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From the mailbox: a question on the seal of Confession

February 5, 2014

I have some questions about the seal of Confession. Okay.

Last year, a young person told a Catholic priest about a difficult experience. Okay, nothing unusual about that, but such disclosures, not being made for the purposes of seeking reconciliation with God after personal sin (see cc. 959, 987), do not of themselves suggest sacramental Confession or issues related to the seal of Confession.

The priest thought it was a grave matter, informed the pastor, and the bishop was informed, and the matter became public. Well, I can’t assess the prudence of such decisions (whatever exactly they were), but nothing suggests canonical illegality here, at least, nothing related to the seal of Confession, as above.

Later the person claimed to have talked with the priest under the seal of Confession and was shocked that the priest had informed others. Ah, well, although one hears of such things, individuals cannot simply designate conversations with clerics as ‘being under the seal’ nor can priests confer such status to disclosures that are not covered by the seal of Confession. Natural, even grave, obligations of secrecy might well attach to certain communications made in confidence, indeed civil law might even privilege them, but they are not canonical ‘seal’ cases unless the canon law of the seal applies, in which case, however, the canon law of the seal applies in all its force.

Then it was revealed that the person is a Protestant. Okay, that changes nothing I’ve said above.

The official Catholic explanation now seems to be that if a Protestant confesses to a Catholic priest it is not a valid sacramental confession and therefore the seal of Confession need not be observed. Is this tenable? Well, no, it’s not tenable.

First, the mere fact that a Confession was not valid (say for lack of jurisdiction by the confessor) or that it was not completed (say, because the penitent changed his/her mind, or the priest got sick and could not continue) does not obviate the obligation to preserve the seal of Confession. So the ‘official’ explanation clearly does not work in that regard.

Second, Protestants can unquestionably receive the sacrament of Confession validly and licitly under certain circumstances (e.g., c. 844), a fact that illustrates the Church’s radical, if rarely exercised, authority over all the baptized (not just Catholics). If, therefore, in all other respects a given communication satisfied the conditions for the seal of Confession, then the mere fact that the ‘penitent’ was a baptized non-Catholic—and setting aside the possible illiceity of the priest’s sacramental actions—would not, in my opinion, release him from the obligation of preserving the seal. As such, the ‘official’ explanation probably does not work in that regard, either.

But, while the ‘official’ explanation as to why the seal of Confession does not apply in this case seems flawed, as I said above, I don’t see how this was a seal case at all; it does not look like a confessional communication in the first place.

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