From a reader…
Can confessors in any way act upon information they receive in
While looking up information regarding the seal of confession, I came across a reference to a fifteenth-century English canonist, William Lyndwood. He states that Henry de Bohic “seems to adhere to the opinion of those theologians who say that even where future danger threatens, as, for instance, in the case of a heretic who proposes to corrupt the faith, or of a murder or of some other future temporal injury, the confessor ought to furnish a remedy (adhibere remedium) as far as he can without the revelation of the Confession, as, for instance, by moving those confessing to desist and otherwise using diligence to prevent the purpose of the person confessing. He may, too, tell the prelate to look rather diligently (diligentius) after his flock: provided that he does not say anything through which by word or gesture he might betray the person confessing.” (from newadvent.org)
I thought that a priest who was being pilfered could not change the locks on his moneybox if he were to learn, under the seal of confession, of a duplicate key made by the thief.
Is this not correct? What is the distinction?
Preserving the Seal confession is so important that one priest, St. John Nepomuk, who was the Queen’s confessor, was murdered by the King because the priest refused to reveal what the Queen had confessed.
CCC 1467 says that, with my emphases
Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry [hearing confessions] and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.
Sounds pretty clear. Are there exception?
Let’s make some distinctions.
First, there is direct violation of the secret of the confessional, the Seal. Direct violation occurs when the confessor (or a person who overhears) reveals the identity of the penitent and the sin she committed. This is about as bad a crime and sin as there is and it incurs the censure of excommunication automatically (latae sententiae). The lifting of the censure is reserved to the Holy See.
Next, there is indirect violation. This happens when the confessor reveals some information which allows people to figure out who the penitent was and what the sin was. This is to be punished according to the seriousness of the crime.
Related to these, is making use of information learned in the confessional whether or not is has to do with sins that were confessed.
In a document from the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, the Church’s highest tribunal which concerns all matters of the internal forum, such as the confessional, we read – in reference to that CCC 1467 quote above – that… (my emphasis)…
The confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, “to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner” (CIC can. 983, §1), just as “a confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded” (CIC can. 984, §1). The doctrine also helped to further specify the content of the sacramental seal, which includes “all the sins of both the penitent and others known from the penitent’s confession, both mortal and venial, both occult and public, as manifested with regard to absolution and therefore known to the confessor by virtue of sacramental knowledge”. The sacramental seal, therefore, concerns everything the penitent has admitted, even in the event that the confessor does not grant absolution: if the confession is invalid or for some reason the absolution is not given, the seal must be maintained in any case.
So the sins are covered b y the Seal. Also, other information is covered by the obligation of secrecy.
Information learned in the confessional could be of two sorts: that related to the confessed sins of the penitent or that not related but nevertheless spoken of during confession.
For example, a rambling penitent who is a professional investor happens to reveal some insider trading point that could lead to a big profit. The confessor shouldn’t use that information for personal gain or tell anyone else about it if it is not public knowledge.
Otherwise, say a penitent who is sacristan at the church confesses in the confessional to the pastor of the parish that he was committing a sin by stealing money from the collection bags stored in the safe before they go to the bank. Should the priest change the combination? Some moralists would say that the secrecy of the confessional cannot be breached for any reason whatsoever. Others would say that the priest may not use any information learned in confession if the use of that information would harm the penitent (as above “to the detriment of the penitent”). Changing the combination would not harm the penitent. Nevertheless, the better path would be not to use the information. It’s the safer path.
Some sins incur censures that cannot be lifted by a priest confessor without obtaining the faculty from, for example, the Holy See. One such sin would be throwing away or selling the Blessed Sacrament. In such a case the priest has to ask the penitent for permission to consult with the Sacred Penitentiary about lifting the censure. Even in his consultation the priest must avoid revealing precise names, etc.
How serious is the Seal and the obligation not to use information? Let’s take a couple of examples from, of all places, the talkies.
In the movie I Confess (fantastic) a man confesses to a priest that he committed a murder and then he frames the priest with the murder knowing that the priest couldn’t defend himself. The priest does not use the information to defend himself. He doesn’t violate the Seal. He suffers horribly as a result. See the movie. Amazing.
That example concerns a sin that has been committed. Another movie flips it around a little.
In the movie Calvary (not the best), a man confesses to the priest that he is going to murder the priest in a week’s time. In the movie, the argument is made that the priest is not bound by the Seal on this matter because it wasn’t about a crime that was committed but one which might be committed in the future (hence, nothing at all). In such a situation the priest must not give that potential murderer absolution, of course, because there is no sense of remorse of intention of amendment. Nevertheless, suitable for absolution or not, it is still the confessional and the Seal still applies.
Speaking of killing priests, in dialogue with a priest friend about this matter, he related the highly theoretical scenario in which the priest learns that he is to be murdered through poison in the wine for Mass. Can he accidentally on purpose drop the cruet? Or else, someone says that there is a time bomb in the church set to go off during Mass. Can Father come down with the cold and cancel Mass and lock the doors?
That said, on a lighter note. If, after absolution, as the penitent is on the way out, she mentions “Father, the toilet is running in the restroom”, can the priest inform the maintenance man?
The Church does not have specific rules about exceptions to the Seal. On the contrary, she is pretty clear that the Seal is of paramount importance. Priests should not use information learned in the confessional, whether it would be detrimental to the penitent or not. If there are such dire scenarios as the ones I just described, and the priest does, in fact, make use in some way of the information he learned in the confessional, once he has confessed it, his confessor could submit his case to the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary for a judgment about any censure he might have incurred.
The one thing that you should take away from this, dear reader, is that what you confess in the confessional stays in the confessional.
You will probably be interested to know that – and this can be verified by talking to priests – priests barely remember anything about what they have heard in the confessional for even a few minutes. Time after time this is verified by my brethren. It is my own experience. It is as if it is going in one ear and out the other. And that is fitting, if you think about that. This is because, as the priest in the confessional is acting in persona Christi, Christ is the one who is hearing the confession.
Never worry that the priest is going to reveal your confession to anyone.
Never worry that he thinks badly of you. He is, more than likely, edified and humbled by your courage and sincerity.
GO TO CONFESSION!