On the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal

By Cardinal Mauro Piacenza
Holy See Press Office
July 01, 2019

[Note: The following is the Google translation of the first paragraphs of the original Italian document.]

"With the Incarnation the Son of God has united in a certain way with every man"[1] ; with his gestures and his words, he illuminated his highest and inviolable dignity; in himself, dead and risen, he restored fallen humanity, overcoming the darkness of sin and death; to those who believe in him he opened the relationship with his Father; with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he consecrated the Church, a community of believers, as his true body and participated in his own prophetic, royal and priestly power, so that he would be in the world as the extension of his own presence and mission, announcing to men of all times the truth, guiding them to the splendor of its light, allowing their life to be truly touched and transfigured.

In this time of human history so troubled, the growing techno-scientific progress does not seem to correspond to an adequate ethical and social development, but rather a real cultural and moral "involution" which, forgetting about God - if not hostile - becomes incapable of recognizing and of respect, in every sphere and at every level, the essential coordinates of human existence and, with them, of the very life of the Church.

"If technical progress does not correspond to progress in the ethical formation of man, in the growth of the interior man [...] , then it is not progress, but a threat to man and the world"[2] . Also in the field of private and mass-media communications the "technical possibilities" grow out of proportion, but not love for the truth, the commitment in his research, the sense of responsibility before God and men; a worrying disproportion between means and ethics is outlined. Communicative hypertrophy seems to turn against the truth and, consequently, against God and against man; against Jesus Christ, God made man, and the Church, its historical and real presence.

A certain "craving" for information has spread in recent decades, almost regardless of their real reliability and opportunity, to the point that the "world of communication" seems to want to "replace" reality, both by conditioning perception and by manipulating its understanding . From this tendency, which can take on the disturbing traits of morbidity, unfortunately the ecclesial structure itself, which lives in the world and sometimes assumes the criteria, is not immune. Even among believers, frequently, precious energies are employed in the search for "news" - or real "scandals" - suited to the sensitivity of certain public opinion, with goals and objectives that certainly do not belong to the theandric nature of the Church. All this to the grave detriment of the announcement of the Gospel to every creature and the needs of the mission.

In fact, invoking the judgment of public opinion as the last tribunal, information of all kinds is made known too often, also concerning the most private and confidential spheres, which inevitably touch the life of the Church, induce - or at least favor - rash judgments unlawfully and irreparably damage the good reputation of others, as well as the right of every person to defend their reputation (cf. can. 220 CIC). In this scenario, the words of Saint Paul to the Galatians sound particularly current: "For you, brothers, have been called to freedom. Provided that this freedom does not become a pretext for living according to the flesh [...] . But if you bite and devour each other, look at least not to destroy each other completely "( Gal 5,13-15).

In this context, a certain worrying "negative prejudice" towards the Catholic Church seems to assert itself, whose existence is culturally presented and socially re-understood, on the one hand, in the light of the tensions that can occur within the same hierarchy and, on the other, starting from the recent scandals of abuse, horribly perpetrated by some members of the clergy. This prejudice, oblivious to the true nature of the Church, to its authentic history and to the real, beneficial incidence that it has always had and has in human life, sometimes translates into the unjustifiable "claim" that the Church herself, in certain matters, come to conform its own legal order to the civil systems of the states in which it finds itself living, as the only possible "guarantee of correctness and rectitude".

In the face of all this, the Apostolic Penitentiary considered it appropriate to intervene, with this Note , to reaffirm the importance and promote a better understanding of those concepts, typical of ecclesial and social communication, which today seem to have become more foreign to public opinion and sometimes to the same civil legal systems: the sacramental seal, the confidentiality inherent in the internal extra-sacramental forum, the professional secrecy, the criteria and the limits proper to any other communication.

1. Sacramental seal
Recently, speaking of the sacrament of Reconciliation, the Holy Father Francis wished to reaffirm the indispensability and the unavailability of the sacramental seal: "Reconciliation itself is a good that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded with all its moral and juridical strength with the sacramental seal. It, although not always understood by the modern mentality, is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the penitent's freedom of conscience; which must be certain, at any time, that the sacramental conversation will remain in the secret of confession, between one's own conscience that opens to the grace of God, and the necessary mediation of the priest. The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction, nor can it claim it, on it "[3] .

The inviolable secrecy of the Confession comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, even less, in the civil one. In fact, in the celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation the very essence of Christianity and the Church is enclosed: the Son of God became man to save us and decided to involve, as a "necessary tool" in this work of salvation, the Church and, in it, those whom he has chosen, called and constituted as his ministers.

To express this truth, the Church has always taught that priests, in the celebration of the sacraments, act " in persona Christi capitis ", that is, in the very person of Christ the head: "Christ allows us to use his" I ", we speak in the "I" of Christ, Christ "pulls into himself" and allows us to unite, unites us with his "I". [...] It is this union with his "I" that is realized in the words of consecration. Even in the "I absolve you" - because none of us could absolve from sins - it is the "I" of Christ, of God, who alone can absolve "[4] .

Every penitent who humbly goes to the priest to confess his sins, bears witness to the great mystery of the Incarnation and the supernatural essence of the Church and of the ministerial priesthood, through which the Risen Christ comes to meet men, touches sacramentally - that is, really - their life and saves them. For this reason, the defense of the sacramental seal by the confessor, if necessary usque ad sanguinis effusionem , represents not only an act of dutiful "loyalty" towards the penitent, but much more: a necessary testimony - a "martyrdom" - given directly to the uniqueness and salvific universality of Christ and the Church[5] .

The matter of the seal is currently exposed and regulated by cann. 983-984 and 1388, § 1 of the CIC and of can. 1456 of the CCEO, as well as from n. 1467 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , where significantly we read that the Church "establishes", by virtue of its own authority, rather than that it "declares" - that is, recognizes as an irreducible datum, which derives precisely from the sanctity of the sacrament instituted by Christ - "that every priest who hears confessions is obliged, under very severe penalties, to keep an absolute secret concerning the sins that his penitents confessed to him".

The confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, "to betray the penitent with words or in any other way" (can. 983, § 1 CIC), as well as "A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded. "(can. 984, § 1 CIC). The doctrine also helped to further specify the content of the sacramental seal, which includes "all the sins of both the penitent and others known from the penitent's confession, both mortal and venial, both occult and public, as manifested in order to absolution and therefore known to the confessor by virtue of sacramental science "[6] . The sacramental seal, therefore, regards everything the penitent has accused, even in the event that the confessor does not grant absolution: if the confession is invalid or for some reason the absolution is not given, however the seal must be maintained.

The priest, in fact, becomes aware of the sins of the penitent " non ut homo, sed ut Deus - not as a man, but as God"[7], to such an extent that he simply "does not know" what he was told during confession, because he did not listen to him as a man but, precisely, in the name of God. The confessor could therefore also "swear" , without any prejudice to his conscience, to "not know" what he knows only as a minister of God. Because of his peculiar nature, the sacramental seal manages to bind the confessor also "inwardly", to the point that he is forbidden to remember voluntarily confession and he is obliged to suppress any involuntary recollection of it. The secret deriving from the seal is also held by those who, in any way, have become aware of the sins of confession: "The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy."

The absolute prohibition imposed by the sacramental seal is such as to prevent the priest from speaking the content of the confession with the same penitent, outside the sacrament, "unless explicit, and all the better if not required, consent from the penitent"[8]. The seal therefore goes beyond the availability of the penitent, who, once the sacrament is celebrated, does not have the power to relieve the confessor of the obligation of secrecy, because this duty comes directly from God.

The defense of the sacramental seal and the sanctity of confession can never constitute some form of connivance with evil, on the contrary they represent the only true antidote to evil that threatens man and the whole world; they are the real possibility of surrendering to the love of God, of allowing oneself to be converted and transformed by this love, learning to correspond concretely in one's life. In the presence of sins that integrate offenses, it is never permissible to place the penitent, as a condition for acquittal, the obligation to establish himself for civil justice, by virtue of the natural principle, incorporated in every order, according to which « nemo tenetur se detegere». At the same time, however, it belongs to the very "structure" of the sacrament of Reconciliation, as a condition for its validity, sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to amend and not to reiterate the evil committed. If a penitent is present who has been a victim of the evil of others, it will be the concern of the confessor to instruct him regarding his rights, as well as about the concrete juridical instruments to use to denounce the fact in civil and / or ecclesiastical forum and invoke his justice.

Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at "forcing" the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against the libertas Ecclesiae , which does not receive its legitimacy from individual States, but from God; it would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors. Breaking the seal would be tantamount to violating the poor who is in the sinner.

2. Internal extra-sacramental forum and spiritual direction
The juridical-moral sphere of the internal forum also includes the so-called “extra-sacramental internal forum”, always hidden, but external to the sacrament of Penance. In it too the Church exercises her mission and saving power: not by forgiving sins, but by giving graces, breaking juridical bonds (such as censorships) and taking care of all that concerns the sanctification of souls and, therefore, the proper sphere , intimate and personal of each believer.

To the internal extra-sacramental forum belongs in a particular way the spiritual direction, in which the individual faithful entrusts his own path of conversion and sanctification to a specific priest, consecrated or lay.

The priest exercises this ministry by virtue of the mission he has of representing Christ, conferred upon him by the sacrament of Orders and exercised in the hierarchical communion of the Church, through the so-called tria munera : the task of teaching, of sanctifying and governing. The laity in virtue of the baptismal priesthood and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the spiritual direction, the believer freely opens the secret of his conscience to the spiritual director / companion, to be oriented and supported in listening to and fulfilling the will of God.

Also this particular area, therefore, demands a certain secrecy ad extra , inherent to the content of spiritual interviews and deriving from the right of every person to respect his own privacy (cf. can. 220 CIC). Although in a merely "analogous" way to what happens in the sacrament of confession, the spiritual director is put to the side of the conscience of the individual believer by virtue of his "special" relationship with Christ, which derives from holiness of life and - if cleric - from the same sacred order received.

As evidence of the special confidentiality accorded to spiritual direction, consider the prohibition, sanctioned by law, of asking not only the opinion of the confessor, but also that of the spiritual director, on the occasion of admission to sacred Orders or, vice versa, for dismissal from the seminary of candidates to the priesthood (cf. can. 240, § 2 CIC; can. 339, § 2 CCEO). In the same way, the 2007 Sanctorum Mater instruction , concerning the carrying out of diocesan or eparchial inquiries in the Causes of Saints, forbids the admission to witness not only confessors, to protect the sacramental seal, but also the spiritual directors of the Servant of God, even for everything they learned in the forum of conscience, outside of sacramental confession[9] .

This necessary confidentiality will be all the more "natural" for the spiritual director, the more he will learn to recognize and "be moved" before the mystery of the freedom of the faithful who, through him, turn to Christ; the spiritual director must conceive his own mission and his own life exclusively before God, in the service of his glory, for the good of the person, of the Church and for the salvation of the whole world.

3. Secrets and other limits inherent to communication
Other than the internal sacramental and extra-sacramental forum, these are the confidences made under the seal of secrecy, as well as the so-called "professional secrets" of which they are in particular possession categories of people, both in civil society and in the ecclesial structure, by virtue of a special office that they carry out for individuals or for the community.

Such secrets, in virtue of natural law, must always be preserved, "except - the Catechism of the Catholic Church states at n. 2491 - the exceptional cases in which the custody of the secret should cause those who confide in them, to whom it is set apart, or to third parties, very serious and avoidable damages only through the disclosure of the truth ».

A special case of secrecy is that of the "pontifical secret", which binds under the oath connected with the exercise of certain offices in the service of the Apostolic See. If the oath of secrecy always binds coram Deo who issued it, the oath connected to the "pontifical secret" have as its ultimate rationale the public good of the Church and the salus animarum . It presupposes that this good is the very requirements of salus animarum, including therefore the use of information that does not fall under the seal, can and must be correctly interpreted by the Apostolic See alone, in the person of the Roman Pontiff, whom Christ the Lord constituted and placed as the visible principle and foundation of the unity of faith and of the communion of the whole Church[10].

As regards the other areas of communication, both public and private, in all its forms and expressions, the wisdom of the Church has always indicated as a fundamental criterion the "golden rule" pronounced by the Lord and reported in the Gospel of Luke: "What you want men to do to you, you also do it to them "( Lk 6:31). In this way, in the communication of truth as in silence with regard to it, when the questioner had no right to know it, it is always necessary to conform his life to the precept of fraternal love, having the good and safety of others before his eyes, respect for private life and the common good[11].

As a particular duty of communicating the truth, dictated by fraternal charity, one cannot fail to mention the "fraternal correction", in its various degrees, taught by the Lord. It remains the reference horizon, where necessary and according to what the concrete circumstances allow and require: "If your brother commits a fault against you, go and admonish him between you and him alone; if he listens to you, you will have gained your brother; if he doesn't listen, take one or two more people with you, because everything is solved by the word of two or three witnesses . If he does not listen to them, tell the community "( Mt18,15-17).

In a time of mass communication, in which all information is "burned" and with it, unfortunately, also a part of people's lives, it is necessary to re-learn the power of speech, its constructive power, but also its destructive potential; we must be vigilant so that the sacramental seal is never violated by anyone and the necessary confidentiality connected to the exercise of the ecclesial ministry is always jealously guarded, having as its sole horizon the truth and the integral good of persons.

Let us invoke from the Holy Spirit, for the whole Church, an ardent love for the truth in every area and circumstance of life; the ability to preserve it in its entirety in the proclamation of the Gospel to every creature, the willingness to martyrdom to defend the inviolability of the sacramental seal, as well as the prudence and wisdom necessary to avoid any instrumental and erroneous use of that information proper to private, social life and ecclesial, which can turn into an offense against the dignity of the person and the Truth itself, which is always Christ, Lord and Head of the Church.

In the jealous custody of the sacramental seal and the necessary discretion linked to the internal extra-sacramental forum and to the other acts of ministry a particular synthesis shines between the Petrine and Marian dimensions in the Church.

With Peter, the bride of Christ guards, until the end of history, the institutional ministry of the "power of the keys"; like Mary Most Holy, the Church preserves "all these things in her heart" ( Lk 2,51b), knowing that in them the light that illuminates every man is reverberated and that, in the sacred space between personal conscience and God, it must be preserved , defended and guarded.

The Supreme Pontiff Francesco, on 21 June 2019, approved the present Note, and ordered its publication.

Given in Rome, from the seat of the Apostolic Penitentiary, June 29, year of the Lord 2019, on the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Mauro Card. Piacenza


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