Questions Answered

  • Pope John XXIII was recently canonized, but I have read that he allowed documents to be produced saying that Jews were Christians to save them during World War II. Is this not a lie?
  • A father of teenagers recently tried to get me to reveal what I had told his son in confession. He seemed oblivious to the whole concept of the sacramental seal of confession. What should I tell someone like this?

Question: Pope John XXIII was recently canonized, but I have read that he allowed documents to be produced saying that Jews were Christians to save them during World War II. Is this not a lie?

Answer: This question has many ramifications regarding the nature of lying. Moral theology recognizes three determinants which form the basis for judging the morality of an act: object, intention, and circumstances. Though some contemporary moralists claim that one cannot judge an act until the intention and circumstances are considered, this is not true of an evil act. An act which is evil by object vitiates any further consideration of circumstances or intention. The consequences of an act are, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, circumstances. “The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. … Circumstances, of themselves, cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action which is, in itself, evil” (§1754). So, related to the case of St. John XXIII, his intention to save life, and the fact that many lives, in fact, were saved (consequences) would not make this a good act if it were truly a lie in the moral sense. The fact that it is a lie in this sense depends on the object in the way in which it relates to the objective truth of human nature.

The object of an act is generally a judgment about the relationship of the act to justice, which, itself, is determined by right. Justice is the constant and perpetual will to give to another his due. It is framed around the recognition of the rights of the other. These rights, in turn, are founded in right reason, which is determined by either natural, civil, or the divine law contained in the Scriptures. Just because two acts look alike physically does not mean that they are the same in relation to reason. The act of adultery and marriage look the same and may, in fact, produce goods like children. But in relation to reason, they are substantially different: one is evil, the other good.

The question of lying is complex. A lie is defined as “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2482). It may be about a trivial matter or an important one, which determines if it is a venial or a mortal sin. “The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intention of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims” (CCC §2484).

Although lying is a form of injustice, not every falsity is lying. For lying to qualify as a form of injustice, the person to whom one speaks a falsehood must have a right to the truth. “The right of communication of the truth is not unconditional. … No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have a right to know it.” (CCC §2489 citing Sir 27:16 and Prv 25:9-10).

In the case mentioned, the Nazi authorities wishing to know who was a member of the Church in order to practice mass liquidation based on race, had no right to the truth. The civil order has no rights respecting the ecclesiastical order when it comes to the state of the soul. The act of baptism establishes such a state. This is one of the reasons for the strict prohibition of revealing anything said in confession to anyone, including the civil authorities, as words spoken there are said to God and involve the private forum. Though it is true baptism is normally a public act, since it involves a profession of faith and the imparting of grace, it does not, in any sense, fall under the scrutiny of the civil law. From the point of view of the object, an act in which a cleric attests that someone is baptized, when he or she is not, is only unjust objectively, if made to Church authorities who have a right to know this.

The intention of John XXIII was to prevent mass murder, and the circumstances were certainly dire. To deny that Jews were Christians would be tantamount to signing the death warrant of millions of innocent people. The state had no competence or right to demand, or even request, such information. The act was thus not against justice.

Of course, to simply lie outright can certainly be a cause of great scandal. This is why Catholic moralists, in general, have advised mental reservation, which the Catechism expresses by saying one should be “silent about what ought not to be known or by making use of a discreet language” (§2489). But legal documents are, after all, mere pieces of paper receiving their sanction from human law. The sacraments are, in no sense, under that sanction. The object of the act was, therefore, not unjust. Those who would be scandalized that producing bureaucratic forms about something which the bureaucrats did not have a right to know, in order to save millions of innocent people from torture and death, should consider that there is no objective basis for their scandal.

 

Question: A father of teenagers recently tried to get me to reveal what I had told his son in confession. When I replied I could not discuss it, he asked me to just nod my head to his questions. He seemed oblivious to the whole concept of the sacramental seal of confession. What should I tell someone like this?

Answer: First, it is important to remember that there is widespread ignorance of our faith today among Catholics. We are dealing with at least three generations of uncatechized adults. This is one of the reasons St. John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization.” It is therefore important to clarify the theory and practice of the confessional seal and, perhaps, even to deliver a homily on it to remind and instruct the faithful.

The sacrament of penance involves a manifestation of conscience on the part of the penitent to the confessor. The human priest is merely a mediator, because the conscience is actually exposed to Christ himself. The Catechism states: “The confessor is not the master of God’s forgiveness, but its servant. The minister of this sacrament should unite himself to the intention and the charity of Christ” (§1466). Since this is the case, the penitent’s words are spoken to Christ; no confessor has a right to reveal anything that is said to him by a penitent to someone else. The words are not spoken to the priest, except in a very indirect way.

There have been some teachers who have taught that the seal of confession does not apply in sexual abuse cases, and, so, confessors would be obliged to report what was said to him. This is simply not true, and a serious abuse of the secrecy of the confessional, which respects the sacramental theology emphasizing that the context of confession is made directly to Christ. The Catechism also says: “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry 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 penitent’s 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” (§1467).

The Church considers this seal so important that the severe penalty is excommunication, which does not need to be formally imposed (latae sententiae). Canon law states: “The sacramental seal is inviolate. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor, in any way, to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any fashion (§983, 1). The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent even when all danger of disclosure is excluded (§984, 1). A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; he who does so indirectly is punished according to the gravity of the offense (§1388, 1).” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified the fact that this excommunication also applies to those who record or use social communication to make known anything revealed in the confessional.

The seal is so strong that neither the penitent nor Church authority can give the priest permission to reveal what goes on in confession. So this is not like a professional secret. Also, anyone overhearing a confession is also bound by the seal, as would be the case with someone who accidentally overhears what is said or translated.

The gravity and difficulty of this teaching is very well exemplified in the famous movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, I Confess. In this film, the priest hears a confession in which the penitent confesses murder, and then is implicated in the murder himself. He can answer no questions about it. In the trial, he is declared “not guilty,” but the judge states he considers this verdict to be inadequate, thus, not saving the priest’s reputation. Those who wish to instruct the faithful in this very important discipline could make great use of this film to instruct them in the beauty and gravity of this seal.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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Portland, OR 97232
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Comments

  1. Avatar Harvey B. says:

    My apologies, but I am somewhat skeptical on the answer to the first question (mainly the 4th paragraph of Father’s response). While it is true that the Catechism states that “no one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have a right to know it” (§2489), that does not equate with permission to craft a deceptive statement. That just means that silence is the only response. Notice the difference between silence and giving false information.
    And although St. John XXIII’s intention was to prevent mass murder, it was previously stated that a good intention (even if it be to save the world) is not justification for a wrong action, so I see that as irrelevant.
    Since the topic deals with baptism, I do like the comparison with confession. So to put a different spin on the question: If it is demanded that a priest reveal the contents of a confession, should he respond “I cannot say” or should he give out fake details? From this article I gather that the latter response would be OK if the potential circumstances were serious, yet that doesn’t seem right…

    • Hello Harvey. I’m interested to hear your understanding of this passage in John, concerning the answer Jesus gave to a question which did mislead His disciples – when perhaps He could have simply remained silent, had He chosen:

      Jn 7: 8 “You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, because my time has not yet been fulfilled.”
      9 After he had said this, he stayed on in Galilee.
      10 But when his brothers had gone up to the feast, he himself also went up, not openly but [as it were] in secret.

      • Avatar Pseudonym says:

        Thomas Richard,
        You propose an argument that has been used by moral theologians opposed to the absolute norm against lying. It is based on an erroneous assumption, though. The assumption is that Jesus’ intent was to deceive, so that he could secretly go up to the feast. With the few words given in that passage, one cannot confidently conclude His intent was to mislead.

        Jesus could have simply changed his mind – often-times people say, “I’m not going to that gathering.” Then, some kind of change in circumstance occurs – car traffic clears up, health problems resolve, one takes a “power nap”, etc, and then one says, “well, I guess I can go, things have changed to better accommodate my traveling, desire for socializing, etc.”

        Jesus “stayed in Galilee”…”but when his brothers had gone up to the feast, [He changed His mind and], He himself also went up….” A second possibility is that at point in time A Jesus said, “right now I am not going up to this feast”, and so at point in time A, he remained in Galilee. Then, after His disciples left, point in time B arrives, and He goes up to the feast. That is also plausible, without an intent to mislead, without changing His mind, and without fully informing is His disciples of His intent to travel at point in time B.

      • Pseudonym, No, I don’t think so.
        1) I have assumed nothing; I’m merely reading the words with their plain meanings as they are written. You are making a presumption, in saying “The assumption is that Jesus’ intent was to deceive, so that he could secretly go up to the feast.” God can have motives that He does not need to share with us on our schedule. To add words to make a passage “more reasonable” can be a dangerous thing.
        2) Jesus knew the end from the beginning; He was not surprised by anything.
        3) Your “second possibility” looks like intentional misleading to me. If you suppose “His intent to travel at point in time B”, then you are acknowledging an intent to mislead when He told them (at time A, in the words He used in the text) what would obviously be interpreted otherwise.

        How is “without fully informing is His disciples of His intent to travel at point in time B” not an intentional misleading of them? And what is the difference between deceit and intentional misleading? That may be the better question. for this passage and for Harvey B.’s comment: “While it is true that the Catechism states that “no one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have a right to know it” (§2489), that does not equate with permission to craft a deceptive statement. That just means that silence is the only response. Notice the difference between silence and giving false information.”

        Jesus could have remained silent; He did not. Did He “deceive”? Did He “lie”? Of course not, but there can be times when a learner needs to be misled from one conclusion (or, led away from that wrong conclusion), without at that time leading him to the right conclusion – the time may not be right, yet, for that. Misleading is not necessarily deceiving/lying. Silence is not always the only or even the best response – nor is the fullness of truth always due to every inquirer every time he inquires.

      • Avatar Pseudonym says:

        “…there can be times when a learner needs to be misled from one conclusion (or, led away from that wrong conclusion), without at that time leading him to the right conclusion – the time may not be right, yet, for that. Misleading is not necessarily deceiving/lying.”

        That is sophistry, and it would be a waste of time to continue the discussion if arbitrary defining of terms is considered to be permissible.

      • Sophistry? Arbitrary word meanings? If my post is contrary to Scripture – especially the passage cited – or Church teachings, which includes as an example the decision concerning Pope John XXIII, please show how. So far you have not, but have included arguments that are, at least to me, arbitrary and unconvincing. But suit yourself.

  2. Avatar Martin B Drew says:

    The seal of confession possessed by a priest or bishop when a penitent confesses protected by Baptism and the Holy Spirit is highly important for the spiritual protection of the penitent and the confessor that no sign either spoken or not or hint may be given by the confessor. That is NOTHING can be indicated not even deception. The Sacrament of Penance now reconciliation as all of the sacraments are governed by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church in the Papal magisterium and extra ordinary episcopal magisterium specified by the Holy Spirit. It seems to me it is most disrespectful to a priest or bishop to even ask a question about penitent’s they have heard.

  3. Avatar Martin B Drew says:

    On lying, Father Mullady explained this very well. It is basically who has the authority to know . St Pope John XXIII knew who had the right to know and gave his love of God and man for these persons he wished to save.

    • Avatar Harvey B. says:

      There is a fine distinction that I am trying to highlight:
      I agree that we are not obligated to reveal the truth to those who do not have the right to know.
      That is a “passive” thing: don’t reveal something. But that’s it — just an instruction to keep silent.
      I maintain that is quite different from the “active” thing of fabricating a lie. The statement about keeping the truth from someone is not implicit permission to tell a lie.

  4. The E/USA (Episcopal Church / USA) has taken sexual abuse statements to be separable from the “seal of confession” as they understand it. Aside from questions regarding sacramental validity and theological reasoning, It creates a perilous (civil) legal condition regarding the various polities, ecclesial bodies, and churches. RLUIPA has affected how the government approaches religious freedom so the Judiciary gets wedged between an “everything is beautiful in its own way” and measuring against the Canons and Statutes (aka by-laws) of the particular group. The Protestant approaches to clergy and congregation have shaped much of the past laws. Catholicism and Orthodoxy do not fit those paradigms. It would not surprise me if the E/USA. ELCA and other guidelines get applied with a general attitude of “What’s wrong with YOU? They have no problem here!”