QUAERITUR: Priest’s role, duty when someone “misuses” confession

From a reader:

When does the Seal of Confession actually take affect in that the priest can’t say anything outside of the Confessional? For example, if someone goes into the confessional/reconciliation room with no intention of confessing, but some form of misuse, would the seal of confession be in effect and the priest not able to rebuke the person outside the confessional, or if misuse became a problem among the congregation, speak out about it from the pulpit?

I must admit that I am not sure what you are talking about.

But let’s be clear about something.

If someone “misuses” the confessional, the priest or other people present should immediately put a stop to the “misuse”.  If a person commits a crime around or in a confessional, that crime should be stopped and reported to the police. If someone gets into a confessional and makes problems, the priest is within his rights to raise his voice, to get out of the confessional, to seek help from bystanders or authorities, and to defend himself and others nearby.

Just because the priest is sitting in the confessional, that doesn’t mean he is forced by the Church’s law to take abuse and do nothing.  He doesn’t have to allow others to be mistreated and do nothing.  And once the incident is a matter of public knowledge the priest can speak about it.

You might also spend some time reflecting also on what a horrible sin sacrilege is.

To raise your hand against a priest is not only a sin because of the harm you might do to a person, it is also the sin of sacrilege, because the person is a sacred person, ordained.  David did not spare the man who killed Saul, because that man raised his hand against the Lord’s anointed, in that case, the king.  If this is the case for a king, it is also the case for sacred persons, and even more serious for a priest or bishop.

Misuse of sacred things, places and persons is the sin of sacrilege.  The confessional is a sacred thing and place and the church is a sacred place.  Intending to harm the Lord’s anointed by physical violence or by detraction is a serious sin.


If someone get’s into the confessional to discuss something that has nothing to do with making a sacramental confession, I suppose that could be called “misuse” of the confessional.  However, in that case, because no “problem” or “ruckus” was caused, even though there wasn’t any sacramental confession involving the Seal, the priest should probably just treat it as if it were under the Seal and not discuss it lest there by any risk that people think he is breaking the Seal.  This is a tricky one, of course. It would depend on what was being discussed.  If someone got into the confessional and reported that there was a crime being committed, but the person thinks there is anonymity similar to that properly expected by a penitent making a sacramental confession, the priest had better inform the person that the Seal may not apply.

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  1. Random Friar says:

    I wonder if he means that someone could enter the confessional in order to:
    1) Seek marriage counseling but no Confession (happens to me every so often).
    2) Seek advice in dealing with a situation that may be criminal, either be the person entering or by someone known to the person (once in a very rare while) but no confession
    3) Complain about someone/something, but no confession (hoo boy).

    Technically, I guess that the Seal of Confession would not apply, since there was no intent of Confession, although the person entering would have a presumption that all that occurred within the confines of the confessional would be either sacrosanct or unrevealable.

  2. Tim Ferguson says:

    I remember some long conversations in canon law school about the “seal of the confessional” – more properly, the sacramental seal. For the seal to “kick in,” there has to be a sacramental confession. That means, there has to be a person, who is at least partially penitent, who confesses a sin. Most moralists (and our good host can check his ample store of reputable manualist tomes!) would say that, even if absolution is withheld by the confessor for whatever reason, the seal adheres.

    The seal does not adhere if someone comes running into the confessional and says, “Father, Father, the church is burning down!” Even though this is information Father learned in the confessional, he would have every right to come screaming out of the box telling everyone he just heard the church is burning down and they should get out.

    If someone came in to the confessional and said, “I just killed the mayor. I’m not the least bit sorry about it. I’d do it again if I had the chance, and I’ve got a list of five more people I’m going to kill. I just wanted to tell you so I can watch you sweat it out because I know you can’t tell anyone.” Sorry, but that’s not a sacramental confession. There is no seal there. Now obviously, that’s an over-the-top scenario. In reality, were something similar to happen (e.g., “I’m sleeping with my girlfriend, I don’t feel guilty about it and have no intention to stop.”), the priest would, and should, try to encourage the man’s conscience to express some bit of penitence – to awaken the slumbering conscience that is calcified. If the man ultimately concluded that he really wasn’t sorry for that sin, but he was for other sins – then the seal adhere. Even if he was not sorry for any of his sins, it would be imprudent at best for the priest to reveal anything.

  3. AnnAsher says:

    Well and strongly stated! It is good to make these things clear.

    Perhaps the writer meant “misuse” in that it becomes evident that a sin is repeated under presumption of receiving the sacrament lacking true contrition. What can the priest do then? I think he can and will rebuke said person. I think if it were a condition of the community he could and should rebuke the community. It doesn’t break the seal to reference a general pattern or even a common sin – not pointing out persons. Correct?

    Or perhaps the writer meant that suppose someone went into the confessional because they had committed a crime and wanted to tell someone and chose the priest because they heard the priest can’t tell? But this person not confessing. I think I’ve seen it in movies where the priest then kept mum. I think the answer would be the Priest is not bound by laws of Confession when there is no Confession.

  4. Mary Jane says:

    It seems to me, that unless the reader’s question is about the reader himself/herself, it should be left to the priest to handle the situation…

    Sort of like the modesty issue at Mass…leave it to the priest to rectify and correct.

  5. catholicmidwest says:

    Yeh, I think Mary Ann is right. I would think that priests would have some training and a lot of experience in these sorts of things, such that most “abuses” could be dealt with patiently.

    On the other hand, there probably are some difficult situations where the priest has to call a halt to some behaviors that are beyond the normal. Priests shouldn’t have to take any abuse over this. Things that aren’t confessions I wouldn’t expect to be under the seal-and the priest might have to use some analytical knowledge he has to classify events as in or not. Weird or violent things, that aren’t part of confession proper, should probably be brought up with other priests or the bishop for the protection of the priest in question and the parish. As I say, priests shouldn’t have to put up with danger, violence or quantum weirdness….

  6. Maxiemom says:

    We have a pastor who does not like to return phone calls if someone wants to speak with him when they have a problem with him – for example, if he makes a change in something that people object to and want to express an opinion on the matter. So one parishioner has use the confessional to address concerns, complaints, etc. with him, since her many messages that she wanted to speak with him went ignored.

    Under the circumstances, I must applaud her creativity in choosing to speak with him in a situation that makes it difficult for him to ignore her. I’m sure you won’t agree, but having had the same issue with him not returning calls (and I worked at the parish office), I’m glad she found a solution that worked for her.

  7. In disputationibus Confessionis sacramenti, ambulate caute, amici.

  8. I’m reminded of a hypothetical case put to us by our curate some years ago in an armchair discussion of the sacrament (literally — he was seated in his favorite leather armchair, a gift to him by the Youth Group). Suppose a man comes to the confessional just minutes before the confessor is to say the Mass and confesses that he has poisoned the communion wine. He claims true repentance and seeks absolution. Setting aside for the moment whether the priest should give absolution (since, as Tim Ferguson said above, we can presume that the seal adheres because of penitent’s intent, not absolution), does the priest break the seal by changing out the communion wine? (Let’s presume that he can legitimately communicate the congregation under one kind, such that the only risk of poisoning is to himself.)

  9. albinus1 says:

    I suppose the scenario presented by Scioviasdomini raises the question of whether the Seal prevents the priest from telling anyone that a specific crime has occurred at all , or just that it prevents him from revealing who committed the crime.

    A similar scenario (while we’re at it) might involve a person confessing that he planted a bomb set to go off in 12 hours, and he tells the priest where he planted the bomb. Does the Seal prevent the priest from alerting the police to the fact that there is a bomb set to go off in specific place, so they can evacuate it and look for the bomb? Or does it just prevent him from telling the police who confessed to planting the bomb?

    And, of course, to what extent is the priest’s knowledge, subject to the Seal, limited by the anonymity of the Confession screen? I mean, if the Confession was anonymous, the priest couldn’t tell the police who planted the bomb in any event, because presumably he doesn’t know the identity of the penitent. After all, unless I’m mistaken (and I well might be), the police receive anonymous tips all the time.

  10. tzard says:

    Theoreticals are loads of fun –

    In the case of poisoned communion wine – Canon law specifies that the priest may not use the information “to the detriment of the penitent” (can 984 Section 1). Just going out and changing the wine quietly is not to the penitent’s detriment. Nor is warning of a bomb. Only don’t say from where it came from.

    Now as for a busybody using the confessional booth to complain – while the seal is on the sacrament, not on the box – it might be entertaining to suggest that the complaint is under sacramental seal, and he can’t do anything about it. ;^) Next time write a letter.

  11. Mary Jane says:

    “the complaint is under sacramental seal, and he can’t do anything about it” – ROFL.

  12. Random Friar says:

    I do tend to be rather clumsy sometimes… oops! Call me “Butterfingers;” I spilled the wine. I hope the sacristan would be so kind as to prepare another chalice for the offertory.

  13. Phillip says:

    I’m not quite sure what the questioner means, either, but some years back there was an awful film (or at least a blasphemous one, I never saw it, just read a review – I forget its name), in which a priest who’s struggling with his faith hears from a girl in the confessional that her father is molesting her. The father storms into the confessional to tell the priest that he has no intention of stopping his crimes, and then the rest of the film is just the priest having a moral struggle because he can’t break the Seal – oh, and it turns out he’s gay and needs to liberate himself from the oppressive rules of a patriarchal Church, blahblahblah. I think Ebert (the reviewer I read) gave it NO stars. Anyway, the point is that in that situation (which hopefully will remain fiction) there is no confession and no penitent and therefore no Seal, so the priest could report him to authorities.

    I tend to view Canon laws like I do any other statute in the secular world – what does it actually say? And of course, because my Latin is sub par (at best), I have no idea what it REALLY says…but the English translations of the Code of Canon Law say that a priest must not betray a PENITENT. There has to be a sin confessed, some sign of penitence. Usually going to confession would in itself imply penitence, unless the one making the confession explicitly said they were not contrite, in which case there’s no proper matter for the Sacrament, and (I think it follows), no Seal.

    If there are gaps in my reasoning, I just drove from Duluth to Kansas City in one go in the middle of the night. I tried.

  14. Maxiemom says:

    Tzard – FYI, he doesn’t respond to e-mail or snail mail either. He chooses to ignore any communication that is not praising him. By the way, my parish was merged with another in our town and he’s the pastor we got – he had no experience as a pastor, as an administrator and limited experience as a priest – he had only been out of the seminary about four years.

  15. Luke Whittaker says:

    Based on the premise that every Christian encounter is always a responsibility given by Christ to enter every situation as a representative of love my opinion is that we should not be too quick to point to rebuke for the sake of justice. The gospel calls us to third level morality and so the gospel should become the measure of what we ought to do.

    I get a sense from this story about a confused person entering the confessional who might not be Catholic but is curious about things Catholic. Or, perhaps, is Catholic and lacks a proper understanding of how to confess. A third possibility that comes to mind is someone intent on harassing the priest during a time when the priest might “appear” to be vulnerable. I am suggesting that just because a priest can defend himself (for example) doesn’t mean that it is the best means of communicating the love of God to the person afflicted enough to misuse the confessional. If the priest is angered by the abuse then he should give the hurt to God for healing and view these interruptions as an opportunity to demonstrate patience .

    In any event, I would suggest that the priest in question ask simply, “Do you realize that the confessional is an inappropriate place for [blank]? In the case that a number of parishioners misunderstand the sacrament of reconciliation, I would not recommend a public rebuke. If a rebuke is needed the conversation that ensues from the latter question will provide the space for it. If catechesis is the concern then it could be provided for during a homily.

    The spiritual works of mercy come to mind in this regard. Instruct the ignorant. Counsel the doubtful. Bear wrongs patiently. Comfort the afflicted. It would be easy to stop at, “Admonish the sinner”. But I would argue that the person in question should be considered more afflicted than sinful. What a positive change that priest could bring about for the soul who is ignorant of God’s mercy! A hardened heart might begin to yield like soft wax to the formative action of Christ.

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