The Sacramental Seal, Sinners, and Saints

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

March 26, 2023

By Dawn Beutner

Mothers and fathers would have good reason to think of child abuse—sexual or otherwise—as the greatest of crimes. Parents, after all, see the physical, emotional, and spiritual fallout from abuse in their children’s lives. Everyone, particularly parents, should be interested in measures that would detect child abuse earlier or prevent it entirely.

It’s therefore not surprising that lawmakers continue to try to find ways to protect children. Since the Catholic priestly scandals erupted two decades ago, there have been periodic attempts by legislators to make sure that those involved in the care of children report acts of child abuse. Most recently, bills in DelawareUtah, and Vermont have been introduced that would force Catholic priests to report child abuse and neglect to the authorities (which is reasonable and permissible to Catholics), even when that sin is revealed in the confessional (which is not).

In general, only non-Catholics—those who don’t understand Catholic sacramental theology or how the Sacrament of Penance is actually practiced—tend to support the latter kind of legislation. However, Father James Connell, a retired Catholic priest who is also a long-time advocate for victims of clerical sexual abuse, recently wrote an article encouraging Delaware residents to support House Bill 74. This legislation would repeal the clergy-penitent privilege in Delaware. Five years ago, Fr. Connell wrote a similar, more detailed article, in which he recommended that the seal of confession should be removed for certain situations, specifically those involving child abuse.

On March 22, Fr. Connell’s bishop, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, made the highly unusual decision of publicly correcting Fr. Connell, pointing out that that the priest had “advocated for the removal of the legal protection of the confessional seal” and that his statements have caused “considerable and widespread unrest.” The archbishop removed Connell’s canonical faculties to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance. After all, based on the priest’s articles, a penitent might wonder what other sins Fr. Connell would feel worthy of reporting to local authorities.

Although Fr. Connell only cited a brief section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which relates to the protection of human life (no. 2266) in his recent article, neither of these articles quote any part of the rather lengthy section of the Catechism which deals with the Sacrament of Penance itself (nos. 1422-1498). The issue of the confessional seal is covered in Catechism, no. 1467, which states:

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. (Emphasis added)

Unfortunately, Fr. Connell and those who want to remove the sacramental seal—even if in only certain circumstances—have forgotten that, as Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us, there is really nothing new under the sun. This is far from the first time in the history of the world that leaders or governments have found it intolerable for Catholics to be able to confess their sins privately to priests. But, as I try to point out in my new book, the example of the most faithful followers of Christ—the saints—can help us understand how to respond to the sin and brokenness we find in our culture today.

Saint John Vianney is the most famous saint associated with the Sacrament of Penance, and he changed the lives of more than the residents of his little village of Ars, France, through that sacrament. But John did not spend up to sixteen hours a day in a confessional because he was concerned about people breaking the laws of France. He did so because he wanted something much more fundamental: to restore people’s relationship with God Himself. Another saint named John is more famously associated with the confessional seal.

This Saint John (c. 1340-1393) was born in Nepomuk, Czech Republic, and is called John Nepomucene today. John Nepomucene was a popular, well-educated priest in Prague. According to tradition, the Czech king, Wenceslaus IV, was a jealous man, and he became convinced that his wife was committing adultery. Since John was the queen’s confessor, the king demanded that John reveal the details of her confession, confirming or denying his suspicions. John refused, and the king ordered him to be thrown into the Vltava River and drowned. For this reason, Saint John Nepomucene is considered a martyr to the value of the seal of confession.1

But John Nepomucene is not the only priest who chose to accept death rather than betray the confidence of his penitents.

Saint Jan Sarkander (1576-1620) was a parish priest in Poland who was captured by Protestant forces near the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. It was well known that Sarkander had the support of a local Catholic baron, so his captors demanded that he divulge the baron’s confessions—and presumably his battle plans. Sarkander was brutally tortured before he died in prison, but he never broke his vow.

Saint Matteo Correa (1866-1927) was a Catholic priest in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. He was able to serve his people as a priest in secret for a time, but eventually the authorities found him. While in prison, he heard the confessions of other prisoners. When he refused to divulge those confessions to the authorities, he was tortured and then executed.

But there’s much more to this issue than the question of whether or not priests should report the crimes they hear about in the confessional.

Whatever your position on the morality of capital punishment, it is a fact that nations have used the death penalty as a means of protecting the innocent from the guilty for millennia. Many saints have dedicated themselves to visiting convicted criminals and speaking to them of God’s love for them and His ocean of mercy and forgiveness. Their goal was to help bring those men and women to repentance before they died and met God face to face.

Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) visited those in prison and even went all the way to the chopping block with a condemned man to constantly reassure him of God’s love. Saint Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860) was an Italian priest who visited death row prisoners and brought fifty-seven of them to repentance for their sins. Even Saint Therese Martin (1873-1897), although she never met the convicted killer Henri Pranzini, prayed and made sacrifices for the condemned man, hoping that he would repent before his execution.

On the other hand, some saints convinced leaders to pardon criminals rather than execute them. Saint Caesarius, bishop of Arles (470-543), for example, talked the king of France into pardoning, not stoning, a man who had falsely accused Caesarius of grave crimes.

The example of the saints helps us see the real issue involved in whether or not to permit any loosening of the sacramental seal. That is, would this change help penitents be reconciled with God? After all, that’s what the sacrament is for, not as a tool for police work.

Put another way, do we believe that child abusers—among all other criminals—are irredeemable and undeserving of Christ’s forgiveness? While Fr. Connell and others are not saying that child abusers cannot be forgiven by God, even this public discussion of possibly removing the clergy-penitent privilege might deter anyone guilty of such a crime from seeking pardon from God through the Sacrament of Penance. Why would someone guilty of this crime go to a priest, knowing it could lead to prison?

On the other hand, a guilty person is much more likely to seek God’s forgiveness in the confessional if he or she knows that the priest is sworn to secrecy. That decision to confess could be the first step in someone’s path to repentance, personal change, and atonement for past sins. Do we want to make that decision harder for anyone guilty of any serious sin?

The saints remind us that we all need forgiveness. And we Catholics can be thankful that, by God’s grace, we can dispose ourselves to be able to receive it, privately, in the Sacrament of Penance.


1 Another tradition, though less popular, claims a different motivation for John’s execution. According to that theory, John sided with the pope, not the king, when the two leaders were arguing over the choice of a new abbot. Wenceslaus then executed John for siding with the Church, not the state. But that is no novelty either. There is no shortage of saints who have died as martyrs for their decision to be, as Saint Thomas More (1478-1535) famously stated at his execution, “the King’s good servant—but God’s first.”