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Analysis: The Church in France must uphold the confessional seal

By Fr. Gerald E. Murray for CNA

null / Pleuntje via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

New York City, N.Y., Oct 13, 2021 / 17:10 pm (CNA).

The French bishops’ conference has seemingly tried to walk back the straightforward comments of the Bishop of Reims, who recently reiterated that the inviolability of the seal of confession, deriving from divine law, supersedes any law of the French Fifth Republic directing that it be broken.

The bishops’ comments came shortly after a report estimated that in France 216,000 children were abused by clerics, monks, or nuns from 1950 to 2020. The report recommended that the confessional seal be reconsidered in relation to abuse.

Below is an analysis of the situation written by Fr. Gerald E. Murray, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who is pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church and who was awarded a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University:

The French Bishops Conference issued a statement on October 12, 2021 following a meeting between the President of the Conference, Bishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort and the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin.

On October 6 Moulins-Beaufort had told France Info: “The confessional secret is and will remain an imperative for us and as such it is above the laws of the Republic.” The October 12 Statement apologized for Moulins-Beaufort’s defense of the supremacy of the secrecy of the confessional to any laws of the state: “Bishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort was able to discuss with Mr. Gerald Darmanin the clumsy phrasing of his response on France Info last Wednesday morning. The State has as its task to organize social life and regulate public order. For us Christians, faith appeals to the conscience of each person, she calls us to seek the good tirelessly, something which cannot be done without respecting the laws of his country.”

The Statement continued: “The widescale extent of sexual violence and assaults on minors revealed by the report of the CIASE demands of the Church that she restudy her practices in the light of this reality. Work is thus needed to reconcile the nature of confession and the necessity of protecting children.”

The apology is remarkable. Christians are called to respect the just laws of the State, and to resist unjust laws. The State has no right to interfere with the sacramental discipline of the Church. The relation between God and man in the administration of the sacraments of the  Church is not subject to state interference. That is a plain violation of the religious liberty of French Catholics.

Even more remarkable is the claim that the Church needs to “restudy’ (in French relire) her practice of safeguarding the secrecy of the confessional. No change in this ironclad discipline is possible. The nature of this sacrament, in which the penitent reveals his conscience by telling his sins to the priest and then receives absolution, requires that the priest make no revelation of those sins which he comes to know only in consideration of his divinely granted power to forgive those sins which the penitent has owned up to and repented of knowing that his confession will remain secret. His avowal of his sins is between him and God; the priest is God’s instrument and must keep silent about what he learns. He should instruct the penitent to own up to any crimes he may have committed by surrendering to the police, but he cannot go any further than that and must uphold the seal of confession.

The October 6 remarks of Bishop Moulins-Beaufort are unremarkable, and in no way clumsy, as they reflect the constant teaching and practice of the Church. The defense of the sacrament of Penance necessarily includes the inviolability of the seal of confession. Canon 983 states: “The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches [#1467]: “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal,’ because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.”

The pressure to deal with the horrible revelation of widespread sexual abuse of minors by priests in France must not lead to an attempt by the French bishops to destroy the absolute inviolability of the seal of confession.

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  1. It is futile to require a priest to report a confessed crime. If it were known that the priest might do so, no one would make such a confession. Moreover, someone with such a serious sin would seek a confessional with a confessor who could not see him and so not identify him. To require the priest to report such confessions is simply to dry up the confessional as a recourse for a serious sinner.

    • “It is futile to require a priest to report a confessed crime. If it were known that the priest might do so, no one would make such a confession.”

      This is the key to the whole issue. Anyone with common sense should realize that this is exactly what would occur.

  2. One priest on the radio here in the US stated that any priest who divulges a person’s confession is instantaneously excommunicated.

  3. Thank you Fr Murray! This analysis is very clear as far as it goes, but a further point should be addressed: What is the confessor’s obligation regarding other information received through confession? The canons cited seem to refer only to sins confessed by the penitent. A child may reveal in confession that he or she has been abused. I believe in such a case the priest is obligated to maintain secrecy, but would appreciate an explanation.

  4. Excerpt:
    “sacraments of the Church is not subject to state interference.”

    How does one know if the priest behind the confessional screen is not a pedophile? Does the sacrament of penance protect the rapist from civil law?

    • As to the first question, how do we know that you are not?, (thus irrelevant).
      As to the second question, catechesis is obviously lacking here. The Sacrament ‘protects’ the rapist from Hell. You can still send them to prison.

      It’s curious how the enemies of the Church twist words to deliver accusations disguised as inquiries. Fork-ed tongue of the ‘wyrm’?

  5. Bring back the confessional! I much prefer the traditional “anonymity” that the screen provides… to say nothing of the insular feeling that a wall provides.

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