The Necessity of Confession and Its Seal

Any Catholic reading the report of Australia’s Royal Commission of Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse must be appalled by the multiple instances of child abuse in ecclesial institutions perpetrated by priests, religious, and laity, women as well as men. That similar abuses occurred in other churches and religions in no way excuses the Catholic Church from culpability for so long ignoring or even covering up such abuses. The offense is especially grave for those pledged by vows to testify to Christ’s transcendence of earthly fulfillment and to serve Him in the least of His brethren; for Catholics place a greater trust in them. One easily understands the cry for justice on behalf of the victims, most of whom were entrusted to the Church’s care precisely because their relations with their families were strained or non-existent. The most vulnerable were abused when most in need of help. The Royal Commission rightly insisted on institutional changes to prevent such abuse from continuing in the future. Most of its recommendations the Australian bishops accepted. Other recommendations they referred to Rome, but on one point unanimously they refused to change the Church’s practice: the seal of confession. Countless priests have announced that they will not obey any law requiring a breaking of the seal. To understand their adamant determination, some reflections on the role of confession and its seal can be helpful. For abolishing the seal would acerbate, rather than alleviate, the problem.

The Reign of Sin

The secular mind has difficulty understanding the seal’s purpose and necessity since it uncritically adopts an egalitarian ideology inherited from the late Enlightenment whereby religion is considered a private matter whose truth cannot be objectively ascertained. Hence it relegates religion to the private concern of individuals who feel a need for consolations and support. Certainly secularism rejects any notion of Original Sin, whereby the transgression of original parents entails suffering and loss of salvation for all their descendants. Yet postmodern culture’s widespread sexual license, with its consequent weakening of family structures, should make thoughtful people rethink the Enlightenment’s dismissal of Original Sin. Most of the abused children came from disrupted families. Predator-priests groomed children who, lacking a caring father at home, were seeking a male paternal figure with whom they might identify. If the destruction of basic relationships within a family render children vulnerable to exploitation by others, might not the sins of one’s primordial ancestors have disastrous repercussions through the ages? Plato certainly thought so (Laws 9:854b). Greek tragedy, e.g., the Oresteia and the Oedipus cycle, trace the calamitous consequences of original sins in a family’s and a nation’s history. No man is an island. Indeed every human being receives from parents, family, and clan not only physical life but also a sense of dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. When one is loved, the world makes sense. When love is lacking, individuals struggle with feelings of isolation, rejection, and despair. Chesterton once remarked that Original Sin is the sole doctrine for which the Catholic Church can offer empirical proof, a truth all the more obvious in our current society, where all pay for the breakdown of the family. If man, male and female, was created in God’s image, a God who is tri-personal love, must not the meaning of life consist in love? No one can assure himself or herself that he or she is beautiful and loved by looking into a mirror.

The dogma of Original Sin is fundamental to Catholic truth since Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died in torment on a cross. He was condemned for calling men to convert to God’s self-sacrificial love. Sinners dislike being confronted by their sins. Precisely because Original Sin penetrates so profoundly human society, human beings try to justify themselves. They build walls to lessen their vulnerability and protect themselves against others who might exploit their weakness. They accumulate property and power — the more, the better — to assure themselves protection, come what may. In such acquisitive struggles pleasures are success’s usual reward and power’s goal. This search to augment one’s control over others and enjoy fleshly allurements, financial security, and political or social domination usually comes at the expense of others. Yet, the quest for more never ends since any finite possession is always threatened by others seeking the same evanescent fulfillment. Hobbes’s nightmare of constant, lupine strife infiltrates society’s consciousness today, where a person’s worth is measured by wealth, luxury, and power and the media propose Hollywood celebrities and business titans as leading the envied life.

Jesus’s Call to Conversion

In His day Jesus called His audience to radical conversion. Even the most religious of His Jewish contemporaries, the Pharisees, who had elaborated the legal requirements for success and salvation, reacted against Jesus’s claim. They could imagine nothing superior to the Torah committed by God to Moses on Sinai. Its 613 commands spelled out what God required of His chosen people. When Jesus preached that love of God and neighbor surpassed in value the sacrifices prescribed for Temple worship, changed the Torah’s marriage legislation, and abolished kosher (purity) laws regarding food (Mk 12:28–34; 10:2–12; 7:14–23), their worldview, allegedly bestowed by God for their justification, was radically threatened. In God’s name they rejected Jesus and condemned Him to death for blasphemy. If the most pious of God’s people were so blind to God’s love revealed in Jesus, what does that imply of the guilt of the remainder of humanity? If from eternity God saw that the cross was necessary for the human race’s salvation, how great must have been the obstacle to love in human beings? The cross cannot be explained simply as God’s way to show His love to basically good people. The cross would be a most repulsive way of expressing love unless it were the only way of bringing people to love, to sharing in God’s life. Christian love entails not eros, desire for self-fulfillment, but agape, the self-emptying which Jesus manifested most clearly on the cross. Admittedly, just as Jesus rose from the dead to glory, agape will result in the entire fulfillment of human nature. But the true lover must first sacrifice himself for his beloved in order to experience the joy which love’s mutual response involves. “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and die, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

Jesus died on the cross and rose to demonstrate what true love requires and to assure sinners that love is stronger than sin and death. He demands of His followers that they follow Him to the cross and give their lives for Him and their fellow men. His disciples follow out of love for Him, and in loving the Son of God they are most one with Him where they are most themselves, in their personal freedom. Surely disciples’ love is a responding love. God loved them first in giving His only Son, and His love empowers them to love others and give their lives in turn. They should convert the desire for self-fulfillment, inherent in fallen nature, into self-abandonment to God. In that way with God’s only Son they share in Trinitarian self-giving love and already anticipate heaven on earth.

Following Jesus demands radical conversion and commitment such as only God can demand. Jesus raised that challenge during His earthly life. To assure that the concrete commitment would be adequately grounded after His ascension to the Father’s right hand, He left the Eucharist as the center of His Church. There He is to be found. There He conforms His disciples to His own image of self-sacrificial love. To participate in the Eucharist, one must be baptized into Jesus’s death and resurrection. Whereas the first disciples’ baptism occurred in their following of Jesus to Golgotha and beyond (Mk 10:38–40), subsequent disciples receive baptism as the means to enter into Jesus’s community of crucified love, which is the Church, the Body of Christ extended in space and time.

If men might just consult their consciences to discover God’s will, Jesus needed not undergo His Passion and death. De facto concupiscence has entered every human person born after Eve. Precisely because man is created for love, each person is referred to others for his own identity. If one’s external relations to others are shattered — Original Sin broke the originally intended unity of the race — that external rift enters perforce into each one’s internal constitution and disrupts it. Concupiscence, i.e., disordered desire, influences each person profoundly. We are internally pulled in diverse directions by our desires to be loved, to render ourselves invulnerable, to elevate ourselves, and to attain justice for ourselves and others, not to mention the power of carnal attractions over our lives. It is so easy to justify ourselves by reason. Life daily bears witness to that truth. How many absurdities have been perpetrated in the name of “love” when only an emotional attachment is involved! Divorce is justified by the evaporation of romantic feelings. Even claims of justice can be perverted. When it is to our advantage to insist that all be treated equally — commutative justice — we do so; when it to our advantage that each be treated according to his or her different needs and merits — distributive justice — we do so. Everyone raised with siblings knows how equality is appealed to when another receives an advantage not accorded to oneself, yet a particular advantage accorded to oneself can be justified by appeal to one’s superiority in age, strength, intelligence, accomplishment, or whatnot.

To prevent the reduction of love’s requirements to one-sided juridical claims, Jesus laid down His life for others. The norm of justice has been surpassed by self-emptying love, and Jesus issued moral judgments. He also left the interpretation and application of the moral law to His Church, lest love be misinterpreted and believers disagree on the conduct expected from fellow Christians. Hence the Church is charged with remaining faithful to Jesus’s ordinances and summoning all to conversion. This conversion is not a one-time experience. Due to the fallen world’s pervasive influence upon men, concupiscent desires work against the realization of Jesus’s love until His second coming completes His work definitively.

The Sacrament of Penance

Because through weakness even well-intentioned believers fail in observing His commands of love, Jesus established a remedy for sins committed after baptism when, following His resurrection, He breathed upon His disciples, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; whose sins you retained, they are retained” (Jn 20:22–23). Sin is not merely a rejection of God’s will by an isolated individual. Human persons live in relation to others since they are created for the freedom of love. That truth is realized compellingly in the Body of Christ. Salvation is social and corporeal since it is mediated through historical witnesses. Consequently, “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 11:26). What one does affects everyone else for better or for worse. Therefore reconciliation is mediated by the ecclesial community whose norms of behavior have been infringed. One sins against the ecclesial Body of Christ as well as against God. Yet the priest in confession represents not the community alone. Since the sin is directed ultimately against God, he represents God in pronouncing the words of absolution. That is the most profound reason why the seal of confession should be upheld.

The Seal of Confession

The notion of “seal” is borrowed from the ancient practice of impressing a seal upon a document not only to guarantee its authority but also to preserve secrecy. Anyone desirous of learning its contents must break the seal and thereby give himself away. The sacrament of penance places under an inviolable seal all information revealed in view of obtaining sacramental absolution. The seal is inviolable in all cases and the priest is bound most strictly in conscience both to reveal to no one the penitent’s sins and to refrain from any non-sacramental use of information harmful to the penitent. This obligation to secrecy allows no exception. Even if the confession is sacrilegious or interrupted, even if absolution is denied or deferred — the priest must ascertain the penitent’s sincere intention of repentance — the seal covers what the penitent confesses in view of absolution. No circumstance, no matter what harm to an individual or to the common good may occur, justifies breaking the seal. Any priest who knowingly and willingly both indicates the penitent and reveals his sin(s) directly commits not only a most grave sin but also incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication reserved to the pope.

Under the seal fall every mortal sin, generic or specific, as well as specific venial sins committed by the penitent. The priest may not announce generically, “He committed mortal sins.” He may indicate that a penitent committed venial sins since every penitent entering the confessional is presupposed to seek forgiveness for some sin, but he may not mention individual venial sins. He should not even mention the counsel given or the penance imposed (except the minimal penance) if they are connected to the sin confessed and might manifest it. Included under the seal are necessary, useful, or superfluous bits of information expressed in declaring or explaining a sin.

A priest is also prohibited from violating the seal indirectly, when knowledge obtained only in the confessional is revealed unintentionally or with proximate danger of betraying the penitent — i.e., when a probable and prudent suspicion regarding the sin and the particular sinner might arise. A simple rule for resolving doubts is offered: a violation of the seal occurs “if a sin is reported with the danger of indicating a person or when a person is designated with the danger of arousing suspicion of the sin.”1 For example, if a priest says that a particular person was not absolved or praises another penitent above others or declares a vice prevalent in a certain parish or institution or reprimands a penitent’s sin in a loud voice audible outside the confessional, he subjects himself to various ecclesial penalties: e.g., suspension from celebrating Mass and hearing confession (even perpetually), and, in serious matters, degradation from the sacerdotal office. A priest is also prohibited from using confessional knowledge even when harm to himself will probably result: e.g., someone confesses his participation in a plot, now regretted, to kill the priest on his way home in a certain spot; the priest may not avoid that spot unless he has other knowledge of the plot or if a plausible reason for avoiding it may be legitimately discovered; otherwise he would be in danger of divulging the matter of the penitent’s confession whose revelation the plotters would plausibly connect with his penitent. Similarly he may not reveal what he or a penitent said in confession if he is wrongly accused by the penitent — unless it can be proven that the alleged penitent intended a fraudulent confession or deliberate entrapment. While not bound by the seal, the penitent may be bound by a natural secret regarding the advice obtained in confession — some advice may apply only to him — but if he is troubled by the advice he may prudently consult others; if the confessor solicits him to do something improper, however, the penitent should inform proper authorities.

In difficult cases exceeding the confessor’s knowledge he may, with the penitent’s free, explicit permission, consult another priest, expert canonist, or theologian, provided that the penitent’s identity remains concealed; if the conditions are such that the penitent’s identity may be surmised, the expert too is gravely bound to silence by a natural secret. More seriously, if the confessor must appeal to a higher authority to obtain faculties for absolving a reserved sin, that authority is bound. Indeed, if through chance or design anyone overhears a confession, the natural obligation to secrecy gravely prohibits that person from revealing the matter to anyone. Disclosure of the confessional secret, besides being sinful, can issue in various ecclesial penalties, even excommunication. The same restriction applies to anyone acting as translator or interpreter for a confession. Similarly, a priest may not mention a penitent’s sin outside confession unless the penitent initiates the conversation about it, thereby indicating implicitly his permission to discuss it. Yet outside the confessional a person cannot oblige a priest to silence by saying that he or she wishes to place a communication “under the seal.” At most, only a natural obligation to secrecy can be invoked. Inversely, if a child confessed to being abused, the priest could advise the child to tell someone, even himself, outside confession in order that the proper authorities be summoned to provide proper support for the child and to prevent further crimes by the abuser.

The reasons for the obligation are varied. On the level of natural morality, detraction — a grievous sin — involves unjustly injuring another’s good name by manifesting his true, but hidden, fault. Further, an implicit contract arises between the penitent and priest not to reveal what is confessed since it involves the penitent’s interior life before God. Finally, the seal’s deepest foundation derives from the sacrament’s institution by Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The priest represents Christ the judge since only God can forgive sins. What is revealed to God cannot be publicized by man. Were a priest allowed to reveal sacramental matter, the faithful would be deterred from frequenting the sacrament, thus frustrating Christ’s intention of providing absolution for post-baptismal sins. Consequently, even under oath a priest must avow that he knows nothing about what transpired in the confessional; he possesses no communicable knowledge. For this reason many priests preferred death to breaking the seal: e.g., St. John Nepomucene, St. Mateo Corves, Andreas Faulhaber, Felipe Ciscar, Fernando Omedo, Petro Marieluz Garces.

The Impossible Demand

The Australian states which codified a civil obligation to reveal instances of child abuse confessed under the seal demand the morally impossible and impose an unjust burden on priests. Their free exercise of religion, guaranteed by the Australian Constitution, prohibits priests from complying with the law. Such a law is unjustly imposed since obligations to God outweigh all human legislation. However pure the politicians’ intentions in legislating the civil law, its effect would be counterproductive. If the seal does not bind the priest to silence, Catholics would be dissuaded from confessing their sins sacramentally. This would be deleterious on two levels. First, a repentant child-abuser would have no one to whom he or she might turn for advice and counsel, whereas a confessor could and should advise and warn a penitent to seek help lest he commit further horrid crimes against defenseless children, destroying their lives, and perpetrate his own eternal perdition.

Second, while civil laws would abolish the seal only with regard to the confessed abuse of children, it is a matter of principle for the Church to defend the absoluteness of the seal lest people conclude that, if one exception is made, others can and will follow. That would lead Catholics to shun confessing their sins, which would harm both the individuals and society. Unacknowledged guilt festers in the sinner and warps his moral perceptions, which in turn produce perverse praxis. Acts previously unmentionable become tolerated. It seems clear that society’s moral level has declined in recent decades with the prevalence of addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, as well as divorce, abortion, children born out of wedlock, political violence, media manipulation, exploitation of the poor, etc. It is more than coincidence that the increase in child molestation corresponded to the decline in use of the sacrament of penance after Vatican II. Doubtless changes in society’s expectations as well as in ecclesial praxis contributed to moral decadence. Material prosperity increased demands for sensual pleasures. Atheistic existentialism stressed living this life alone and insisted that individual choice creates its own values; societal values appeared as arbitrary impositions on free individuals. Egalitarianism, Marxist or otherwise, emphasized the victimhood of those lacking what others possess, criticized institutions, and undermined respect for traditions, which usually incorporate the wisdom of past experience. Precisely at that time, liberal theologians employed the Vatican II slogan of aggiornamento to impel adaptation to contemporary societal norms. The new transcendental theology, which came to the fore after the Council, stressed the unity of body and spirit as well as the natural desire for the beatific vision. If man’s desires are fundamentally good insofar as they are oriented to God and if the flesh is not opposed to spirit, then one’s desires can and should be followed. The pleasures of the flesh were praised and asceticism was evicted from spirituality. The sense of sin withered and a sense of entitlement replaced it. An excessively optimistic view of human nature arising from the Enlightenment and theological liberalism downplayed sin and rendered the sacrament of penance almost superfluous. After theologians publicly repudiated Humanae Vitae, many priests refrained from preaching stringent moral demands in sexual matters and elsewhere. In many religious congregations the daily order of discipline was relaxed or ignored as each discerned his or her “personal vocation.” Theological pluralism led to deep ideological divisions in religious life, which no longer supplied a sense of community and a unified orientation in apostolates for which sacrifices were to be demanded. Disoriented by theological change, priests and religious lacked clear points of reference, and the world overwhelmed them. The repercussions upon the laity were immense. As Chaucer asked, “If gold rust, what then will iron do?” (Prol. 502). Everyone pays the price for theological confusion.

Starting with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, there has been a revival of the Church’s traditional teaching and discipline. Regular confession is again being preached and lived. More than ever the sacrament should be encouraged. If the Australian states impede the return to confession, inadvertently or not they contribute to society’s loss of a sense of sin, an awareness that all desires are not good, which is so needed in the postmodern world. The blessing mediated by sacramental confession consists in this: sinners can openly confront their sins, ask for absolution and assistance, and resolve not to sin again. Someone tempted by child pornography could be reformed and never seek to fulfill perverse inclinations. In any case, by opening the confessional to sinners for counsel, sympathy, encouragement, and, most of all, forgiveness, priests perform an immense, though unrecognized, service to humanity. Only through God’s word of absolution do sinners dare to hope that God’s love is stronger than sin and that they can be changed for the better. Ecclesial authorities have the responsibility of reparation to those sexually exploited in Catholic institutions and of preventing, as much as possible, a recurrence. Their insistence on preserving intact confession’s seal shows that they wish to fulfill their duty to Christ and their fellow men.

  1. P. Palazzini, “Sigillum Sacramentale,” Dictionarium Morale et Canonicum, ed. P. Palazzini, vol. 2 (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1968), 288.
Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ About Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ

Fr. John M. McDermott, SJ, currently teaches theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He previously taught at Fordham University, the Gregorian University (Rome), and the Pontifical College Josephinum. He was also invited professor at St. Joseph's Seminary (Yonkers) and Seton Hall University. He served on the International Theological Commission, various Roman commissions, and as consultor to the USCCB Doctrine Committee. He has published two books, edited two others, and produced more than 150 articles on philosophy, dogmatic theology, Scripture, history, and spirituality.


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