ASK FATHER: Can confessors in any way act upon information they receive in confession?

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

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.

Another distinction.

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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    At my parish we have an old chapel that has one original confessional with good sound-proofing. A second confessional was recently built into the space that houses the stairway to the choir loft. Sound cleanly travels up that space and bounces off of the concave ceiling. I don’t go into that confessional, but I often have to plug my ears while waiting in line for the other.

    One day a priest in that confessional was talking quite loudly and the penitents were following suit. I don’t speak Spanish, but if I did I would know what was being said, it was that clear. A guy in line next to me who did speak Spanish complained to me about what was going on. I waited until after I received Absolution to inform my confessor about what was going on outside. He promptly left the confessional and took care of it.

    I figured that after receiving Absolution and not intending for my additional words to be kept secret, that the Seal did not apply.

  2. WVC says:

    “I, Confess” is one of the greats! Another classic movie with Confession playing a pivotal role is John Ford’s “Mogambo.” It’s not a great movie, by any stretch, but with both Ava Gardner and a truly scintillating Grace Kelly, it’s worth a watch. The turning point of the movie is when one of the characters goes to Confession, and from that point changes her trajectory from self destruction to reparation.

    Making “Christian” art doesn’t mean you have to beat folks over the head with VeggieTales like themes (i.e. enough with the saints lives movies already!). Hitchcock and Ford made some of the most profound morality plays imaginable. Or, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor (because I can’t remember the exact quote), in response to a lady complaining that her stories weren’t more uplifting she said “show me a bunch of sentimental old women and I’ll show you a book club.”

  3. Gregg the Obscure says:

    on a lighter note “Father there are about ten people in line behind me” means a long-winded priest can’t try to pick up the pace . . .

  4. Mario Bird says:

    RE: barely remembering in the confessional

    I love hearing Fr. Z say this and seeing the merciful Providence of God toward us fallen creatures therein. It reminds me of Sr. Maria Antonia, a South American girl whose guardian angel shielded her from numerous impure events. She couldn’t really explain, except that she had the distinct impression that he was “spreading his wings.”

    Angels use their wings as shields throughout the Old Testament (“Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi, et sub pennis ejus sperabis”). It tickles the imagination to conjecture how the great guardian angels of priests must deploy their wings, especially in conjunction with Our Lord simultaneously absolving a penitent. Holy Angels, pray for us!

  5. ScottW says:

    I have often wondered if much of the abuse problems within the Church were facilitated by evil men confessing to any courageous priest or bishop who might have been in a position to do something about it.

  6. iamlucky13 says:

    Someone I know recounted a situation similar to the example of the toilet issue. The priest simply requested they could bring it up again after he was done hearing confessions, so that it could be addressed without any doubt about violating the seal.

    A different priest included a somewhat irreverent joke in his sermon a couple weeks ago, but it suggests one of the many reasons to avoid even seemingly anonymous hints at the content of confessions.

    The parish of a small village where everyone knew each other held a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of their pastor’s assignment to their parish. The pastor spoke about his experience first coming to the village: “Having grown up in a big city, I did not know what I was getting into being assigned to a setting so new to me. Imagine my surprise when after arriving just in time to deliver my bags to the rectory and then rush to the church for confessions, the very first person I encountered here admitted to embezzling money from the town and cheating on his wife.” He went on to talk about how his overall experience had stood in contrast to the first impression from that unknown penitent behind the screen, and to praise how closely knit the community was.

    Meanwhile, the mayor arrived, having had to work late that afternoon. He stepped forward to give a toast as planned: “All of us can think of many ways over the years that Father has made sacrifices for us. Why, I remember when he first arrived, not even taking a break to rest after the long trip, when I had the privilege of being the first person here to have my confession heard by him…”

    Of course, I’ve never heard any priest talk in a manner even remotely close to that. At most, I’ve heard comments like, “no one should be afraid I will be shocked to hear about A, B, or C, for example, because many people struggle with these sins.”

  7. JabbaPapa says:

    It seems to me that the obvious one would be the deprivation of Eucharistic Communion to a penitent who has not been absolved after Confession.

    Ne need for the reasons for it to be public, but still the need to avoid sacrilegious Communion.

  8. Danteewoo says:

    The bishop of my diocese was a priest here decades ago, became a bishop in another diocese, and then returned here to run this one. Problem: If years ago he had heard the confessions of any fellow priest here that related to “clerical abuse,” it seems that now as bishop he would be powerless to do anything regarding that abuser. If I understand correctly, this is the reason why the superior in a religious community is never the confessor.

    I think that Rome erred greatly in returning this bishop to his home diocese. By the way, he is a good man. But what a potentially compromising situation he has been put in.

  9. InFormationDiakonia says:

    When I first started going back to confession I thought the priest was going to think ill of me later after my confession and think of how sinful I am. I was terrified enough that I only went to priests I didn’t know during Reconciliation services during Lent. So I decided to do something about it. I remember asking my former pastor a few years ago how he deals with hearing confessions and if he remembered any of the things. He told me that God grants priests a singular grace to not remember the things heard in confession. That was comforting to hear that and put my mind at ease.

    I’ve had nothing but great experiences since then going to confession. The feeling of joy and relief I get after getting those sins out of my heart, mind and life is very uplifting. I always feel like I’m on cloud nine after having received absolution.

    Since I have a Spiritual Director while in formation, I have been going more frequently than at any point in my life. I simply request him to hear my confession after we are done. I’m also working on my recently college graduated daughter (who lives with us temporarily) to go with me to confession since she has commented that she needs to. I’ll get there with her at some point!

    What a joy to have that Sacrament available to us. Would that every Catholic thought more of sin when receiving the Eucharist! The confessional lines would be long as they should be! We are all sinners and in need of absolution. Thanks Father Z for the great explanation!

  10. Gaetano says:

    There were many interesting things about the movie Calvary.

    I was, however, shocked by the scene where Fr. Leary discusses the contents of a confession & the penitent’s identity.

    Not only would that incur an automatic excommunication (Latae sententiae) for violation of Canon 1388, but the protagonist priest didn’t even object to hearing the statement.

    I further objected to the fact that any priest would ever do such a thing. I had the misfortune of knowing & living with several notorious priest abusers, but not even they would consider doing such a thing.

  11. Josh Beigs says:

    Well, as soon as I saw the title of the post I had the plan of commenting about the hypothetical scenario of a priest using the confession of insider trading or market rigging to make a buck. And then you went ahead and included it in the blog! Well-played, father, well-played.

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  13. Joe in Canada says:

    What if during the confession of a child the priest becomes aware that the child is being abused?

    [Read the post, above.]

  14. Ave Crux says:

    I had a disturbing experience with a Priest that really rattled me. I went to Confession to him and also mentioned a practical matter having to do with the Pastor that I felt there was matter for Confession about because I may not have handled it properly as I recall, and I wanted to discuss it from a moral perspective within the grace of the Sacrament in case I had done anything wrong before God and to lay bare my motives, and steps I might take to correct anything I had done improperly.

    At the close of my Confession, I asked him not to mention anything to the Pastor, and then — as I recall — mentioned that there was a Seal of Confession anyway.

    He told me that the Seal did not pertain….! And that I was asking him for “Confidentiality”, even though I had made a Confession including other matter, and then also including this…!!!!!

    I was so rattled by that….! I began to wonder if I had to parse my Confessions in the future and consider that some things I mention during the time I am in the Confessional can be discussed and others cannot?!

    Was this right, Father….? I was deeply disturbed by it and never did understand it.

    [Father should keep his mouth shut.]

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