Why is the Seal of Confession so Important?

W. P. Bennett

Why is the Seal of Confession so Important?

A proposed California bill was pulled by its sponsor on Monday, July 8. This isn’t really news in and of itself, as bills get pulled out of committee quite often. However, this particular bill (SB 360) garnered quite a bit of media attention as it would have, among other things, required priests to report instances of child abuse that they learned about in the confessional.  

Although this bill is no longer under consideration by the state of California, it is naive to think that this single bill will be the only or last attempt to try to legally force priests to reveal sins they hear in the confessional.  Before the bill was pulled, parishes in the Archdioceses of Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with many other dioceses across the state, read letters from their bishops during Mass highlighting the negative effects of this bill and organized letter writing campaigns to local legislators. 

But why would this bill have been such a bad idea? Why did multiple archbishops and bishops galvanize the faithful to write letters in protest of the impending bill? Why is it that priests should not reveal what they heard in the confessional? What happens if a priest does reveal anything from the confessional? In this article I’ll try to address all of these issues as well as give a few examples of priest-martyrs who died rather than reveal what was heard in the confessional. 

What was SB 360? 

First, a little primer on what the bill in California would have done. The bill sought to help protect children by requiring priests to report any suspicion of child abuse including information they learn through the confessional.  Priests in California are already mandated reporters, along with just like teachers, social workers, and anybody else who works with children on a regular basis. This means that they are required by law to report any instance of suspected abuse of a child or vulnerable adult to the proper authorities within a prescribed period of time. However, priests have the exception of things covered under the seal of the confessional.

This means that a priest must report every instance of abuse or suspected abuse that he learns about, except what he learns in the confessional. This is an important exception that the bill sought to eliminate.  Although this bill would have applied only to California, there are other proposed laws in other states and countries proposing the same thing, and we can be sure that there will be challenges to this in the future. 

The Seal of Confession 

In essence, the seal of the confession means that a priest is not allowed to take any action based on information that he learns through the confessional. This does not mean that general conversation that a person may have with a priest is covered, but only information that is directly discovered in the sacramental act of confession. A priest is not allowed to disclose any information that may link a person with a sin, or even whether or not a person has gone to confession. A priest can break the seal without using a name if he provides enough information that a person can link a person with a sin. 

A boogie story told in seminaries that hopefully doesn’t have any basis in reality centers around an older bishop who is at a dinner party when somebody asks him if he has ever heard a person confess murder in the confessional. The bishop pauses for a bit and then says, “Well, it’s been so long and it was in France where I was ordained; but right when I was ordained 50-some years ago in France, the very first person who came to me for confession confessed a murder.”  

The guests were all entertained. A few minutes later, a gentleman walks into the dinner party and is introduced to the guests when he comes up to the bishop and says, “Your Excellency, you don’t know me but we’re from the same village in France. In fact, I remember going to confession to you and you told me that I was the very first confession you had ever heard.” 

In this situation, even though the fictional bishop never said the person’s name, he gave enough information that people were able to link that person with his sin and the seal was broken.   

A priest is also not allowed to take anonymous action based off information they hear in the confessional.  For example, if a priest were to hear in the confessional that somebody in the parish embezzles money from the collections of the parish each week, it would break the seal for the priest to initiate an audit of the collections system.  In short, what is said under the seal of confession remains in confession. 

There is a theological explanation for this which is best said by St. Thomas Aquinas. He explains that the mercy of the Church does not flow from the priest but from Christ himself, and so the priest is acting merely as a conduit of that mercy and the sacramental action is between the person and God—hence, the information that the priest has does not in fact belong to him; it is not his to do with as he pleases. 

Consequences of Breaking the Seal

But what has always amazed me is that in the Church today, and throughout the ages, diversity of theological opinion and disagreements about “Church Things” has always raged. But not around this issue. From all sides and from every corner, the sanctity of protecting the seal of the confession has been strongly held. When this bill came forth in California (as well as every time a bill like this is proposed around the world) we see priests of all sorts proclaiming publicly that they will be more than willing to go to prison—or even die—rather than break the seal of confession. This is important for the priest, because they do not only sit on one side of the confessional. Priests, as human beings and sinners, also go to confession and know that the other priest will hold the seal. 

If a priest were to break the seal, even unintentionally, the ramifications are severe. The punishment in canon law for a priest breaking the seal is immediate excommunication--being cut off completely from the sacraments of the Church until the excommunication is lifted, which can only be done by Rome. It is a serious offense and a serious punishment that should not be taken lightly. 

As this issue continues to come up, you may consider asking for the intercession of Sts. John Nepomucene and Mateo Correa Magallanes for priests who hear confessions. St. John Nepmucene was born in what is now the Czech Republic in the mid-14th century. The saint would often hear the confession of the king’s wife and the king demanded that the priest reveal what was said in those confessions. The priest refused and was eventually martyred by the king. 

St. Mateo Correa Magallanes was a Mexican priest in the 19th century. During the Cristero War, the Mexican government outlawed public displays of Catholic faith. Fr. Mateo heard the confessions of prisoners arrested by the government. Government officials were worried that the priest was hearing confessions that revealed revolutionary plans by the prisoners and tried to force the priest to reveal the contents of these confessions.  Fr. Mateo refused and was martyred.  

Although we are not yet to this point in the United States, the powerful intercession of these priest-martyrs who died to protect the seal of confession can help strengthen priests as they continue to bring us the sacrament of confession and maintain the seal, despite challenges from the civil government.