ASK FATHER: Can a penitent “release” priest from Seal of Confession?

seal of confessionFrom a reader…


Father, as a follow up to your recent post on who is bound by the seal of confession, I have two more related questions:

1. Can the penitent release the priest from the seal? I would think not, so as to prevent the penitent from being pressured by authorities to release the priest. But I’d like to know, since there are legal cases in the U.S.A. currently making their way to the Supreme Court that may depend on this.

2. Can the priest refer to things confessed by a penitent to the penitent himself? For example, if the penitent also goes to the priest for spiritual direction, can the priest refer to things in spiritual direction that were discussed in the context of confession?

The strong opinion of most moral theologians and canonists is that the penitent cannot release the priest from the Seal.

It is not the penitent who imposes the Seal, but the Lord Himself.  The penitent can’t release what the Lord God has bound.

A penitent is free, of course, to mention to the priest, outside of sacramental confession, anything that he would like the priest to speak freely about. What is said to the priest during sacramental confess, though, is as if it were said to Christ Himself. It is not the just priest’s information to share as he wills: in a way, it belongs to Jesus.

The same goes with regards to a further conversation with the penitent. If the penitent, in spiritual direction, wants to talk with the priest about something previously confessed, he should feel free to bring the topic up again, but he should not expect the priest to bring it up, or even to have knowledge of the topic if the only time it’s been discussed is under the sacramental Seal.

Remember: Priests will just keep it buried or, as it happens time and time again, will have just forgotten what they heard. Priests keep the Seal.

Remember: These are “Ask Father” questions, not “ASK EVERYONE” questions.  I turn on the moderation queue or release or delete comments as I see fit, especially with “Ask Father” questions.  Comments from priests, of course, get high priority.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. rcg says:

    This makes sense. Why would I release the priest from the Aeal when I am free to talk about it all I like?

  2. Michael says:

    Fr. Z – What happens if a priest inadvertently reveals something learned in Confession? [That’s too broad a question for me to answer clearly. However, the occasion would be super rare. Priests are extremely careful when it comes to this.] I know that I sometimes forget the source of something I heard. What if a priest were to genuinely forget the source of some information learned during Confession and mention it in a later conversation? It seems that would not even be a sin (absent the statement itself being a sin, such as gossip), as sin requires intention. But I am not sure.

  3. pmullane says:

    The Excellent Fr Dylan James has released as podcasts lectures he gave to the ordinariate priests as part of their formation, including a session on confession, which dealt with some of these issues and which I found to be very illuminating and helpful. Might be worth downloading for anyone who may be interested. They can be found on Itunes, along with his sermons.

  4. DonL says:

    I suspect some imagine the “seal” to be but an open-ended legal contract, whereby either party can dissolve it. This is a very interesting question though, which leads to others. Can the penitent then break the seal, or does it at all apply to him?

  5. govmatt says:

    While I cant’ weigh in from the Priest perspective, from the attorney perspective, many states have statutes that protect what is said in confidence to a priest. There’s actually a great history of how the recognition of the priest’s obligations in confession by the Court was accepted and the priest was not compelled to testify. There are, of course, the outlier stories where confessions are recorded by third parties, but, for the most part, States have gone out of their way to protect priests.

    The interesting part of this is actually the broadness of many of the “Clergyman’s privilege” statutes. For example, in Maryland, the statute reads: “A minister of the gospel, clergyman, or priest of an established church of any denomination may not be compelled to testify on any matter in relation to any confession or communication made to him in confidence by a person seeking his spiritual advice or consolation.” (Md. Code Ann., Cts & Jud. Proc. 9-111 for all the other lawyers out there). So, using Fr. Z’s example of the penitent merely talking to the priest in confidence (outside of the confessional) for spiritual advice, would be protected.

    Now, the controversial part for us Catholics may be that the law throws all faith traditions in the pot together as if the spiritual graces were all the same. While we would maintain having a chat with an Imam is not the same as sacramental confession, we should take comfort in the fact that the law is, at least in this, on the side of people of faith.

    It’s also important to note that the Md. law is drawn so that the priest is the holder of the privilege. This is important because, like in Fr. Z’s question, if the penitent were the holder, he could waive it and the priest could be compelled to testify. I haven’t conducted research in many other states, but, if you’re interested, you should really look up what yours is in your state. If the penitent is the holder, there is the chance that the law could be used to coerce testimony.

    Thankfully, when the priest holds the privilege, like in Maryland, the coercion risk is very low.

  6. Allan S. says:

    The legal discussion, while interesting, is (I suspect) quite moot. Should any legal authority compel a priest to break the seal, the seal would remain inviolable – as any non-perfidious priest would willingly confirm. It is for this he was ordained (as Fr. Z would say) – to partake in the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of all.

  7. Facta Non Verba says:

    Govmatt, your observations remind me about what happened during the OJ Simpson murder trial. OJ allegedly confessed to former NFL player Rosie Greer when OJ was in jail. Rosie Greer was acting as OJ’s “spiritual advisor” so the Court ruled the conversation privileged and not admissible. A guard at the jail overheard the confession and wanted to testify, but overhearing a privileged conversation in jail did not take away the privilege, and the guard was not allowed to testify.

  8. frbkelly says:

    I sometimes use the following analogy to explain it:

    Say a dear old friend from your schooldays, Murgatroyd, is coming back to your hometown Upper Sudsbury and you are gathering a few of the old crowd together for a party to celebrate the occasion. You ring up your dearest friend, Mabel, to begin to work out the details. You have to figure out whether to have the gathering on Friday or Saturday, at her place or yours, who is going to call the guests to invite them, what dishes you should ask each of them to bring, etc.
    You really enjoy your conversation with Mabel and regret that, life being as busy as it is, you don’t get around to visit as often as you should.

    After you hang up, you realize that you have everything figured out except you have forgotten which day you had settled on for the party. Was it Friday or Saturday?

    Now you could pick up the phone and ring Mabel back, but this would be just too embarrassing and she might think you were becoming forgetful.
    Luckily, you remember from you high school class in basic electrical engineering that your basic Analog Phone line (which, by the way Upper Sudsbury still uses as the local telephone company has somehow never gotten around to updating to Digital) works by establishing a carrier tone on the open line, the modulations of which carry the impulses to reproduce your voice in the speaker on Mabel’s phone at the other end. In fact your own voice was “heard” by the microphone in your handset and it was transmitted through the 24 gauge twisted pair copper lines to Mabel’s phone. The point here is that Mabel heard a reproduction of your voice. It is your own handset that heard your actual voice.

    You have a brilliant thought to save you the embarrassment of calling Mabel back and admitting your forgetfulness. Just pick up your own handset and ask it which day you were planning the party.

    (At this point I am usually met with laughter at the prospect of asking a telephone handset for information that it cannot give me.)

    In the conversation that happens in a confessional between the penitent and Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Merciful Judge, the priest is more like the telephone since he transmits the voice of the penitent to Jesus Christ and the Voice of Christ to His penitent son or daughter. The priest is indispensible to this conversation as is the telephone, but he no more owns the content than does the telephone.

    It would be just as useless to ask the priest to reveal the penitent’s confession as it would be to ask the telephone what day the party was to be. This is information that does not belong to him and he simply cannot give what is not his to give.

  9. govmatt says: If the penitent is the holder [of the priest-penitent privilege], there is the chance that the law could be used to coerce testimony.

    And I do not believe that any priest would ever divulge the contents of a confession, even under subpoena. Whatever else I might fear from nutty, ultra-liberal priests, I do not fear that even they would ever violate the Seal.

  10. mrshopey says:

    It is note worthy that the Missionaries of Mercy which will be dispatched (or appointed?) during the Year of Mercy, to each Diocese, will be granted permission to absolve sins reserved to the Holy See. One of those is the indirect or direct breaking of the seal. I really hope they find none, but if there are, I hope they take advantage of it.

  11. Gail F says:

    This is actually very important and could be a serious legal issue, as in the case in New Orleans. The law there (I know Louisiana has its own laws taht are different from other states, so I don’t know how it would translate to other states), a young woman wanted to testify in a case involving a dead man she said abused her when she was a minor. Her testimony, which she gave to a Grand Jury and reported herself to the media, was that she had confessed the abuse (fondling) to her parish priest and that he had told her to handle it herself. This seems rather unlikely, but that’s what she says. Anyway, the case is a big deal in NO and is complicated by a change in law that would make clergy, like teachers and doctors, required to report child abuse — a law that priests could not obey if it concerned formal confession. Apparently, if I recall correctly, LA law in general considers any kind of confession-like conversation as it considers attorney-client conversations: privileged for the benefit of the client/confessor, who can waive that privilige. The Catholic Church considers Confession to be a sacrament that covers BOTH parties. The person confessing can report to others what he or she confessed, but the priest cannot — even if the person who confesses lies about what happened. For instance, if the the priest did not tell girl in the case to handle things herself, he cannot say that she is lying, even to save his reputation. OTOH, he can’t corroborate her story either. He can’t even say that she confessed.

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