the church in a group about advice I gave, and the only answer I could (honestly) give was “Thanks!” and left it at that. I also try to “vary up” the penances to same sin/different folks, so one cannot “reverse engineer” the sins from the penance given.

  23. dcs says:

    Didn’t Queen Katharine of Aragon (may she be canonized one day soon) use the confessional to reaffirm she never consummated her marriage to Prince Arthur, and then released her confessor from his silence on the matter?

    As far as I know she always averred that the marriage was never consummated — I’ve never read that she did so in the confessional. Where did you read that she did?

  24. Agnes says:

    Random Friar – Commenting in a group about something said in confession put both you and the penitent in an awkward spot. People are grateful to their priests though, and I well understand the desire to continue the conversation. So sorry that happened.

    The screen provides protection for both the confessor and the penitent and both have a right to confidentiality in this most privileged of conversations. Unless the priest has committed some wrongful act, what is said in the box should probably stay in the box. Sometimes it is difficult to wait a full week if there’s something pressing, but maybe it’s part of our self-discipline to cut the priests some slack. Dealing with the collapse of family and civilization 24/7 gets to be a bit of a drag, hm?