Object of the Seal of Confession
Sometimes priests are accused of the sin of violation of the Seal of Confession. However, very often these accusations are baseless.
The obligation of the Seal of Confession rests on the natural, on positive divine, and on ecclesiastical law. The law of the Church (Can. 889, 1) forbids the revelation of sacramentally confessed sins under severe penalties. This obligation is so strict that outside the confessional a confessor cannot, without a penitent’s permission, speak even to the penitent of the things heard in the tribunal of Penance.
It also must be emphasized that this obligation arises only from Sacramental Confession, that is, a confession made in order to receive the Sacrament, not from confession made through pretence, or a confession made through mockery, or any other irreverent or worthless object, without the intention of receiving a Sacrament.
Penalty latae sententiae is incurred only by the direct violation of the Seal of Confession (Can. 2369), provided presumption is verified.
Also, Can. 889, 2, obliges interpreters and all others who may in any way have acquired knowledge of confession, to keep the seal.
Priests should remember that direct violation of the Seal of Confession is always a mortal sin. On the other hand the faithful must keep in mind that in the Eighth Commandment God forbids us to detract from our neighbor's honor, or bear false witness of any kind.
"Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (EXODUS 20:16)
Sin against the Eighth Commandment is always a mortal sin*.
Therefore, before accusing a priest of the sin of violation of the Seal of Confession, the faithful must know what the object of the Seal of Confession is; if they don’t know what the object of the Seal is, they cannot judge whether a priest violated the Seal or not, and an innocent priest may be accused unfairly.
Below are some extracts from the Church teaching.
Moral Theology by Rev. Heribert Jone:
*A mortal sin is the transgression of a divine law in a grievous matter with full knowledge and consent.
(Moral Theology by Rev. Heribert Jone, O.F.M. CAP., J.C.D., by Rev. Urban Adelman, O.F.M. CAP., J.C.D. The Mercier Press Limited, Cork, Ireland, Nihil Obstat: PIUS KAELIN, O.F.M. CAP, Censor Deputatus, Imprimi Potest: VICTOR GREEN, O.F.V. CAP., Provincial, July 2, 1955, Nihil Obstat: RICHARD GINDER, S.T.I., Censor Librorum, Imprimatur: JOHN FRANCIS DEARDEN, D.D., Bishop of Pittsburg, August 15, 1955, SIN IN GENERAL, Printed in the United states of America, p. 46.)
A COMMENTARY ON THE NEW CODE OF CANON LAW By THE REV. P. CHAS. AUGUSTINE:
1. Cofessarium, qui sigillum sacramentale directe violare praesumpserit, manet excommunicatio specialissimo modo Sedi Apostolicae reservata; qui vero indirecte tantum, obnoxius est poenis, de quibus in can. 2368, 1.
2. Quicunque praescriptum can. 889, 2 temere violaverit, pro reatus gravitate plectatur salutary poena, quae potest esse etiam excommunicatio.
There are two ways of breaking the seal of confession, as described in the fourth volume of this Commentary.1
Violation is direct if, together with the matter confessed, the name of the penitent is revealed, either explicitly or by a description which reveals his identity. It is indirect if, from the confessor's way of acting or speaking there is danger that the sin of the penitent and his identity become known, thus rendering confession hateful.
Can. 889, 2, obliges also interpreters and all others who may in any way have acquired knowledge of confession, to keep the seal.
1. A confessor, says our canon (paragraph 1), who dares to break the seal of confession directly, remains under excommunication reserved modo specialissimo to the Apostolic See.
b) The text furthermore says, sigillum sacramentale, which naturally presupposes a sacramental accusation. Therefore a fictitious or jocose confession would not in duce the obligation of keeping the seal, nor entail censure. Whether a sacramental confession is intended must be judged from the words or acts which surround the deed. However the mere lack of intention of absolving the penitent would not be sufficient to excuse the confessor from the obligation of keeping the seal, though if he were to say: "I don t wish to hear your confession," this would render the accusation non-sacramental, and no obligation would arise to keep the seal.3 The general rule, therefore, may be stated thus: The censure is incurred whenever the obligation of keeping the sacramental seal is violated…
c) But there is a condition to be added, namely, unless the penitent himself - none other, not even the Pope, can do so - has given permission to reveal something out of confession. This permission would have to be given expressly and freely.4
Note that the revelation of something else than the matter of confession would not constitute a violation of the seal. Besides, most authors say that a revelation of merely venial sins, confessed in a general way, though by a definite person, would not constitute a serious violation of the seal involving censure.5
d) The penalty is excommunication latae sententiae reserved modo specialissimo to the Apostolic See, provided presumption is verified.
1 Page 302; but the or in line 5 from above should be changed into and; for different cases see the moralists, especially Ballerini-Palmieri, l. c., Vol. V, p. 485 ff.; nn. 899 ff.
3 Schmalzgrueber, V, 38, n. 80; Ballerini-Palmieri, l. c., V, p. 490 f.; n. 909 f.
4 Schmalzgrueber, l. c., n. 62; Hollweck, l. c., p. 276, note 5.
5 Ballerini-Palmieri, l. c., V, p. 499 ff. ; n. 924 ff.
(A COMMENTARY ON THE NEW CODE OF CANON LAW By THE REV. P. CHAS. AUGUSTINE, O.S.B., D.D., Professor of Canon Law, VOLUME VIII, BOOK V Penal Code (Can. 2195-2414) with complete index, W. E. BLAKE & SON, LIMITED CATHOLIC CHURCH SUPPLIES US CHURCH ST. TORONTO, CANADA, 1922, CUM PERMISSU SUPERIORUM, NIHIL OBSTAT Sti. Ludovici, die 25 Aug., 1922 F. G. Holweck, Censor Librorum., IMPRIMATUR Sti. Ludovici, die 25 Aug., 1922 +Joannes J. Glennon, Archiepiscopus, Sti. Ludovici, pp. 441, 442, 443)
A HANDBOOK OF MORAL THEOLOGY, Vol. 2,
ANTONY KOCH, D.D., ARTHUR PREUSS:
THE SEAL OF CONFESSION.
1. DEFINITION. - By the seal of confession (sigillum confessionis, secretum sacramentale) is understood the obligation of keeping secret knowledge gained through sacramental confession.1
2. SOURCE OF THE OBLIGATION. - The seal of confession binds the confessor and (per accident) all others who have knowledge of the matter of a sacramental confession through whatever means. It is absolute and, per se, admits of no exception.
As for the penitent, though not bound by the seal, he is obliged to treat confessional matter as a natural secret, so far at least as the dignity of the Sacrament or regard for the confessor demand.
The obligation of the seal rests on the natural, on positive divine, and on ecclesiastical law2
1. H. Busembaum, S.J., Medulla Theol. Mor., 1. VI, tr. 4, c. 3: "Sigillum hoc est obligatio iuris divini strictissima in omni casu, etiam quo integri regni salus periclitaretur, ad tacendum (etiam post mortem poenitentis) dicta in confessione (id est in ordine ad absolutionem sacramentalem) omnia, quorum revelation sacramentum redderet onerosum vel odiosum." (Ed. Tornac., 1876; Vol. I. p. 573).
2 . Gury, Comp. Theol. Mor., II, n. 495: "Datur strictissima obligatio inviolabiliter servandi sigillum confessionis. Constat (1) ex iure naturali, et quidem triplici titulo, nempe ex caritate, ex iustitia, ex religione; (2) ex iure divino positivo, saltem implicite, nam ex institutione Christi confessio secreta esse debet, ergo eo ipso a Christo imposita est confessariis obligatio sigilli servandi; (3) ex iure ecclesiastico; constat ex variis iuris canonici locis, praesertim ex Concilio Lateranensi quarto, c. 21: 'Utriusque sexus,' ubi dicitur: Caveat autem omnino [confessarius], ne verbo out signo aut alio quovis modo aliquatenus prodat peccatorem: sed si prudentiore consilio indiguerit, illud absque ulla expressione personae caute requirat..." (Denzinger-Bannwart, n. 438).
a) The natural law commands silence regarding that which is communicated in confidence. When a man goes to confession, he expects that his secret will be locked in the bosom of the confessor. Hence to keep the seal inviolate is a matter of strict natural duty. In many countries the civil law treats the revelation of any secret communicated in confidence as a misdemeanor.
b) The positive divine law demands the inviolability of the seal because it is a necessary condition of the enforcement of the precept of confession. "Confession could not be enforced," says Bishop Linsenmann, "if priests were not bound to the strictest secrecy concerning that which is revealed to them in the confessional. Hence the seal is justified, not only by the interest of the penitent, but by the interest of confession itself."3 "The divine command to confess one's sins," says Dr. Krieg, "would be an intolerable burden if the penitent were not assured of silence on the part of the confessor."4
c) The law of the Church forbids the revelation of sacramentally confessed sins under severe penalties.5
3 F. X. Linsenmann, Lehrbuch der Moraltheologie, p. 220.
4 Krieg, Wissenschaft der Seelenleitung, Vol. I, p. 515.
6 Codex luris Can., can. 889, 1: "Sacramentale sigillum inviolabile est; quare caveat diligenter confessarius, ne verbo aut signo aut alio quovis modo et quavis de causa prodat aliquatenus peccatorem." – On the penalties cfr. J. Hollweck, Die kirchlichen Strafgesetze, Mayence, 1899, pp. 332 sqq.; J. Laurentius, S.J., Inst. luris Eccles., n. 456, 546.
(A HANDBOOK OF MORAL THEOLOGY BASED ON THE "LEHRBUCH DER MORALTHEOLOGIE" OF THE LATE ANTONY KOCH, D.D., Professor of Theology in the University of Tubingen, By ARTHUR PREUSS, VOLUME II, SIN AND THE MEANS OF GRACE, THIRD, REVISED EDITION, B. HERDER BOOK CO., 15 & 17 SOUTH BROADWAY, ST. LOUIS, MO., AND 33 QUEEN SQUARE, LONDON, W. C. 1928, NIHIL OBSTAT Sti. Ludovici, 11 die. Jan. 1928, Joannes Rothensteiner, Censor Librorum, IMPRIMATUR Sti. Ludovici, die 14. Jan. 1928, +Joannes J. Glennon, Archiepiseopus pp. 167-168)
Moral Theology by REV. HERIBERT JONE:
617. C. Object of the Seal of Confession.
With reference to extent of the obligation one may distinguish a threefold object of the seal of confession: sins; things said in explanation of sins confessed; matters whose revelation would be disagreeable to the penitent.
I. All sins confessed fall under the seal, even public sins, unless the confessor knows them from sources other than confession.
They may be mortal or particular venial sins. – In itself, it is not wrong to say that someone has confessed sins (since this is the case in every confession), or that so-and-so hardly ever committed a sin.
The confessor may not speak of any sins as long as he knows of them only from confession, even though he is convinced that they are commonly known. – The priest may speak of the sins he knows from sources apart from confession, but he must beware of representing something as certain which previous to hearing confession he considered only probable, and he must refrain from correcting inaccuracies in virtue of his confessional knowledge.
II. All that is said for the better explanation of sins likewise falls under the seal, unless the confessor knows these things also outside of confession, or if it is a question of matters commonly known.
It matters not whether that which is said to clarify sins is necessary, useful or superfluous. Thus, if a penitent says he sinned against the sixth commandment and thereby committed a sacrilege because of his vow; she had a fight with her husband because he was drunk; he was ashamed of his parents because of their poverty; or he missed Mass on account of some sports event: these circumstances come under seal.
If these circumstances are commonly known (e.g., the game, the vow, etc.) the confessor may speak of them although he himself gets the information only through confession, provided others do not get the impression that the penitent has accused himself of these things in any way.
618. – III. Anything else which is known only from confession is protected by the seal, provided it is not commonly known and the revelation thereof will prove disagreeable to the penitent.
It is theoretically controverted whether this really falls under the seal of confession; practically, one must follow the stricter opinion (C. 614).
The obligation of the seal, therefore, extends, for example, to scrupulosity or those natural defects of a penitent, which are not commonly known; faults the penitent committed in the act of confessing (e.g., impatience; not, however, an act of theft which the penitent committed while going to confession).
The virtues and graces of the penitent are not matters for the seal, provided they are not manifested in order more clearly to declare the sins themselves, e.g., the gravity of ingratitude towards God. – In itself, even the fact of one’s confessing does not fall under the seal unless others may conclude from this fact that the penitent must have committed some specific sins. – In itself, one may also say he gave so-and-so absolution.
(Moral Theology, by Rev. Heribert Jone, O.F.M. CAP., J.C.D., by Rev. Urban Adelman, O.F.M. CAP., J.C.D., The Mercier Press Limited, Cork, Ireland, Nihil Obstat: PIUS KAELIN, O.F.M. CAP, Censor Deputatus, Imprimi Potest: VICTOR GREEN, O.F.V. CAP., Provincial, July 2, 1955, Nihil Obstat: RICHARD GINDER, S.T.I., Censor Librorum, Imprimatur: JOHN FRANCIS DEARDEN, D.D., Bishop of Pittsburg, August 15, 1955, Printed in the United states of America, pp. 436-437)
THE SACRAMENTS EXPLAINED
BY THE REV. ARTHUR DEVINE:
"By the Sacramental seal is meant the inviolable obligation of keeping secret and never revealing those things heard in Sacramental confession, or of using that knowledge in any way to the detriment of penitents without their consent."
"This obligation arises only from Sacramental confession that is, a confession made in order to receive the Sacrament, not from confession made through pretence, or, if such a case could happen, a confession made through mockery, or any other irreverent or worthless object, without the intention of receiving a Sacrament."
"The penitent, however, may give leave to a confessor to speak about things heard in the confessional, and by so doing enable the priest to know, as man, those things which in the tribunal he knows only as God. But the permission of this kind should be entirely free; it must be formally and explicitly granted, and for some just cause, either regarding the soul of the penitent, or for the purpose of obtaining the advice and counsel of a more learned or more experienced confessor.
So strict is this obligation that, outside the confessional, the confessor cannot, without permission, speak even to the penitent of the things heard in the tribunal of Penance, and not even for the purpose of rectifying a mistake made in the confessional. But in another confession he may, for a just cause - that is, for the utility of the penitent and for the better administration of the Sacrament - refer to a past confession, and to things made known in former confessions.
Furthermore, it must be known that it is not lawful for a confessor to make free use of the knowledge received in the confessional. All heard therein must be regarded as not heard or not known, because he does not know those things as man, but as God - that is, he can never make use of this knowledge (1) where there is any danger either direct or indirect of revelation, or (2) when there can be injury either to the penitent or a third party, such as the deposition from office or the denial of suffrage, etc. But if neither of these consequences can follow, then he can make use of the knowledge received in the confessional, either to pray for the penitent, to consult books or theologians, etc."
(THE SACRAMENTS EXPLAINED BY THE REV. ARTHUR DEVINE, FIFTH EDITION, R. & T. WASHBOURNE, LTD. PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON, AND AT MANCHESTER, BIRMINGHAM, AND GLASGOW, 1918, Nihil Obstat. PHILIPPUS COGHLAN, C.P., CENSOR DEPUTATUS., Imprimatur. HERBERTUS CARDINALIS VAUGHAN, ARCHIEPISCOPUS WESTMONAST., Die 1 December, 1898, pp. 344-345, 346)
THE "SUMMA THEOLOGICA"
QUESTION XI. OF THE SEAL OF CONFESSION:
WHETHER THE SEAL OF CONFESSION EXTENDS TO OTHER MATTERS THAN THOSE WHICH HAVE REFERENCE TO CONFESSION?
We proceed thus to the Second Article: -
Objection 1: It seems that the seal of confession extends to other matters besides those which have reference to confession. For sins alone have reference to confession. Now sometimes, besides sins other matters are told which have no reference to confession. Therefore, since such things are told to the priest, as to God, it seems that the seal of confession extends to them also.
Obj. 2. Further, sometimes one person tells another a secret, which the latter receives under the seal of confession. Therefore the seal of confession extends to matters having no relation to confession.
On the contrary, The seal of confession is connected with sacramental confession. But those things which are connected with a sacrament, do not extend outside the bounds of the sacrament. Therefore the seal of confession does not extend to matters other than those which have reference to sacramental confession.
I answer that, The seal of confession does not extend directly to other matters than those which have reference to sacramental confession, yet indirectly matters also which are not connected with sacramental confession are affected by the seal of confession, those, for instance, which might lead to the discovery of a sinner or of his sin. Nevertheless these matters also must be most carefully hidden, both on account of scandal, and to avoid leading others into sin through their becoming familiar with it.
This suffices for the Reply to the First Objection.
Reply Obj. 2. A confidence ought not easily to be accepted in this way: but if it be done, the secret must be kept in the way promised, as though one had the secret through confession, though not through the seal of confession.
WHETHER BY THE PENITENT’S PERMISSION, A PRIEST MAY REVEAL TO ANOTHER A SIN WHICH HE KNOWS UNDER THE SEAL OF CONFESSION?
We proceed thus to the Fourth Article: -
Objection 1. It seems that a priest may not, by the penitent's permission, reveal to another a sin which he knows under the seal of confession. For an inferior may not do what his superior may not. Now the Pope cannot give permission for anyone to divulge a sin which he knows through confession. Neither therefore can the penitent give him such a permission.
Obj. 2. Further, that which is instituted for the common good of the Church cannot be done away at the will of an individual. Now the secrecy of confession was instituted for the good of the whole Church, in order that men might have greater confidence in approaching the confessional. Therefore the penitent cannot allow the priest to divulge his confession.
Obj. 3 . Further, if the priest could grant such a permission, this would seem to palliate the wickedness of bad priests, for they might pretend to have received the permission and so they might sin with impunity, which would be unbecoming. Therefore it seems that the penitent cannot grant this permission.
Obj. 4. Further, the one to whom this sin is divulged, does not know that sin under the seal of confession, so that he may publish a sin which is already blotted out, which is unbecoming. Therefore this permission cannot be granted.
On the contrary, If the sinner consent, a superior may refer him by letter to an inferior priest. Therefore with the consent of the penitent, the priest may reveal a sin of his to another.
Further, whosoever can do a thing of his own authority, can do it through another. But the penitent can by his own authority reveal his sin to another. Therefore he can do it through the priest.
I answer that, There are two reasons for which the priest is bound to keep a sin secret: first and chiefly, because this very secrecy is essential to the sacrament, in so far as the priest knows that sin, as it is known to God, Whose place he holds in confession: secondly, in order to avoid scandal. Now the penitent can make the priest know, as a man, what he knew before only as God knows it, and he does this when he allows him to divulge it: so that if the priest does reveal it, he does not break the seal of confession. Nevertheless he should beware of giving scandal by revealing the sin, lest he be deemed to have broken the seal.
Reply Obj. 1. The Pope cannot permit a priest to divulge a sin, because he cannot make him to know it as a man, whereas he that has confessed it, can.
Reply Obj. 2. When that is told which was known through another source, that which is instituted for the common good is not done away, because the seal of confession is not broken.
Reply Obj. 3. This does not bestow impunity on wicked priests, because they are in danger of having to prove that they had the penitent's permission to reveal the sin, if they should be accused of the contrary.
Reply Obj. 4. He that is informed of a sin through the priest with the penitent's consent, shares in an act of the priest's, so that the same applies to him as to an interpreter, unless perchance the penitent wish him to know it unconditionally and freely.
(THE "SUMMA THEOLOGICA" OF ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, THIRD PART, LITERALLY TRANSLATED BY FATHERS OF THE ENGLISH DOMINICAN PROVINCE, FOURTH NUMBER, (QQ. LXXXIV - SUPPL. XXXIII), R. & T. WASHBOURNE, LTD. PATERNOSTER ROW, LONDON, AND AT MANCHESTER, BIRMINGHAM, AND GLASGOW, BENZIGER BROTHERS: NEW YORK, CINCINNATI, CHICAGO, 1917, Nihil Obstat. F. INNOCENTIUS APAP, O.P., S.T.M. Censor. Theol., Imprimatur. EDM. CANONICUS SURMONT. VICARUS GENERALIS, Westmonasterii, APPROBATIO ORDINIS. Nihil Obstat. Fr. VINCENTIUS J. McNABB, O.P., S.T.B, Fr. AELREDUS WHITACRE, O.P., S.T.L., Imprimatur. Fr. HUMBERTUS EVEREST, O.P., S.T.B., Prior Provincialis, LONDINI, IN Festo S. Thomae Aquinatis, Die 7 Martii, 1916, pp. 194, 196-197)