ASK FATHER: Penalties for Violation of the Seal. Wherein Fr. Z and a fictional SSPX priest explain the situation.

In the combox I was asked…


Doesnt revealing the content and identity of a penitent incur grave penalties?

I respond thusly.

First, for a person – and priests are people, too – to incur a censure, he has to commit a sin.  So, he has to know that it is wrong and do it anyway.   When it comes to something like the Seal of Confession, a priest can’t plead innocent ignorance.  If he is ignorant he is culpably ignorant, because of his office in the Church.  Also, during his ordination he had to state explicitly that it was his intention to hear confessions.  Moreover, someone had to stand up and testify that he was properly trained.  Could any of those points of responsibility go awry?  Sure.  People can lie.  People can be truly stupid.  But it is highly unlikely that, even in the worst training or a really thick candidate, the priest doesn’t know what the Seal is and what violation of the Seal brings.

Let’s see some law.

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.

Can. 1388 §1. A confessor who directly violates the sacramental Seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.

Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others.

Punishment for breaking the Seal of the confessional depends the severity of the violation.

A priest who directly violates the Seal, that is, he explicitly connects a sin to a penitent by name, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.   By the very fact that the priest did it, knowing it was wrong, he incurs the censure.  It will probably also be declared by proper authority if the case is revealed.  But even if it isn’t, the priest submit himself to judgment and seek a remedy, right away, through the Sacra Penitentieria Apostolica in Rome through the services of a confessor who knows the procedure.

What is direct violation?  Example, in the Diocese of Libville at Sing A New Faith Community Into Being Faith Community, Father Tad Flapmouth (biretta tip to Fr. Fox!) says, “On Saturday afternoon, in the confessional, Maggie MacGullicuddy confessed to me that she had slept with Frank O’Sullivan’s transgender husband, four times in the last week!  She says she was sorry, but was she?   First, all that 1950s stuff about sex and gender hangups!  Sheesh.  I gave her that thing… you know absolution…because she insisted, but I think she might just be scared of that old stuff about hell and isn’t reoriented in a hopeful and transformative vision of the reformed sacrament.”  That’s direct violation.

One who breaks the Seal indirectly gives sufficient information so that the sins and the penitent can be deduced.  For example, also in Libville at Engendering Togetherness Community of Welcome, Fr. “Just call me Bruce” Hugalot (recently moved from St. Idealia), says, “An elderly parishioner regularly knocks on the sacristy door about 8 minutes before Mass asks me to hear his confession.  His confession is always masturbation. Week after week, same confession always with the number of times.  Laundry list, right?  I have to wonder if this guy isn’t just stuck in some cultic or magical view, you know, like all that Counter-Reform stuff that is now obsolete.”  That’s indirect.  If you know where Hugalot says Mass… er um… presides at liturgy, and had noticed that a few minutes before Mass the same elderly guy goes to the sacristy, you would know his identity and what he confessed.

“But Father! But Father!” you PrayTell readers are dribbling, “It’s all about, you know… human brokenness and being present to each other in encounters of proximity that … that… can level out the outdated misconception of the dynamics of … of…. rigid legalism, and ritualism!  And YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

I really don’t.  And I respect Vatican II enough not to lie about it, and not to force it to say or mean something that it does not say or mean.

The Seal of Confession is so important that when a priest violates it, in addition to the application of the censure of excommunication, he can be dismissed from the clerical state.

So, yes, there are grave penalties for grave sins.  This is one of the gravest that a priest can commit.

Allow me to say that the violation of the Seal is incredibly rare.   Even the goofiest sort of lib priest (if he ever hears confessions at all) will usually not violate the Seal.  That’s how hard this is beaten into our thick skulls in seminary.

What would a lecture on Penance be like?

For example, at Our Lady Hammer of Heretics Seminary in the Diocese of Black Duck, Msgr. Zuhlsdorf and Fr. Rocco Firm of the SSPX’s St. Joseph Terror of Demons Chapel are running a practicum on the Sacrament of Penance.

Seminarian: “Msgr. Z, pray tell, afterward can we say to someone that…”


Seminarian: “But what about if….”


Seminarian: “But…”


Seminarian: “Okay, I get it.  I just want to know if…”

Msgr. Z (exiting): “Fr. Firm, can you take this while I get some coffee?”


Friends, do not let the incredibly rare occasion of a violation of the Seal, direct or indirect, or even the appearance of one, put you off of going to Confession.

And that fictional dialogue is actually based on my experience at the hell hole called St. Paul Seminary in the 80’s from a complete heretic priest who denied transubstantiation, threw me out of the seminary when he was acting rector, left the priesthood to shack up with a faculty member, etc. etc. etc.  When it came to the Seal, the answer was always the same: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Canon Law, GO TO CONFESSION and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Joy1985 says:

    Yes 2 thoughts:
    1.) when a person goes to Confession they are entrusting the priest with the very worst things about themselves and their many times, lowest points in their lives. Many wouldn’t cross the thresh hold of a Confessional again if they for one instant thought a Priest would share one bit of what they confessed inside. It’s such a trust like no other.
    2.) when the Priest hears Confession he is in the Person of Christ. Christ in His love and in His Mercy would never reveal a person’s sins that were told to Him to another person.

    God Bless ALL Priests for even hearing our Confessions, absolving us of our sins (In the Person of Christ) and for wanting to help us repent and sin no more. What a burden but also a great blessing.

  2. JustaSinner says:

    I think I remember an elderly Monsignor once telling me, the best practice for a priest hearing confession was to forget everything after absolution. Seems about right…

  3. sibnao says:

    Oh, Fr. Z — Our Lady Hammer of Heretics!! Singing a New Faith Community into Being Faith Community! I laughed so hard. Thank you.

    Quaeritur: Will the nonfictional priest at Engendering Togetherness parish actually be disciplined? That person just barely not named must be MORTIFIED. My prayer is that he hasn’t seen this incredible public betrayal.

  4. Dave H says:

    One nice thing about confession at Society chapels is that there is always a densely opaque grate or screen in the confessional—for the benefit of both the penitent and the confessor. Society priests are trained to look at the floor as they rise from their prayers in the nave (before the tabernacle) and enter the confessional, never making eye contact with those in line. Thank you Lord that ABP Lefebvre maintained the old ways!

  5. rhig090v says:

    I love the comic relief!

  6. Jacob says:

    Regarding the incident that inspired the post, in the earlier post’s comments, someone had found the original PrayTell post in its pre-edited state in the Wayback Machine. The original wording seemed to imply that the penitent in question was deceased.

  7. Bthompson says:

    I remember that very kind of situation being addressed in a Canon Law class in seminary.
    The professor was VERY clear that even a dead penitent still benefits from the Seal.

    As our gracious host has said: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!

  8. Tantum Ergo says:

    Your mention of ” Sing A New Faith Community Into Being Faith Community” reminds me of “song” # 417 in Breaking Bread Hymnal, “Sing a New Church”.
    1,) “Summoned by the God who made us rich in di-verrrrrsity… etc. etc. etc. )
    Thinking about introducing this “song” at Mass? KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!

  9. Jacob says:

    Bthompson, sure, just answering sibnao’s question about the thoughts and feelings of the penitent in question.

  10. Bthompson says:

    Oh, I didn’t see your original reference.

  11. Barnacle says:

    On a more serious note, thanks to our gracious host Fr. Z, we all are now pretty clear if we weren’t before that the PrayTell priest has violated the Seal. What happens now? What is the next responsible step? And who is going to take it?

    [We have to leave that now to competent authority to look into. For my part, unless he attacks or lies about me again or issues some new ludicrous and false item, I’m moving on to more pleasant things.]

  12. surritter says:

    Barnacle and William Cody…. I’ve always liked St. Joseph’s title “Terror of Demons.”
    I would never hope to interpret that in the wrong grammatical way!

  13. visigrad22 says:

    I too want to know where it goes from here…and what should the laity do if anything ? Prayer for his soul is a given !

  14. Joe says:

    As a Catholic for over 80 years, I cannot think of a sin by a priest more grave than breaking the seal of confession.

  15. visigrad22 says:

    Suggestion from a good and holy priest..” write and call the bishop over and over again….like the widow and the unjust judge…of course with charity but determination” … What say ye Fr Z ?

  16. Imrahil says:

    Re the seal of the Confessional.

    There was once a respectable, even religious Catholic family. There just was one problem with them – at least just one that is recalled. Parents and priest were strict in their discipline as you might have expected; the boy was sincerely devout, as you might think not quite sure but likely. According to accounts he was considering the Seminary.

    Alas alas alas… there was one instance where their respectability and discipline got the better of their Catholicism. He accidentally injures a classmate; he Confesses; and he is punished by his parents after the evening the priest was invited for dinner.

    Fast forward some 33 years. The once boy has found his faith again, helped by the sacrificial love of an enemy priest. He makes his confession again, and let us hope (though many won’t) that his repentance was sincere enough, before the rope is going to close around his neck.

    In the meantime, he has killed 2.5 million men by active killing and more than 0.5 by starvation, not to speak of the “sexual relationship” (as the sources tell us) with a woman utterly in his power where he forced her to abort her child and even his accomplices would accuse him of intending to starve her as well on purpose.

    This is the rather chilling story of Rudolf Höß, commandant of Auschwitz.

  17. nathanasius says:

    I feel deceived. After seeing “SSPX” in the title, I fetched my popcorn and sat down to read the article.

    Imagine my utter shock when I saw that there was nothing controversial at all to be found! I suppose I will have to content myself with re-reading the last few SSPX-related articles you’ve posted…

  18. cantrix says:

    I am aware of a situation where an Ordinariate priest is claiming that it is ok to reveal to his wife information gained in the confessional because they are ‘one flesh’. [NO!] I am not making this up. The parishioner directly involved is reluctant to report this and I wonder if any ecclesial authority in our area would care.

  19. cwood says:

    This is a bit of a silly scenario im outlining, but nonetheless is plausible enough that it could happen. Maybe im just overthinking. But if a Priest is undergoing a medical procedure, say getting a tooth pulled, and is under the influence of “laughing gas” or something else to ease the pain and has altered his state of consciousness. If the priest were to violate the seal, even directly and identifies someone by name, would that be considered sinful? Im not trying to over complicate things, im just curious

  20. JGavin says:

    Thank you once again for the explanation and all you do. I knew this in grade school. It would seem the catechesis has gotten particularly bad. On a snarkier note, I only wondered what the gender was of the other faculty member with whom the heretical priest, former rector, shacked up? Also I never think of these people as ex-priests. They may be laicized but remain priests. I always thought they went to judgement with a permanent change on their souls.

  21. Pingback: ASK FATHER: What should I do if I hear a priest break the Seal of Confession? | Fr. Z's Blog

  22. TonyO says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for some hilarity in exposing a grave error.

    It occurred to me that “KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!” could also be applied to all of us who are NOT priests, when it comes to gossip sessions. Often the subject matter in such events is trivial, but every once in a while it isn’t, and gossiping about someone in such a situation could be a grave sin.

    Thank you, to all of the priests who have heard my confessions, and have kept your mouths shut.

  23. Joy1985 says:

    Yes TonyO I agree. “Thank you, to all of the priests who have heard my confessions, and have kept your mouths shut.”

  24. Gaetano says:

    While in religious life, I had the misfortune of living with priests who flouted liturgical rules and church disciplines. There wasn’t a heterodox opinion that went unvoiced.

    But no matter how anti-tradition or anti-authoritarian they were, the Seal was sacrosanct. Indeed, it was sometimes the sole orthodox practice they retained.

  25. Hidden One says:


    Wow. Is there an academic (by which I mean ‘cite-able’) source in English for that account?

  26. OrangeBlossom says:

    Our family experienced an interesting aspect of the seal of confession. My fifth child is autistic. Once when she returned from confessing (age 11), I asked her what her penance was so that I could help her with the prayers. She totally forgot. My husband went to ask Father and he could not say. So we said a few Hail Marys and asked God to understand.

    For those with autistic kids, I created a confession guideline based off the Baltimore Catechism. It helps her walk through the confession step by step. I laminated it. We fill in with an erasable marker the length since her last confession. She writes down her sins. And now during confession, she writes down her penance. When she is finished, she erases everything with a tissue. She loves structure and this has helped.

  27. Adelle Cecilia says:

    OrangeBlossom, I’ve created one, as well. =)
    I made it in a way that the “sins” could be torn off and destroyed, but the advice and penance could remain.

  28. Imrahil says:

    Dear HiddenOne,

    I guess this is citeable enough:

    (There is a minor error, though: Himmler, though the most prominent Nazi criminal after Hitler, did not set up a provisional government in Flensburg: Dönitz did; what Himmler then would do was offer him his assistance; Dönitz refused; after this, by the nature of things, he said the things he is quoted with here.)

    Does not include the story about his so-called love affair, which I read in the German wikipedia and which there is quoted from, among other sources, here:

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