VATICAN ISSUES DOCUMENT ON SEAL OF CONFESSION: SOME BACKGROUND
As California Catholics and American bishops surely know, at the end of last May, California’s state senators voted 30-2 in favor of a law that requires priests to violate the seal of confession. Senate Bill 360, notes a CNA story on the law, “requires priests to report any knowledge or suspicion of child abuse gained while hearing the confession of another priest or colleague.”
In speaking about today’s document from the Vatican (see below) on this matter, a friend asked me if the California law included, doctors and lawyers, etc. who normally have client privacy privileges. I did not know so I researched the law and some media reports on it.
As ANGELUS news (archdiocese of Los Angeles) reported (in part): “At issue is the serious matter of child sexual abuse. Seven states right now require priests to violate the seal to report child abuse based on legislation passed in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
“While many states have tried since 2002 to pass laws resembling California’s Senate Bill 360, none have been successful. Instead, lawmakers around the country have concluded similar bills would not protect children and would be an egregious violation of religious liberty.”
“In California, priests, along with teachers, social workers, doctors, and other professionals, are ‘mandated reporters’. That means they are required by law to report any case of suspected abuse to authorities. But currently, there is an exemption in the law for any clergy member ‘who acquires knowledge or a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication’.
“SB 360’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said his bill is necessary because of evidence that the confession privilege hurts children.” (https://angelusnews.com/news/pablo-kay/why-is-california-trying-to-end-privacy-protections-for-the-sacrament-of-confession)
The news today from the Vatican comes from the Apostolic Penitentiary – the Vatican tribunal that deals with the sacrament of confession. It issued a 3,100-word document on the seal of confession, affirming that, in the face of recent civil rulings, it, the tribunal, considered it appropriate to intervene.
The Penitentiary re-affirmed that under no circumstances may a priest reveal the contents of a confession, even if the penitent says he may do so. The court reaffirmed the sacramental seal, the confidentiality inherent in the internal extra-sacramental forum, the professional secrecy, the criteria and the limits proper to any other communication.
“The inviolable secrecy of the Confession,” says the lengthy document, “comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial context, nor, even less, in the civil sphere.”
The following is my Google-assisted translation of the document released today by the Apostolic Penitentiary. I carefully re-read each paragraph to see if it corresponded to the original Italian. There were a few instances when the grammar was a bit overdone, almost dramatic, and I made it understandable. I basically tweaked it where necessary to make it both correct and as readable as possible.
I realize I could have translated just a few key paragraphs of the document or furnished my own brief summary of the salient points, but I have so many friends who are priests and many others who work in tribunals that I felt this would be helpful. Perhaps I have saved them precious time. I do realize they will check this against the original Italian – as well they should!
PS: the document speaks of the “pontifical secret”: this was something I remember having to swear to when I was hired to work at the Vatican Information Service. I also had to recite the Creed in Latin.
THE APOSTOLIC PENITENTIARY: NEVER CAN THE SEAL OF CONFESSION BE VIOLATED
“With the Incarnation, the Son of God has united himself in a certain way with every man” ; with his gestures and his words, he illuminated his highest and inviolable dignity; in himself, dead and risen, he restored fallen humanity, overcoming the darkness of sin and death; to those who believe in him he opened the relationship with his Father; with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he consecrated the Church, a community of believers, as his true body and participated in his own prophetic, royal and priestly power, so that he would be in the world as the extension of his own presence and mission, announcing to the men of all times the truth, guiding them to the splendor of its light, allowing their life to be truly touched and transfigured.
In this time of human history that is so troubled, the growing techno-scientific progress does not seem to correspond to an adequate ethical and social development, but rather a real cultural and moral “involution” that, forgetting about God – if not outright hostility – becomes incapable to recognize and respect, in every sphere and at every level, the essential coordinates of human existence and, with them, of the very life of the Church.
“If progress in the ethical formation of man, in the growth of the inner man […],does not correspond to technical progress, then it is not progress but a threat to man and the world” . Also in the field of private and mass-media communications, the “technical possibilities” grow out of proportion, but not the love for the truth, the commitment to research, the sense of responsibility before God and men; in fact, a worrisome disproportion between means and ethics is outlined. Communicative hypertrophy seems to turn against the truth and, consequently, against God and against man; against Jesus Christ, God made man, and the Church, its historical and real presence.
A certain “craving” for information has spread in recent decades, almost regardless of their real reliability and opportunity, to the point that the “world of communication” seems to want to “replace” reality, both by conditioning perception and by manipulating the understanding of it . From this tendency, which can take on the disturbing traits of morbidness. Unfortunately the very ecclesial structure, which lives in the world and sometimes takes on its criteria, is not immune. Even among believers, frequently, precious energies are employed in the search for “news” – or real “scandals” – suited to the sensitivity of certain public opinion, with goals and objectives that certainly do not belong to the theandric nature (JFL: of or relating to the divine and human or their union or joint operation) of the Church. All this to the grave detriment of the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature and the needs of the mission. We must humbly recognize that sometimes even the ranks of the clergy, up to the highest hierarchies, are exempt from this tendency.
In fact, invoking the judgment of public opinion as the last tribunal, information of all kinds is made known too often, also concerning the most private and confidential spheres, which inevitably touch the life of the Church, (and which) induce – or at least favor – rash judgments and unlawfully and irreparably damage the good reputation of others, as well as the right of every person to defend their intimacy (cf. can. 220 CIC). In this scenario, the words of Saint Paul to the Galatians sound particularly current: “For you, brothers, have been called to freedom. Provided that this freedom does not become a pretext for living according to the flesh […]. But if you bite and devour each other, look at least not to destroy each other completely “(Gal 5,13-15).
In this context, a certain worrisome “negative prejudice” seems to assert itself towards the Catholic Church, whose existence is culturally presented and socially re-understood, on the one hand, in the light of the tensions that can occur within the same hierarchy and, on the other, starting from the recent scandals of abuse, horribly perpetrated by some members of the clergy. This prejudice, oblivious to the true nature of the Church, to its authentic history and to the real, beneficial incidence that it has always had and has in human life, sometimes translates into the unjustifiable “claim” that the Church herself, in certain matters, come to conform its own legal order to the civil systems of the states in which it finds itself living, as the only possible “guarantee of correctness and rectitude”.
In the face of all this, the Apostolic Penitentiary considered it appropriate to intervene, with this Note, to reaffirm the importance of and promote a better understanding of those concepts, typical of ecclesial and social communication, that today seem to have become more foreign to public opinion and sometimes to the same civil legal systems: the sacramental seal, the confidentiality inherent in the internal extra-sacramental forum, the professional secrecy, the criteria and the limits proper to any other communication.
Recently, speaking of the sacrament of Reconciliation, the Holy Father Francis wished to reaffirm the indispensability and the unavailability of the sacramental seal: “Reconciliation itself is a good that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded with all its moral and juridical strength with the sacramental seal. Although not always understood by the modern mentality, it s indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the penitent’s freedom of conscience; which must be certain, at any time, that the sacramental conversation will remain in the secret of confession, between one’s own conscience that opens to the grace of God, and the necessary mediation of the priest. The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction, nor can it claim it, on it “.
The inviolable secrecy of Confession comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial context nor, even less, in the civil sphere. In fact, in the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation the very essence of Christianity and the Church is enclosed: the Son of God became man to save us and decided to involve, as a “necessary tool” in this work of salvation, the Church and, in it, those whom he has chosen, called and constituted as his ministers.
To express this truth, the Church has always taught that priests, in the celebration of the sacraments, act “in persona Christi capitis”, that is, in the very person of Christ the head: “Christ allows us to use his” I “, we speak in the “I” of Christ, Christ “pulls into himself” and allows us to unite, unites us with his “I”. […] It is this union with his “I” that is realized in the words of consecration. Also in the “I absolve you” – because none of us could absolve from sins – it is the “I” of Christ, of God, who alone can absolve “. Every penitent who humbly goes to the priest to confess his sins, bears witness to the great mystery of the Incarnation and the supernatural essence of the Church and of the ministerial priesthood, through which the Risen Christ comes to meet men, touches sacramentally – that is, really – their life and saves them. For this reason, the defense of the sacramental seal by the confessor, if necessary usque ad sanguinis effusionem (JFL: up to the shedding of blood), represents not only an act of dutiful “loyalty” towards the penitent, but much more: a necessary testimony – a “martyrdom” – given directly to the uniqueness and salvific universality of Christ and the Church .
The matter of the seal is currently exposed (explained) and regulated by Canons 983-984 and 1388, § 1 of the CIC (Code of Canon Law) from can. 1456 of the CCEO (canon law of the Eastern Churches), as well as from n. 1467 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where significantly we read that the Church “establishes”, by virtue of its own authority, rather than that it “declares” – that is, recognizes as an irreducible datum, which derives precisely from the sanctity of the sacrament instituted by Christ – “that every priest who hears confessions is obliged, under very severe penalties, to keep an absolute secret concerning the sins that his penitents confessed to him”.
The confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, “to betray the penitent with words or in any other way” (can. 983, § 1 CIC), as well as “it is in fact forbidden for the confessor to make use of the knowledge acquired from confession with burden of the penitent, even excluding any danger of revelation “(can. 984, § 1 CIC). The doctrine also helped to further specify the content of the sacramental seal, which includes “all the sins of both the penitent and others known from the penitent’s confession, both mortal and venial, both occult and public, as manifested in order to absolution and therefore known to the confessor by virtue of sacramental science “. The sacramental seal, therefore, regards everything the penitent has listed (confessed), even in the event that the confessor does not grant absolution: if the confession is invalid or for some reason the absolution is not given, however the seal must be maintained.
The priest, in fact, becomes aware of the sins of the penitent “non ut homo, sed ut Deus – not as a man, but as God” , so much so that he simply “does not know” what he was told in seat of confession, because he did not listen to him as a man but, precisely, in the name of God. The confessor could, therefore, also “swear”, without any prejudice to his conscience, to “not know” what he knows only as a minister of God. Because of its peculiar nature, the sacramental seal also binds the confessor ” inwardly “, to the point that he is forbidden to voluntarily remember the confession and he is obliged to suppress any involuntary recollection of it. The secret deriving from the seal is also held by those who, in any way, have come to know the sins of confession: “The interpreter, if any, and all others to whom in whatever way the news of the sins of confession has come “(can. 983, § 2 CIC).
The absolute prohibition imposed by the sacramental seal is such as to prevent the priest from making word of the content of the confession with the same penitent, outside the sacrament, “except explicit, and all the better if not required, consent from the penitent” . The seal therefore goes beyond the availability of the penitent, who, once the sacrament is celebrated, does not have the power to relieve the confessor of the obligation of secrecy, because this duty comes directly from God.
The defense of the sacramental seal and the sanctity of confession may never constitute some form of partnership with evil, on the contrary they represent the only true antidote to evil that threatens man and the whole world; they are the real possibility of surrendering to the love of God, of letting oneself be converted and transformed by this love, learning to correspond concretely in one’s life. In the presence of sins that integrate types of offenses, it is never permissible to place on the penitent, as a condition for acquittal, the obligation to turn himself over to civil justice, by virtue of the natural principle, incorporated in every order, according to which «nemo tenetur se detegere » (JFL: “No one is obliged to disclose”). At the same time, however, it belongs to the very “structure” of the sacrament of Reconciliation, as a condition for its validity, sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to amend and not to reiterate the evil committed. If a penitent is present who has been a victim of the evil of others, it will be the concern of the confessor to instruct him regarding his rights, as well as about the concrete juridical instruments to use to denounce the fact in civil and / or ecclesiastical forum and invoke justice.
2. Internal extra-sacramental forum and spiritual direction
The so-called “extra-sacramental internal forum”, always hidden, but external to the sacrament of Penance belongs to the juridical-moral sphere of the internal forum. In it too the Church exercises her mission and saving power: not by forgiving sins, but by granting graces, breaking legal constraints (such as censorships) and taking care of everything concerning the sanctification of souls and, therefore, the proper sphere, intimate and personal of each believer.
To the internal extra-sacramental forum belongs in a particular way spiritual direction, in which the individual believer entrusts his own path of conversion and sanctification to a specific priest, or consecrated person or member of the laity.
The priest exercises this ministry by virtue of his mission of representing Christ, conferred upon him by the sacrament of Orders and exercised in the hierarchical communion of the Church, through the so-called triple munus: the task of teaching, sanctifying and governing the laity in virtue of the baptismal priesthood and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In spiritual direction, the believer freely opens the secret of his conscience to the spiritual director or person who accompanies him to be oriented and supported in listening to and fulfilling the will of God.
As evidence of the special confidentiality accorded to spiritual direction, consider the prohibition, sanctioned by law, of asking not only the opinion of the confessor, but also that of the spiritual director, on the occasion of admission to sacred Orders or, vice versa, for dismissal from the seminary of candidates to the priesthood (cf. can. 240, § 2 CIC; can. 339, § 2 CCEO). In the same way, the 2007 Sanctorum Mater instruction, concerning the carrying out of diocesan or eparchial inquiries in the Causes of Saints, forbids admitting not only confessors to protect the sacramental seal but also the spiritual directors of the Servant of God, also for all that they have learned in the forum of conscience, outside of sacramental confession .
This necessary confidentiality will be all the more “natural” for the spiritual director, the more he will learn to recognize and “be moved” before the mystery of the freedom of the faithful who, through him, turn to Christ. The spiritual director must conceive his own mission and his own life exclusively before God, in the service of his glory, for the good of the person, of the Church and for the salvation of the whole world.
3. Secrets and other limits of communication
Of another nature than the sphere of the internal forum, sacramental and extra-sacramental, are the confidences made under the seal of secrecy, as well as the so-called “professional secrets”, of which particular categories of persons are in possession, both in civil society and in the ecclesial structure, by virtue of a special office performed by them for individuals or for the community.
Such secrets, in virtue of natural law, must always be preserved, “except – the Catechism of the Catholic Church states at n. 2491 – the exceptional cases in which the custody of the secret would cause to those who confide them, to those who are set apart, or to third parties, very serious and avoidable damages only through the disclosure of the truth ».
A particular case of secrecy is that of the “pontifical secret”, which binds under the oath connected with the exercise of certain offices in the service of the Apostolic See. If the oath of secrecy always binds coram Deo who issued it, the oath connected to the “pontifical secret” has as its ultimate rationale the public good of the Church and the salus animarum (JFL: the health or salvation of the sould). It presupposes that this good and the very needs of the salus animarum, including therefore the use of information that does not fall under the seal, can and must be correctly interpreted by the Apostolic See alone, in the person of the Roman Pontiff, whom Christ the Lord constituted and placed as a visible principle and foundation of the unity of faith and communion of the whole Church .
As regards the other areas of communication, both public and private, in all its forms and expressions, the wisdom of the Church has always indicated as a fundamental criterion the “golden rule” pronounced by the Lord and reported in the Gospel of Luke: “What you want men to do to you, you also do it to them “(Lk 6:31). In this way, in the communication of truth as in silence with regard to it, when the questioner had no right to know it, it is always necessary to conform his life to the precept of fraternal love, having the good and safety of others before his eyes respect for private life and the common good .
As a particular duty of communicating the truth, dictated by fraternal charity, one cannot fail to mention the “fraternal correction”, in its various degrees, taught by the Lord. It remains the reference horizon, where necessary and according to what the concrete circumstances allow and require: “If your brother commits a fault against you, go and admonish him between you and him alone; if he listens to you, you will have earned your brother; if you don’t listen, take one or two more people with you, because everything is solved by the word of two or three witnesses. If he does not listen to them, tell the community “(Mt 18,15-17).
In a time of mass communication, in which all information is “burned” and with it, unfortunately, also a part of people’s lives, it is necessary to re-learn the power of speech, its constructive power, but also its destructive potential; we must be vigilant so that the sacramental seal is never violated by anyone and the necessary confidentiality connected with the exercise of the ecclesial ministry is always jealously guarded, having as its sole horizon the truth and the integral good of persons.
Let us invoke from the Holy Spirit, for the whole Church, a burning love for the truth in every area and circumstance of life; the ability to guard it integrally in the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature, the willingness for martyrdom in order to defend the inviolability of the sacramental seal, as well as the prudence and wisdom necessary to avoid any instrumental and erroneous use of that information proper to private, social life and ecclesial, which can turn into an offense against the dignity of the person and the Truth itself, which is always Christ, Lord and Head of the Church.
In the jealous custody (guardianship) of the sacramental seal and the necessary discretion linked to the internal extra-sacramental forum and to the other acts of ministry, a particular synthesis shines forth between the Petrine and Marian dimensions in the Church.
With Peter, the bride of Christ guards,until the end of history the institutional ministry of the “power of the keys”; like Mary Most Holy, the Church preserves “all these things in her heart” (Lk 2,51b), knowing that in them the light that illuminates every man is reverberated and that, in the sacred space between personal conscience and God, must be preserved, defended and guarded.
The Supreme Pontiff Francesco, on 21 June 2019, approved the present Note, and ordered its publication.
Given in Rome, from the seat of the Apostolic Penitentiary, June 29, year of the Lord 2019, on the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles
Mauro Card. Piacenza Major Penitentiary
Mons. Krzysztof Nykiel Regent