ASK FATHER: To whom does Seal of Confession apply?

seal of confessionFrom a reader…


Does the seal of confession bind the penitent in any way?

Background: Talking with a friend awhile ago I mentioned something I was told in confession. My friend said he was very uncomfortable with this – implying that I was breaking the seal.

Most moralists maintain that the Seal of the confessional only binds the confessor (and anyone else who might overhear the confession – such as a translator or a person standing too close to the confessional or a person in an emergency room), not the penitent. Thus, if one hears something unusual during the sacramental confession, one can ask another priest for guidance, or if one hears something edifying, one can share this with those in need of inspiration.

Prudence, of course, should be one’s guide in this as in all things.

What happens in the sacrament is an intimate conversation between the soul and it’s Savior. Those who regularly and wantonly divulge intimacies were formerly referred to as “twattlers.” Now we call them “reality TV stars” or “celebrities”.

All of that said, there is one really good rule of thumb: Just keep your mouth shut.  Hard to go wrong with that one.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I did recently read an old didactic/slice of life UK Catholic novel from 1910 but set in the mid-1850’s, Won by Conviction by Fr. Francis O’Shea. It’s talky but fun.

    Anyway, the UK Irish Catholics in the story were pretty positive about confess-ees keeping just as silent about Confessions as the confess-or. And I have to say that this was probably a good custom to have, in the political and social climate of Ireland. You don’t want the parishioners being pressured by family and friends to reveal their sins or the confessor’s advice, and you definitely don’t want them pressured by the UK government. And of course confessors can’t really defend themselves against lies or exaggerations about Confession, so parishioners need to play fair if they do talk.

    But yeah, it’s good to know if you’re following an excellent custom versus an actual precept.

  2. benedetta says:

    I think that is very helpful. I often tell fellow Catholics who have shown interest in my in one way or another that I greatly struggle increasingly with envy, not of things so much as the peace and security that others enjoy. I suppose given certain events this is all too predictable — one need not hear it in so many words than to know that of course that will become an issue if one wants to continue with whatever may be happening to let God lead us.

  3. priests wife says:

    A huge reason for the penitent to NOT discuss their confession is that the priest cannot discuss it or defend himself. How many times have we heard “Fr X told me that abc wasn’t a sin!” or “Fr X gave me just a Hail Mary for my grave-matter-sins!” Well, Fr X can say nothing. So, have mercy.

  4. Roguejim says:

    “What happens in the sacrament is an intimate conversation between the soul and it’s Savior. ”

    That is the hope, but, dubious at times given some of the pop-psychobabble that comes from the other side of the screen. Would my Savior begin a confession with the words, “Ready to roll?” And given some of the belly laughs that can be heard from outside the confessional, suggest a rather less than intimate encounter within. Just sayin”.

  5. APX says:

    I’ve also heard priests say that penitents shouldn’t share the advice they were given in confession with others because it was given based on the penitent’s specific circumstances, which may not apply to another person who may have issues with such a sin, and can cause grave spiritual harm to the other person. [I don’t know about that. But prudence is needed.]

  6. How about where you want to praise the confessor for something particularly good he said in the confessional?

    I confessed to our bishop my lack of punctuality for Sunday Mass. Most priests say nothing about it, unless it’s to discourage the confessing of such minor offenses. The bishop to his credit said, “You know, worship is the most important thing we do.”

    I have shared this with multiple friends, who know full well who our bishop is. I am only trying to help our often beleaguered bishop get some credit by showing folks our diocese is in good hands.

    Father, is that an acceptable exception or is the “say nothing rule” still a better option even when it’s a clear positive like this?

  7. Suburbanbanshee says:

    It also occurs to me that a good many saints have talked in their autobiographies about stuff that their confessors said to them in the confessional about their sins (although some only talk about spiritual direction as opposed to Confession). So yeah, it’s a prudence thing.

  8. John UK says:

    Father, is that an acceptable exception or is the “say nothing rule” still a better option even when it’s a clear positive like this?

    There is no need to place good and positive advice in the context of the confessional.
    Try “D’you know, a wise old priest once said to me ……‘You know, worship is the most important thing we do.’ [or whatever]. I’ve often thought about it and the more I think about it the more I know it to be true…..”
    It might have been said in a sermon or over a pint. There is no need to identify the priest or the place or the occasion.

  9. jlong says:

    Father, I went to confession and when I left the Priest followed. We were new to the Parish, and the Priest spoke to my wife and I. In that conversation he made a comment to my wife and I that directly related to something I confessed. My wife would have had an inclination as to what I might have confessed but could not know for sure what I confessed. Would that equate to a violation of the confessional? What if the Priest could deduce something outside the confessional relating to something he hears in the confessional?

  10. jlong says:

    What happens if someone confesses murder but then states his or her intention to kill someone the Priest knows? Could the Priest warn that person without revealing the confession of the penitent?

  11. Elizabeth D says:

    jlong, you want to watch the Alfred Hitchcock film “I Confess,” which has a slightly different but related scenario.

  12. To underscore, while a penitent who discusses with others what a priest said in the confessional may not be committing a sin, depending upon the circumstances it may not be a wise thing to do. Many, many stupid acts are not necessarily sinful. I’d stick with Fr. Z and just keep a blanket rule of silence, or at least not identify the priest and the fact that it was said in a confessional. The seal is for everyone’s good.

  13. benedetta says:

    Of course it’s also certainly possible that opportunists or unscrupulous people, who could even be Catholics, might use whatever you may be struggling with for their opportune agendas, often material, you know, turn it into a boon for whatever their heart’s desire. It can happen.

  14. andia says:

    I often speak about confession to a Protestant friend of mine,,,,she is studying to be a minister and wants to be able to acurately talk about the experience of a confessee to her congregations. She wants to be able to help heal some of the misunderstandings protestants have about Catholics.

    I do not tell her what I confessed, but sometimes I will discuss with her what penance is why we receive it and how the priest we confess to also does penance for our sins ( I still struggle with that) –I also suggest she speak in to a priest about it- and let him tell her as much as he is comfortable about it.

    She also attends Mass with me weekly.

  15. cdet1997 says:

    This reminds me of a problem with the appearance of “confession rooms” in the 1960s and 1970s instead of true confessionals. A confessional, I think, fosters a quieter and more discrete and intimate conversation between the penitent and confessor. Confession rooms foster a more relaxed environment in which both people tend to speak more loudly, which makes it more likely that folks outside will overhear the confession. I hate going into a confession room wondering if my sins will be revealed to those waiting in line behind me.

  16. oldconvert says:

    An old family friend told me once of a really embarrassing moment after confession, caused by thoughtlessness. A cradle Catholic, he was used to confessing since childhood and I don’t, obviously, know what it was he had been confessing, but I assume something pretty shaming. That wasn’t the embarrassing thing. But immediately after being dismissed, the priest – who evidently recognised his voice – said, “Oh by the way, X, on your way home could you just post this letter for me,” thus precipitating him out of merciful anonymity at a stroke.

  17. JesusFreak84 says:

    Usually, if I talk about Confession at all, it’s because I think something I was told might help the person to whom I’m speaking, or to try and show that the Sacrament isn’t the medieval torture chamber so many seem to think/fear it to be =-

  18. As someone has mentioned: the priest has no opportunity to defend himself if the penitent misunderstood something; or if the priest misunderstood what the penitent said to which he responded. To say something like “I confessed to Fr. X that I had … and he said …” is therefore hugely irresponsible. I would consider it permissible though if the priest can not be identified (e.g. “when in my 20s, once I confessed that…”).

    I saw this in a film: 19th century French family, son is ordained a priest, whole family is there. Afterwards there’s a party, to which the newly ordained arrives quite late. To explain the delay he says he was hearing confessions, and in response to the (none-too-pious) comments that follow he says “My first penitent was a woman who’d committed adultery.” The conversation moves on, and somewhat later enters the new priest’s mother, also late. She walks into the room and says with gaiety: “I was our little Pierre’s first penitent!”

    Probably best not to say anything about one’s confessions.

  19. AlexanderAerarius says:

    Brings to mind the journalist who pretended to be a homosexual penitent and then published a transcript of what the priest said.

  20. Giuseppe says:

    The seal belongs to the priest. Prudence and good judgment dictate what the penitent might share. Imposing a seal on the penitent is unfair: how do you keep one from spreading the joy of absolution? I might remember 10 sermons in my past 30 years of church going. But I remember nearly every story someone told me about his/her confession, penance, and how they feel new again. I’d video some of these and use the on the NYC subway as ads to get people into confession.

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