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Questions about the seal of Confession are not merely academic

February 3, 2014

In an on-line article that has since appeared on websites around the world, Catholic priest Lawrence Hummer (who does prison ministry in the state of Ohio) wrote: “I first began to visit [convict Dennis] McGuire in November. He told me about the evil act he had committed, the murder in 1989 of a young woman Joy Stewart who was pregnant and whose unborn child also died. He confessed his sin to me, and expressed sorrow for what he had done. I said he should [perform a specific penance], and over the course of the final eight weeks, I know that he did. After that, I had to deal with him as I do anyone else who repents: as a forgiven sinner.

I think this passage raises several serious canonical issues.

Canon 983 § 1 states “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray (prodere) in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” Moreover, Canon 1388 § 1 states “A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.” All commentators agree that violation of the seal of Confession is among the worst offenses any priest could commit and that violation of the seal does not admit of “parvity of matter” (that is, there is no such thing as a little violation of the seal). Confessors may not rely on so-called “probable” arguments that such-and-such a disclosure might be permitted. Davis III: 318-319; Cappello II: 611-612; Halligan 240-241. Even conduct by confessors that reasonably suggests to others a violation of the seal must be avoided.

Indisputably, disclosure of a penitent’s identity and his/her sin(s) is absolutely forbidden (nefas est) by Canon 983; questions about how expressly a penitent and/or a sin might have been revealed are relevant to determining whether the disclosure was “direct” or “indirect”, but where, as here, the penitent is clearly named and the sin unambiguously identified, the object of Canon 983 is squarely before us.

Three theories are being floated to excuse the disclosure of McGuire’s sin by Hummer. One of these theories is false, one is now probably indemonstrable, and one is plausible but disputed.

Regarding the first alleged excuse, McGuire’s execution does not release Hummer from the obligation of the seal; any claims to the contrary are false. Second, according to some canonists, penitents may release confessors from the seal. I and many others (e.g. GB&I Comm 535) disagree with this theory but, in any event, Hummer asserts no such release from McGuire and any claim now that a release was offered, arising tempore suspecto, would be of greatly diminished evidentiary value.

That only leaves the third possible excuse for Hummer’s disclosure. Given that McGuire’s crimes were well-known from non-sacramental sources, “there is no delict if the confessor honestly believes such information is available from extra-confessional sources” CLSA New Comm. 1592 and possibly Valencia Comm. 443. Such an excuse, however, is not recognized by all commentators and indeed appears to be rejected by several (e.g., Codice Commentato 1101; Ayrinhac 220; Regatillo 328; Halligan 242).

The great Cappello II: 620-621, sheds light, I think, by rejecting absolutely the disclosure of whatever a priest actually heard in confession, even if the information is public and well-known (a la, “He confessed his [well-known] sin to me”) but permitting, under certain conditions, a statement based on what a priest knows from non-sacramental sources (say, “Dennis McGuire raped and killed a pregnant woman.”) Hummer’s words above assert what he heard in sacramental confession.

A second serious seal problem lurks here: the seal generally embraces not just the sinner-and-the-sin, but also, among other things, the penance(s) imposed, Davis III: 322 “unless it is a trivial penance such as any penitent might receive”; Codice Commentato 983; Halligan 242. Hummer appears to have identified the penance he imposed on McGuire, a penance not “such as any penitent might receive”, and one apparently not knowable from non-sacramental sources.

Yet a third problem, finally, arises in that, in the article linked to above, and in this article on a different case, Hummer seems to be admitting that he confers the Sacrament of Anointing on condemned prisoners. If so, this practice is excluded by the text of law and is widely rejected by canonical commentary thereon. Canon 1004 § 1; GB&I Comm 546; Halligan 348.

The seal of confession is jealously guarded in the Church and the correct celebration of the sacraments is of concern to good ecclesiastical leadership. The issues raised by Fr. Hummer’s essay on his pastoral practices show that questions concerning the seal of Confession are not merely academic, but arise in real life. I think they require careful examination by qualified Church officials.

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