"Priests" and the Seal of the Confessional

There is a very confused article in today’s Herald Sun (not a rag I read regularly–thank you Cathnews for alerting me) regarding whether the responsibility for reporting crimes such as child abuse extends to the priest who hears confession of such a crime in the confessional.

For a start it is entirely inappropriate for the journalist responsible to describe either the minister in question or the context for the “confession” in terms of Catholic priesthood and the Catholic sacrament of penance, since no minister of what the article describes as “a small evangelistic Christian church in the eastern suburbs” could be regarded as a priest “in the true sense” (as Rome would put it!) nor could any practice of “confession” in that church be regarded as the sacrament of penance (which sacrament and which power to forgive such “evangelical” churches strenuously deny).

The Catholic Church forbids (Canon 983.1) her priests to disclose any information received in the confessional or in any way to make use of the information received there. The Catechism states (p. 2490) that “It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason”.

The reason for this should be patently obvious. No-one would ever make auricular confession to a priest if he thought that in any way what was confessed would go anywhere beyond that forum. Removing the seal of the confessional for any reason would utterly destroy any confidence the faithful have in their priests or in this sacrament overnight.

For eg. Last Saturday night I went to mass in the Cathedral. I wanted to make my confession, and sat in the line for twenty minutes, only to be told (when I was two away from entering the box) that no more confessions would be heard since Father had to prepare to say mass in ten minutes time. I went to communion anyway after making an act of contrition, but also recognised that this obligated me to make my confession at the earliest possible opportunity. That opportunity came after mass in the sacristry where I confessed to the priest face to face. I know this priest and he knows me and we work together regularly. I have confessed to him through the grill before, but never face to face. If I thought that there was any way in which what I had to confess would leave that face to face encounter and affect either my work or my personal relationship with this priest I never would have had the confidence to do this. As it was, I know that he will not even allow what he heard in that confession to affect our personal relationship, let alone any relationships beyond this. I confessed to him as to the Lord, and as with the Lord, he doesn’t go babbling about it to anyone.

Now ask yourself if I would have had the confidence to do that without the guarentee of the seal of the confessional. I can tell you now that I would not have.

Making exceptions for the seal of the confessional will not lead to the uncovering of these crimes and to justice. It will lead to people never confessing mortal sins to their priest and never receiving forgiveness for it. At least in the current situation, the priest is able to use what influence he has in that personal pastoral relationship to see that repentance is sincere, justice is done and future harm averted.

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11 Responses to "Priests" and the Seal of the Confessional

  1. eulogos says:

    There was a recent discussion about this at the blog Retractiones.


    Susan Peterson

  2. Rob says:

    -I went to communion anyway after making an act of contrition-

    I have, unfortunately been in similar situations (such as waiting for a prest to show up and he never comes since NO ONE goes to confession!).

    I have done what you did on occasions (go to communion), other times I have refrained. I know it ‘sounds good’, but can you point me to any legitimate source that says that we should do it this way (take communion anyway and get to confession ASAP)?

  3. Schütz says:

    I will get onto this one, Rob. It is a good question. I must say that I have been going on general pastoral advice rather than on any clear rule here. I will see if I can get a clarification. Can any one else help in the mean time?

  4. eulogos says:

    My understanding is this:

    If you are SURE you have mortal sins to confess, you should abstain from communion until you can confess. If you don’t have mortal sins to confess or you are in doubt, make an act of contrition and go to communion. If you have a habitual sin for which consent may be diminished but about which you may be anxious and scrupulous, a confessor may tell you in the future to confess only at certain regular intervals and otherwise continue to take communion, and in this case you should obey him. (If you run into a priest who assures you that things you know are sins, are not sins, you can find another priest for your next confession. But if someone you generally trust tells you that he believes that for you each act of X is not a mortal sin and you should mention it at your next regular confession which in this case would be fairly frequently, but to otherwise continue to go to communion…you should believe him.

    To simplify…mortal sin, you have to confess. Venial sin, you can go to communion. That is the rule. Generally modified by advice like: Really not sure and tend to be lax, better wait and ask the priest. Not sure but you tend to be scrupulous, go to communion, go to confession as soon as possible, and ask the priest.

    Susan Peterson
    (resolving again that I really need to get to confession sometime soon..I know the answers to these questions but my practice is sadly lacking.)

  5. Rob says:

    No, Susan, I knew that (and I presume Schutz does too.) I mean, what to do if you did as best you could to get to confession but the priest splits or never shows. Should one really deprive oneself of the sacrament in that situation. And for the sake of the discussion, let’s say that it does involve mortal sin.

  6. Past Elder says:

    Once upon a time one went to Confession on Saturday before Communion on Sunday as a matter of course and I don’t remember any priest ever not showing up.

    I mean, it’s not like the wife and/or kids are complaining he spends too much time over at church and needs to remember he has a family.

    In the unlikely and never in my experience event described above, the criteria Susan offers applies.

    Or applied. That was another time and another church. Why not just drop all the Roman legalism? Did Jesus say forgiveness depends on whether others show up or one of my priests shows up? Then how dare his church? While any Christian may speak Christ’s forgiveness to any other Christian, we value the absolution spoken by the pastor as from Christ himself, and Luther once said this is so important as one should be willing to run a hundred miles to hear it, but this burdening of consciences is, well, unconscionable.

  7. Rob says:

    Actually, Jesus always said, “Go and do as the priests tell you” or “show yourselves to the priests”. Jesus was a traditionalist, not a rabble-rouser.

  8. Past Elder says:

    Yeah, I’ve heard that cited to support “Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, the first Christian was Paul” too.

    I’m having a little trouble locating the Temple and its priests that Jesus refers to pre Death and Resurrection. All got destroyed by the Romans after the Death and Resurrection, something about not needed any more, being fulfilled. Maybe you should join the Othodox (Jewish, not Eastern) in praying thrice daily for the restoration of Temple, priests and sacrifices. Unless of course one takes the Roman Imperial Christian state religion to be the same thing.

  9. Rob says:

    Good idea!

  10. Schütz says:

    I really will get around to addressing this. I thank Susan for her contribution. I agree with her completely. However, lets assume Rob’s situation. You know you have committed a mortal sin, you desparately need the consolation of absolution and the Eucharist, you do everything in your power to confess, including all the examination of heart etc. and have the full intention to confess and have already repented, and THEN the priest either doesn’t show at the promised hour (for good or bad reasons, as PE might suggest) or is called away before you can actually make your confession.

    What then? That’s the question. I don’t believe there is any clear teaching of the Church that applies to this situation. Being aware of the danger of scrupulosity, and also being aware of the mercy of God, I would tend to accept that in reality I have made a perfect act of contrition and that this perfect act of contrition has reconciled me to God in such a manner that I may profit from receiving the Eucharist. (I think a perfect act of contrition does reconcile even the one in mortal sin–the hitch is whether or not it is indeed a perfect act. The sacrament of reconciliation is effective even if the contrition is imperfect). Nevertheless, the external sacrament of reconciliation remains necessary for reconciliation with the Church, and so I am obligated to recieve the sacrament of reconciliation at the first opportunity.

    That’s my general reaction and the basis for my acting as I did. I need to look into it further.

  11. Past Elder says:

    Watch yourselves guys — first you’re worrying over whether the legalisms are fulfilled about confession and next thing you know you’re nailing stuff to the church door.

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