Why priests refuse to break the seal of confession

12 mins read
A priest hears Pope Francis’ confession during a Lenten penance service in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in March. CNS photo by Andrew Medichini, pool via Reuters

Regardless of his personality or character, his virtue or personal courage, virtually any Catholic priest would rather go to jail than betray a penitent who comes to him for confession.

“The sacramental seal, from a canonical perspective, is inviolable,” said Msgr. Jason Gray, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, who is also a canon lawyer.

Msgr. Gray agreed with other canon lawyers, priests and theologians who told Our Sunday Visitor that the seal of confession, as long stated in Church teaching, is absolute and cannot be weakened or compromised in any way without undermining the integrity of the sacrament and harming the faithful.

“No matter what any civil authority might say, it’s just not something the priest can do,” Msgr. Gray said.

Related Reading

In recent years, government leaders and elected officials in Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and elsewhere have proposed laws that would compel Catholic priests to violate the sacramental seal and report any instances of child sexual abuse confided to them in the confessional.

“To break the seal of confession is not only a crime in the Church, but it is, in fact, an act of utter betrayal to Jesus Christ,” said Chad Pecknold, an associate professor of systematic theology at the The Catholic University of America.

Pecknold said civil laws that attempt to force clergy to break the seal are like asking a priest to step on an image of Christ and publicly denounce the Lord.

“No reasonable person would give their lives up in order to protect a child molester or a serial murderer,” Pecknold said. “What they’re protecting is the seal, which is their obedience to Jesus Christ, who is the agent of absolution in the confessional. To break the seal is to break trust with Christ.”

An inviolable seal

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1983 Code of Canon Law and Church history make it very clear that a priest can never tell anyone outside the confessional what the penitent tells him. There are no exceptions.

A priest can “make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives” states the Catechism. “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,” (No. 1467).

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y. CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

The Code of Canon Law outlines what those “severe penalties” consist of. It says a confessor “who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.” The lifting of the latae sententiae excommunication can only be lifted by the pope himself.

In Canon 983, the code explains that the sacramental seal is “inviolable” and that it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” Any lay Catholic who overhears a confession also is bound by the seal. Interpreters and others who betray the penitent also can face penalties, including excommunication.

“From a canonical perspective, there really is no exception,” canon lawyer Robert J.B. Flummerfelt told OSV.

Through its legislation in canon law, Flummerfelt said the Church speaks strongly about its values, one being that the seal can never be broken.

“If the seal is inviolable, then that means the priest is not allowed to break the seal even in his own defense,” Msgr. Gray said. “This is a critical point. This is why the Church takes this so seriously. Even if it means trying to protect the priest’s innocence, the priest cannot go and reveal information from a confession, even if it’s to disprove a charge. That’s how serious this is.”

The inviolability of the seal has been affirmed several times throughout Church history. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council warned that any priest who betrayed a penitent would “be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance.”

In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas devoted a whole section to the seal, writing that it is essential to the sacrament because it prevents scandal and reflects the fact that the priest knows a particular sin as it is known to God, whose place the priest holds in confession.

Pope St. Pius X wrote in his 1908 catechism that the confessor “is bound by the seal of confession under the gravest sin and under threat of the severest punishments both temporal and eternal.”

To break the seal is indeed “a serious crime” in Church law, said Pecknold.

“When the priest hears confession, he does not hear the confession as someone who himself has the authority to forgive the sins, but acts on behalf of the one who forgives the sin,” Pecknold said. “So if you ask a priest to break the seal of confession, what you’re asking him to do is to betray Jesus Christ. This is why every priest will die rather than break the seal.”

California context

For decades, popular culture has focused on the seal in the context of priests not being able to talk about grave offenses they’ve heard in the confessional. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 movie “I Confess” tells the story of priest who hears a murderer’s confession.

More recently, the growing awareness of the magnitude of child sexual abuse — especially the abuse committed in religious institutions — has prompted legislators abroad and in the United States to propose “carve-outs” in statutes that exempt sacramental confession from mandated reporter laws.

In February, California Sen. Jerry Hill filled a bill — SB 360 — that would require clergy of all faiths to report suspected child abuse or neglect to law enforcement “without regard to the circumstances” under which they learn of the suspected crimes, including during private spiritual counseling or confession.

“The law should apply equally to all professionals who have been designated as mandated reporters of these crimes — with no exceptions, period,” Hill said in a prepared statement, which claimed that California’s present exemption for clergy “only protects the abuser and places children at further risk.”

Given the global scourge of child sexual abuse — tens of millions of children across the world are abused every year — and the Church’s woeful track record in holding priests and bishops accountable for causing and permitting the abuse of minors, the impulse of government leaders to mandate that all abuse cases, no matter the circumstances in which they are discovered, be reported is understandable. But intruding on sacred communications — whether that is a penitent bearing their soul in the confessional or someone discussing sensitive matters with their attorney or therapist — not only violates basic concepts of the free exercise of religion and privacy, but also opens the door to further government intrusions into discussions that it has no business monitoring.

“If you do this kind of thing, it’s just going to cause confusion among people and it infringes upon their rights,” Steve Pehanich, communications director for the California Catholic Conference, told OSV about SB 360. During a scheduled hearing in the California State Senate on April 2, the bill advanced from the first committee 5-0, though two senators did not vote.
Pehanich said the conference will be speaking with Hill about his legislation, adding that “maybe there’s something we can explain to him to help him understand the situation.” Pehanich said a similar bill in 2015 died in committee.

Even if SB 360 were to clear California’s state legislature and reach the governor’s desk, such a law would likely not survive a court challenge given the protection of the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It is such an obvious violation of the Constitution. It’s pretty clear that it’s not going to work,” Pehanich said.

Besides the recent bill in California, the sacramental seal has been targeted by lawmakers and courts in other states. In 2016, following a drawn-out legal battle, a Louisiana state judge ruled that a state law could not be used to force a priest to break the seal of confession in a civil trial. In that case, the plaintiff alleged he told the priest in confession that an older male parishioner had sexually abused her when she was a teenager.

When the Louisiana Supreme Court, in returning the case to a lower court, said it remained an open question as to whether the priest would be protected by the seal, the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, said the priest, if necessary, would “have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty and violate the seal of confession and his duty to the penitent.”

Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who serves as national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA, an organization that presents a Catholic perspective in the public square, told OSV that preserving the sacramental seal is something that makes even the most conflict-averse priest ready for heroism.

Martyrs of the Confessional

Through the centuries, brave Catholic priests have chosen to suffer a martyr’s death rather than betray the seal of confession. Some of them have been canonized.

St. John Nepomuk
In the late 14th century, St. John Nepomuk was the confessor to Queen Johanna, the wife of Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic. The king, known for his paranoia, anger and jealousy-driven outbursts, suspected his wife was unfaithful and demanded her confessor to tell him what she confessed.

St. John Nepomuk refused to betray the queen, even as the king threatened to torture him. On March 20, 1393, at the king’s orders, St. John was thrown off a bridge and drowned in the Vltava River.

St. John of Nepomuk is considered the first martyr of the seal of the confessional, and he is invoked as a patron against calumnies and a protector from floods and drowning.

St. Mateo Correa Magallanes
St. Mateo Correa Magallanes was killed during Mexico’s Cristero War in the 20th century.

In 1927, Father Mateo was arrested by Mexican army forces. While in custody, he was sent to hear the confessions of prisoners who were set to be executed. After hearing their confessions, a general ordered Father Mateo to tell him what the prisoners had confessed.

When the priest refused, the general put a gun to the side of his head, at which point Father Mateo is reported to have said: “You can do that, but a priest has to guard the seal of confession. I am ready to die.”

The general subsequently ordered Father Mateo to be brought to the outskirts of Durango, where he was shot to death on Feb. 6, 1927. Pope St. John Paul II beatified Father Mateo in 1992 and canonized him on May 21, 2000.

Blesseds Felipe Císcar Puig and Fernando Olmedo
Blessed Felipe Císcar Puig and Blessed Fernando Olmedo were priests who were killed during the Spanish Civil War.

In August 1936, Father Císcar heard the confession of a Franciscan friar who was about to be executed by firing squad in Valencia. The soldiers ordered him to divulge what the friar had told him. Father Císcar refused, saying: “Do what you want, but I will not reveal the confession. I would die before that.”

Condemned after being taken to a sham court, Father Císcar and the friar were driven to another location, where they were shot on Sept. 8, 1936.

That same year, Blessed Fernando Olmedo Reguera, a Franciscan priest who was ministering to others who were imprisoned with him in Madrid, was pressured and tortured to reveal what they had told him during confession. He refused to betray his fellow prisoners and was killed on Aug. 12, 1936. He was beatified on Oct. 13, 2013.

Logical flaws

An underlying theory in the “carve-out” laws is that requiring priests to report sex abuse they hear in the confessional will make children safer. There are a few flaws in that theory, several Catholic analysts told OSV.

“First, it’s hard to imagine any abuser — or anyone guilty of a serious crime for that matter — coming to confess to a priest if the person knew that the priest was de facto a state informant who would betray his confidence,” Father Landry said.

World Youth Day pilgrim Renee Herman of Melbourne, Australia, offers her confession to a priest in January in a Panama City park. CNS photo by Chaz Muth

While possible, the odds that an active sexual predator will approach the sacrament of reconciliation for absolution is low, Father Landry said, given the fact that abusers are notoriously secretive.

Said Father Landry: “It just doesn’t work that way for serial adulterers. It doesn’t work that way for serial killers. It doesn’t work that way for any person who is continuing to sin.”

If a contrite person wanted to confess the horrible sin of sexual abuse, he or she would probably be scared off by a law that would require the confessor to turn them in. But with no such law in place, the confessor has an opportunity to help the penitent and encourage them to do reparation, including through turning themselves in to police, as priests often do whenever serious criminals come to confession.

“It’s an opportunity for us to try to persuade them to do the right thing and stop their crimes and their sins,” Father Landry said. “In that circumstance, there is a good opportunity for the priest to work to get them help so that they don’t hurt any other child again.”

Also, most confessions are anonymous, not only behind screens but also with penitents going to priests who do not know them. Even if the priest were to break the seal and contact law enforcement, he would likely not know who he was reporting unless he tried to restrain the unknown penitent until police arrived.

“Obviously, if the person is behind the screen or is anonymous, the priest does not necessarily know who he’s talking to,” said Msgr. Gray, who added that canon law gives the penitent and confessor both the right to have a screen between them.

“If I was responsible for making decisions in California, and they went ahead and passed that law, one of the first things I would do to protect our priests is to say, ‘We now have to require that all confessions be done anonymously behind the screen,'” Msgr. Gray said.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law, Msgr. Gray added, also instructs confessors to refrain from asking the penitent about accomplices in their crimes, which means that priests in the confessional would probably not know the names of individuals involved in the offenses.

“You could call me in front of a court and I would say: ‘I have no way to answer the question. I don’t know anything that I can report,'” Msgr. Gray said.

“The fact that 95 percent of confessions are anonymous and behind screens makes the demand that priests break the confessional seal an absurd proposition,” said Pecknold of The Catholic University of America.

Carve-out laws, Pecknold argued, cannot be seen as anything other than a government attempt to persecute the Church and force apostasy among the clergy.

Said Pecknold, “A friend of mine called it a form of moral waterboarding.”

“Priests will not obey unjust civil law that requires us to disobey God and break the seal of confession,” said Father Landry, who added that the proposed California law would be “a dramatic incursion” on the right of Catholic priests to observe the sacramental seal.

“No priest would obey it, but it might dissuade not only people who might be coming to confess a very serious sin, but anybody else who would think they were talking to someone who was an agent of the state rather than an ambassador of Christ,” Father Landry said.

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Just How Inviolable is the Seal?

There have been some debates in Catholic circles as to whether penitents can release the confessor from the seal, as well as whether canon law can be amended to grant absolution to sex abusers on the condition that they report themselves to law enforcement.Robert J.B. Flummerfelt and other canon lawyers have misgivings about whether canon law actually allows the penitent to release the confessor from the seal.

“Theoretically the penitent can release the confessor, but how do you get into that mechanically?” Flummerfelt said. “Especially if someone is confessing behind the screen, how does the priest know who’s releasing them? On a practical level it becomes very difficult.”

“The code uses such strong language for the seal, that most people tend to believe the seal is inviolable no matter what, that it’s not something that can be compromised by the request of the penitent,” said Msgr. Jason Gray, who added that a priest revealing information told to him in confession would send a confusing and dangerous message to the faithful. “Someone could say, ‘Well, what’s to stop the priest from talking about what I tell him?’ That’s why most people would be of the opinion that this is simply to never be divulged, revealed or broken in any way to protect the integrity of the sacrament.”

Pope Francis hears confession during a penitential liturgy with juvenile detainees in Pacora, Panama, in January. CNS photo by Paul Haring

Canon lawyers say it is theoretically possible that the pope, as the supreme legislator in the Church, could require penitents to report themselves to law enforcement before being absolved of their sins. But they said such a move is unlikely.

“I think that’s opening a dangerous door,” Msgr. Gray said. “I think most scholars would say that’s not possible because it would be forcing the person to violate the internal forum, which is the very thing that the confessional seal tries to protect.”

Flummerfelt said he is skeptical of conditional absolution.

“Absolution will either be granted in the confessional or not,” Flummerfelt said. “The idea may sound good, but I don’t see it as being possible to parse out these components of the sacrament. You don’t want to destroy the integrity of the sacrament.”

Father Roger Landry said a requirement of turning oneself in to police would never be a condition of absolution.

“The priest wants to encourage the person to make it right, but to require it for absolution is not what we do,” Father Landry said.

Chad Pecknold added that requiring the penitent to confess their crimes to law enforcement would essentially be a return to the public penances of the early Church, which he said were reformed for good reasons: “Public penance itself can lead to a culture of shaming, a culture that doesn’t lead people to make good confessions because of the fear of social stigma. If you want people to confess their sins to civil authorities, you’re going to have a much better chance of that if they are compelled by God to confess their sins.”

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.