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What is the seal of confession? A Q&A with Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

CNA Staff   By CNA Staff

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary / / Gianluigi Persi (public domain).

Vatican City, Oct 15, 2021 / 04:30 am (CNA).

The release this month of a watershed report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in France has sparked another debate over the secrecy of confession.

The Catholic Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is obliged, under the severest legal penalties, to keep absolute secrecy concerning everything learned in the context of sacramental confession.

French law has long recognized the Church’s strict rules about the confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but the government is contemplating amending the law for confessors, as it has done with lawyers and other secular professionals, who are required to report child sexual abuse if they learn of it.

In comments to the National Catholic Register on Wednesday, the spokeswoman for France’s bishops’ conference, Karine Dalle, clarified that the country’s Catholic leaders do not intend to compromise on the Church’s teaching that the confessional seal is sacrosanct.

To learn more about the seal of confession, ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian partner agency, spoke to Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary.

ACI Stampa: Why is the seal of confession so important? What is it and where does the law come from?

MP: The nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation consists in the personal encounter of the sinner with the Merciful Father. The object of the sacrament is the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and with the Church, and the restoration of filial dignity by virtue of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.

The Church’s teaching on confession is briefly presented in paragraph 1422 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which collects the teachings in Vatican II’s [constitution] Lumen gentium and canon 959 of the Code of Canon Law.

It is essential to emphasize that the Sacrament of Reconciliation, being an act of worship, cannot and must not be confused with a psychological session or a form of counseling. As a sacramental act, this sacrament must be protected in the name of religious freedom and any interference must be considered illegitimate and harmful to the rights of conscience.

So the priest hearing confessions must keep the seal, but at the same time, shouldn’t he help report crimes to the ecclesial and civil authorities? How can he do that?

Everything said in confession from the moment in which this act of worship begins with the sign of the cross to the moment in which it ends, either with absolution or with absolution denied, is under absolutely inviolable seal. All information referred to in confession is “sealed” because it is given to God alone, so it is not usable by the priest confessor (cf. canons 983-984 CIC; 733-734 CCEO).

Even in the specific case in which, for example, during confession a minor reveals that he has been abused, the conversation must, by its nature, always and in every situation, remain sealed. This does not prevent the confessor from strongly recommending that the minor himself report the abuse to his parents, educators, and the police.

In the case that someone confesses to having committed abuse, if the confessor has no doubt about the penitent disposition of the person asking for absolution it cannot be denied or postponed (cf. canon 980). There is certainly a duty to make amends for a perpetrated injustice and to sincerely commit to preventing the abuse from happening again, resorting, if necessary, to competent help, but these serious duties linked to the path of conversion do not involve self-denunciation. The confessor must in any case invite the penitent to a deeper reflection and to evaluate the consequences of his actions, especially when another person has been suspected or unjustly condemned.

How can we respond to bishops who are tempted, even if for a just cause, to concede a part of the obligation of secrecy in confession? How does the seal of confession differ from professional secrecy or confidentiality?

Comparing the sacramental seal to the professional secrecy which, for example, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, etc. are required to keep, must be absolutely avoided.

Apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there is no [professional] secret that cannot yield to requirements to the contrary established by law or by a judge, by ethical codes or by the interested party who authorizes its disclosure.

The secret of confession, on the other hand, is not an obligation imposed from outside, but an intrinsic requirement of the sacrament, and as such cannot be dissolved even by the penitent himself (cf. canon 1550, §2, n.2 CIC; canon 1231, §2, n.2 CCEO).

The penitent does not speak to the human confessor, but to God, so that to take possession of what belongs to God would be sacrilege. The safeguard of the sacrament, instituted by Christ to be a sure haven of salvation for all sinners, is accepted.

If the faithful lose confidence in the seal, reception of the sacrament of confession could nosedive, causing very serious damage to souls and to the whole work of evangelization.

It is essential to insist that the seal of confession cannot be compared to professional secrecy, in order to prevent secular legislation from applying the justifiable exceptions of professional secrecy to the inviolable secrecy of confession.

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  1. In today’s world, which harbors much hatred against our Catholic belief (and its members), it might serve us well to make available, besides the present format, a silent listing of sins. As Fr. says “the Sacrament of Reconciliation consists in the personal encounter of the sinner with the Merciful Father.” After the confession, the priest asks the penitent if he/she is sincerely sorry for all the sins committed against our Lord, his Church and all people. It is only then that he should say that the sins are forgiven and follow that with the absolution. So, the only addition made here is the inclusion of the silent confession.
    Why will this help? People are so different in nature. There are many who are too scrupulous or timid, or have concerns about the priest. It will allow them the peace of mind that reconciliation with our loving Redeemer provides. How many lapsed Catholics will return is anybody’s guess. A silent confession also helps the priest.

    • A silent confession may be more comfortable for the penitent, but also prohibits the Confessor who is now at this time ‘Persona Christi’, from being being able to offer spiritual guidance. The silence would be of no benefit or serve mo useful purpose to the penitent. Why go to confession at all? This protestant concept would defeat the sacrament of Confession completely.

      • PJ, I appreciate the nature and significance of this sacrament. I have been doing it from the age of seven and I am now in my eighties. I was fortunate to have priests in my boarding school who were excellent teachers. I have no idea what precisely is the protestant way, but that should have nothing to do with it. This is not an image issue, nor is it a us versus them one.
        My suggestion came out of a desire to help those who are too scrupulous or timid. The best example we have of repentance and reconciliation was presented by our Redeemer and Founder. Yes, I am referring to the Prodigal Son. The two critical features in the wonderful reconciliation are the Repentance on the part of the sinner and Forgiveness on the part of the one who was wronged. No listing of sins was deemed necessary. Love is not interested in that. I believe that if anything was to interfere with a person opening up his or her soul to God it might prevent a true confession. I admit that this will not be acceptable, especially to priests, and so we will have the “Man is made for the Sabbath” response.

        • Mal the Council of Trent made confession of sins [in the plural] to the priest, a man – as Christ was a man questioned of his authority to forgive sins – the priest his representative alter Christus, due to the practice of many varieties of private confession many questionable. First, few of us have perfect contrition as did the Prodigal. Remember Mal the Prodigal confessed directly to his father acknowledging his sins. Although we assume the Prodigal had all his sins in mind, many do not recognize all their sins as sins, or hold back in admission. Private confession in an emergency is acceptable, confession to a priest offers absolution even when imperfect in sorrow, and disposes us to admit specific sins. A general act of contrition [except in emergencies, war, or the approach of death] doesn’t cultivate in us either the recognition of specific sins or the resolution to confess to Christ and amend our life. This conscious awareness is better realized by confessing to the priest. As Augustine would say God already knows what we wish to say, but wants us to ask him [to make a definitive act] for his forgiveness. That conscious act of specification [of sins] is a true human act within the Church and by the Church Christ’s Mystical Body. Wherever two [or more] invoke the Father he assures us he is present. Finally, lest we forget Christ’s words to the Apostles, Whatever sins you forgive will be forgiven [or withhold be withheld].

    • A priest in confession is a persona Christi as in every Sacrament except Matrimony where the Bride and Groom are the Ministers to each other.
      Therefore, a silent confession is inadmissable as you are confessing to God through the Ministerial Power given to the Priest at his Ordination.

    • Our words, our confession, derive from The Word, through whom the material world was made. God gave the first man the ability to communicate. He also gave man the power to name all elements of creation. God knows the tendency of man to ‘hide’ speech. When Adam and Eve sinned, their human nature tried to inhibit their shame and their sin from being manifest. God required they give an account. God himself provides us His example.

      When we wish to be cured of illness, we remove our clothes for the doctor’s observation. When we require healing through surgery, we submit our inner anatomy to the surgeon’s knife. Moses removed his shoes when approaching the burning bush. We reveal our faith and our sins by our actions. Speech is an action.

      The Church has held (not sure of its validity) general confession services where crowds have received general group absolution for venial sins, but since the 7th Century, the Church has required that mortal sins be spoken aloud. Venial sin also is healed and forgiven at the Mass.

      Our word signify and point to hidden realities. Words matter in making the unknown known. Just as The Word has revealed the nature and love of God, our words reveal that we need his forgiving love and we should not be ashamed to ask Him for all that we need.

    • A silent confession of mortal sins would fall under the strict requirements of general absolution which then requires the penitent to engage in an auricular confession as soon as possible in order to be valid. This is all unambiguously explained in Canons 960-964 which you should carefully and deliberately review several times, Mal.

      Hard to believe that in eight decades you’ve never learned this but as is so often the case in much of what you post, there are quite a few things you haven’t learned in that time.

    • Can. 1388 §1 A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; he who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the offence.

      §2 Interpreters and the others mentioned in can. 983 §2, who violate the secret, are to be punished with a just penalty, not excluding excommunication.

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