Seal of Confession holds even after penitents die

There is a CNS piece that teaches something about the Seal of Confession.

Seal of confession is absolute, even after penitent dies, officials say

VATICAN CITY — The secrecy of a confession is maintained so seriously and completely by the Catholic Church that a priest would be excommunicated for revealing the contents of a confession when ordered to testify by a court or even after the penitent dies, Vatican officials said.

No confessor can be dispensed from it, even if he would want to reveal the contents of a confession in order to prevent a serious and imminent evil,” said Msgr. Krzysztof Nykiel, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.

The penitentiary sponsored a conference at the Vatican Nov. 12-13 on “the confessional seal and pastoral privacy.”

According to the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, conference participants heard that since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 spelled out the penalties in church law for violating the secret of the confessional, “the discipline of the church in this matter has remained substantially the same,” with the exception of additional protections.

One of those additions, the newspaper said, was a 1988 church law explicitly stating that using an “electronic apparatus” to record, broadcast or otherwise share the contents of a confession also is an excommunicable offense.

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, [formerly Prefect of Cong. for Clergy] told conference participants it is important “to remove any suspicion” that the church’s commitment to the confessional seal “is designed to cover intrigues, plots or mysteries as people sometimes naively believe or, more easily, are led to believe.”

The seal, he said, is intended to protect the most intimate part of the human person, “that is, to safeguard the presence of God within each man.” The effect of the secret, he said, is that it also protects a person’s reputation and right to privacy.

The confessional seal, Msgr. Nykiel said, “is binding not only on the confessor, but also on the interpreter, if present, and anyone who in any way, even casually, comes to know of the sins confessed.” [Did you get that?]

The church, he said, takes the seal so seriously that it forbids, on the pain of excommunication, a priest from testifying in court about what he heard in the confessional, “even if the penitent requests” he testify.

Not even the death of the penitent can absolve the confessor from the obligation to maintain the secret, Msgr. Nykiel said.

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25 Responses to Seal of Confession holds even after penitents die

  1. WesleyD says:

    My understanding was that the person doing the confessing (the penitent) is not bound by any seal. In other words, I am free to tell a friend, “Yesterday, in confession, I confessed to selling nuclear secrets to East Germany.” Is this correct?

    If I were to do that, would my friend be bound not to repeat it? [Which is a different question from the one we are dealing with here.] That would seem to be the literal implication of the statement that “anyone who in any way, even casually, comes to know of the sins confessed” is bound. But it seems to me logically that if I am not bound to keep my own confession secret, then a friend who hears it from me isn’t bound. (Of course, he may be bound by moral obligations — calumny is a sin — but I’m referring to being bound by the seal.) On the other hand, if I were to accidentally overhear something spoken loudly in a confessional, or in any way whatsoever to learn about it from the confessor, directly or indirectly, then I would consider myself bound to keep that secret in any event.

  2. priests wife says:

    The seal of the confessional (and the sacrament itself) is the reason- after the Eucharist- why my family (parents and 5 kids) became Catholic when I was 12. Now- all of us children are married in the Church, and there are 25 and counting grandchildren baptized in the Church. Praise God!

  3. Darren says:

    What about cases where a priest talks about a confession he heard long ago in a place far away… “there was someone once who confessed to doing X, and I asked him Y… and… ” etc, to give examples of something, part of a sermon or other talk.

    Would that be considered acceptable? A certain priest once on EWTN used to do that.

  4. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    WesleyD says:
    14 November 2014 at 9:37 pm
    My understanding was that the person doing the confessing (the penitent) is not bound by any seal. In other words, I am free to tell a friend, “Yesterday, in confession, I confessed to selling nuclear secrets to East Germany.” Is this correct?

    Correct. But penitents ought to be extremely circumspect about even their own confessional matter, precisely because the priest is incapable of defending himself or clearing up any misunderstandings, should various people put two and two together and get five.

  5. Supertradmum says:

    Father, this is, of course, a serious threat to the sacrament if a priest may think he is forced to share information. Thankfully, this clarifies things.

    I would like to see an answer to WesleyD’s note, as some people, including myself, have shared with others advice given in the confessional as well as some of our own failings in order to help others.

    If I have sinned, I need to know.

  6. Tony McGough says:

    I had always thought that I – the penitent – could allow the confessor to speak of the content of my confession, or to act upon it, once I had given him explicit permission so to do. It doesn’t take much imagination to posit a scenario in which much good could thus be done by the confessor, which I would be unable to do.

    Has this changed? Or have I been mistaken?

  7. jhayes says:

    The church, he said, takes the seal so seriously that it forbids, on the pain of excommunication, a priest from testifying in court about what he heard in the confessional, “even if the penitent requests” he testify.

    That is the issue in the current lawsuit from Louisiana, where the State Supreme Court ruled that under Louisiana law, the priest must testify in Court if the “penitent requests he testify”. Apparently, this is also the law in several other states. The Archdiocese said it would ask the US Supreme Court to hear the case.

    Canon Law forbids the priest to “betray (prodere) the penitent.” The question is whether he “betrays” the penitent if the penitent wants him to testify as to what was said. (The penitent has already testified as to her version of what was said).

    Can. 983 §1. Sacramentale sigillum inviolabile est; quare nefas est confessario verbis vel alio quovis et quavis modo de causa aliquatenus prodere paenitentem.

    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.

    I have read the full article linked above. It does not give any additional source for Msgr. Nikiel’s statement.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    WesleyD: Father Z has been asked your question before.

    Quaeritur: Does the seal of confession apply also to the penitent?

  9. Suburbanbanshee says:

    That said, nobody can _make_ you reveal what you confessed, and it’s very very bad form for parents, spouses, friends, etc. to be nosy about it. If you feel like you should talk about it to somebody, though, you can.

  10. Father P says:

    WesleyD – The admonition only applies to sins overheard during the celebration of the Sacrament
    Darren – So long as the sin and advice is so “general” that it could be anyone, anywhere, and there is no danger of anyone knowing the identity of the penitent it doesn’t break the seal. So, I can tell you that at some point in my ministry there was a person who confessed to stealing a large sum. I can’t say that one of my first confessions at St. Swithin-by-the Sea in Buzzardnuckle involved a man who embezzelled about a million dollars from the local place where he worked. In the circumstances you mention — illustrating a homily — I was taught and believe the more vague the better. “You know we priests have from time to time heard in confession that the penitent has stolen a large sum of money and the best advice the confessor could give is….”

    Tony – it has never been permitted for the priest under any circumstances to reveal what was said, even if given permission. The seal is not a confidentiality agreement between priest and penitent but part of the covenant between God and the penitent. Why this is being stressed is that there could be the possibility (like the 5th Amendment protection in the US which ceases if the person answers any question other than his name during the trial) that if the priest answers any questions about a particular confession the entire contents of the person’s confession (including sins which may or may not be related to the case) could be open to examination.

    One thing that is often forgotten in discussions of the “seal” is that it is part of the sacramental “sign”. Because the sins are “sealed” in God’s mercy after they are forgiven no human being (even the sinner) has the right to withdraw them to be re-examined.

  11. JPD says:

    I have a confession question:

    I went to confession, the Priest said I absolve you, not I absolve you from your sins. Is the absolution valid?

  12. VexillaRegis says:

    Regarding recording confessions, I heard a lady telling her friends, that she secretly records her own confessions with her cell phone, because then she could listen to Father’s great advice again and relive the sweetness of absolution several times!!!!

  13. APX says:

    So what happens if, hypothetically speaking, one’s spiritual director and confessor are one in the same person and, despite confession occurring completely separately and “annonymously” behind the screen, sometimes gets mixed up with what counsel was giving during one’s last spiritual direction meeting and one of their confessions? This is completely hypothetical, since I know most priests seem to forget what someone confessed almost immediately, but what if this happened?

  14. WesleyD says:

    Suburbanbanshee and Father P, thanks for clearing up that question.

    Father Fitzpatrick, your advice about being circumspect are very wise. Before any of us consider saying “Father Rumplestiltskin at St. Swithin-by-the-Moat Church was very impatient with me in confession yesterday,” we should recall that this will reflect badly on Father R’s character, and he will be prevented from defending his good name by the seal of confession. Of course, there may be extreme cases where a penitent would be right to say something about what Father R did — just as there may be extreme cases where the good reputation of a deceased person must be tarnished by revelations. But I think, in the vast majority of cases, it would be good advice to say “de confessarionibus, nihil nisi bonum.”

  15. APX says:

    VexillaRegis,

    Someone ought to tell her that doing so can result in severe punishment. . I don’t even throw out my list of sins, but rather tear it up into teensy tiny pieces and flush it down the toilet in the church before doing my penance.

    If one wants to relive the sweetness of absolution several times, then one should just go to comfession more frequently. All that being said, we shouldn’t be seeking warm fuzzy feelings.

  16. Rachel Pineda says:

    Fr. P. Said, “One thing that is often forgotten in discussions of the “seal” is that it is part of the sacramental “sign”. Because the sins are “sealed” in God’s mercy after they are forgiven no human being (even the sinner) has the right to withdraw them to be re-examined.”

    That is news to me but very comforting! Thank God for His mercy and His priests.

  17. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    A priest cannot ever mention that such-and-such a person has ever confessed to him. Penitents, though not bound by the seal, should generally not talk about their confessions or identify the priest.

  18. Rachel Pineda says:

    Vexilla Regissaid, “Regarding recording confessions, I heard a lady telling her friends, that she secretly records her own confessions with her cell phone, because then she could listen to Father’s great advice again and relive the sweetness of absolution several times!!!!”

    Gaaaah! Why on earth would anyone want to record their confession? First of all, I don’t think the faithful are supposed to do that even though it is their own confession. I don’t think a lot of priests would appreciate that either. What if the recording got into the wrong hands or with all the new phones, accidentally uploaded to the internet and attached to an e-mail or other type of message? I guess I find it very strange because the sacrament cannot be relived. No reason to go back. Sure the sweetness of absolution is beyond anything that can be described but you cannot relive it. A person can only move on and live in, or try to live in grace taking father’s advice until their next confession. It just seems to miss the mark and lessens the impact and impedes the realization of what has actually occurred every time a penitent receives the sacrament worthily!

  19. Pingback: Religion and law round up – 16 November | Law & Religion UK

  20. VexillaRegis says:

    Yes, GaaaH, is the right word for that! This lady is very pious and nice, but also a spiritual junkie. I hope her confessor puts an end to her un-canonical and weird recordings. You should have seen all the jaws dropping, when she told the other ladies! Her attitude was like if she told them ” oh, I just love watching our wedding video and remembering all the marvellous love, thrill, excitement etc of the day.”

  21. Imrahil says:

    Frankly, after Confession, I am, of course, happy over the forgiveness. But, let’s face it, I’m also glad it’s done, and that these sins are done with. How I could get the idea to relive that for pleasure is beyond me.

    Someone said it’s not about warm fuzzy feelings. True enough; but what I really wonder is what some people get warm fuzzy feelings from ;-)

  22. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Well, obviously God wants us to have warm fuzzy feelings when He gives them to us. That’s called a “consolation,” (technical term) and it’s compared to giving milk and honey to a young kid to help fatten him up and give him some appetite.

    (Yeah, I know we don’t give babies and little kids honey these days, because safety; but let’s remember the thousands and thousands of years when people did.)

    Focusing only on the sweet taste of consolation, instead of on the lesson of love that God is giving us with the help of consolations, is like a kid thinking that he should eat only milk and honey all his life, until the day he dies. But if that was all the kid ate, he’d end up getting sick as a dog at a certain point, and probably rot his teeth too. We have to chew on some solid food in order to grow strong.

  23. z4g.mug says:

    However, there is a problem – which one longs to see noticed, or better still, addressed.

    If a moral imperative is made, or becomes absolute, it can have a way of undermining, or distorting, or crowding out, other things that are either even more important, or are no less integral to Christianity.
    A fairly minor example: obedience is a very great virtue, for all sorts of excellent reasons – even so, it is not everything; it is not even the supreme grace of the Christian character; it is not free-standing, as though all obedience was, by being obedience, ipso facto well-ordered & virtuous. Perverted obedience is therefore not an oxymoron. The “stick-like” obedience taught by a Saint like St Philip Neri was a safe doctrine for him to teach because he was a Saint, and an outstanding one; but in the hands of lesser men, or men with evil intentions, a doctrine that should be an expression of charity can and has become an expression of great evil.
    And yet, obedience has at times been treated, in practice if not in theory, as an absolute; even in the life of the Church.

    ISTM that the goods the Church is so eager to safeguard & foster by insisting on the permanent & exceptionless inviolability of the seal of confession is in danger – to say the least – of becoming so absolutised as to do wrong to other goods in the Church, of equal or even greater importance; such as the safeguarding of the defenceless from criminals in general and predators in particular. It is a perfectly intelligible doctrine or explanation, that confessional knowledge is not the confessor’s to divulge, no matter what, seeing as he acts as the instrument of Christ Whose forgiveness & saving power he both exercises & mediates. The problem is, that the doctrine & theology, however valid before God, seem to have become detached from the Second Great Commandment: a doctrine that should & can express the healing love of God for us sinners, seems to have as an actual but unintended effect the endangerment of those against whom certain penitents have sinned. What is meant for the good of Christians, harms some of them; and enables those who do the harm to escape scot-free. Priests thereby become abettors of evil & protectors of those who do evil. Surely this is not a healthy state of affairs, & is not the purpose of the sacrament, or of Christ Who instituted it :(

  24. The Masked Chicken says:

    “The problem is, that the doctrine & theology, however valid before God, seem to have become detached from the Second Great Commandment: a doctrine that should & can express the healing love of God for us sinners, seems to have as an actual but unintended effect the endangerment of those against whom certain penitents have sinned. What is meant for the good of Christians, harms some of them; and enables those who do the harm to escape scot-free. Priests thereby become abettors of evil & protectors of those who do evil. Surely this is not a healthy state of affairs, & is not the purpose of the sacrament, or of Christ Who instituted it :(”

    This seems to take a purely temporal view of the Scarament. No one will escape from God’s wrath, scot-free, unless they repent. Justice will be meted out, in the end, although not, possibly, in this life. The justice of not revealing a confession is an eternal act of justice, since sins are forgiven, forever. While guilty parties may make life difficult for others in this life, their ability to do so is limited to time. If the harmed party does not get justice in this life, they will, in the next, but once the priest reveals sins, the act is done and there is no way to fix the damage.

    The Chicken

  25. JPK says:

    “My understanding was that the person doing the confessing (the penitent) is not bound by any seal. In other words, I am free to tell a friend, “Yesterday, in confession, I confessed to selling nuclear secrets to East Germany.” Is this correct?”

    What is that old saying, “Confession may be good for the soul, but it’s bad for the reputation.”? It’s best to keep what you say to the confessor between you two and God.