Vatican says priests must defend seal of Confession ‘to the shedding of blood’

By Diane Montagna
July 05, 2019

Rome - Priests are called to defend the seal of Confession even to the point of “shedding blood,” the Vatican has said amid increasing pressure from secular authorities to force clergy to reveal what they hear during the sacrament.

In a note released this week by the Apostolic Penitentiary (the tribunal of the Roman curia tasked with overseeing matters related to the internal forum), Cardinal Mauro Piacenza said “the confessor’s defense of the sacramental seal, if it were necessary usque ad sanguinis effusionem, represents not only an act of dutiful ‘loyalty’ towards the penitent, but much more: a necessary witness – a ‘martyrdom’ — given directly to the salvific uniqueness and universality of Christ and the Church,” i.e. to the sacredness of the sacrament.

Cardinal Piacenza, who serves as Major Penitentiary, said the Vatican tribunal considered it “urgent” to reaffirm the “importance” and promote “a better understanding” of the seal of confession, which today he said is “widely understood or even, in some cases, opposed.”

The new Vatican document comes in the wake of Australia and the California state Senate advancing legislation which seeks to force Catholic priests to violate the seal of Confession in certain circumstances.    

Nature and origin of the sacramental seal

Commenting on the nature and origin of the sacrament of Penance in this week’s note, Cardianal Piacenza reaffirmed that “the inviolable secrecy of Confession” comes directly from “revealed divine law” and is rooted in “the very nature of the sacrament, to the point of admitting no exception in the ecclesial or, even less, in the civil sphere.” 

“In the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” he said, “the very essence of Christianity and of the Church is enclosed: the Son of God became man to save us and decided to involve, as a ‘necessary instrument’ in this work of salvation, the Church and, in her, those whom he chose, called and constituted as his ministers.”

To express this truth, the cardinal said 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 ‘draws us into himself’ and allows us to unite, he unites us with his ‘I’,” he said. “It is this union with his ‘I’ that is realized in the words of the consecration.”

The Italian cardinal explained that the same is true for the “I absolve you” [Ego te absolvo] a penitent hears in confession. “None of us can absolve sins – it is the ‘I’ of Christ, of God, who alone can absolve.”

The cardinal pointed out that “the priest confessor, acting in persona Christi capitis,” therefore “knows the sins of the penitent ‘not as a man, but as God.’"

Expounding on the point, Cardinal Piacenza said: 

In fact, the priest learns of the sins of the penitent ‘non ut homo, sed ut Deus— not as a man, but as God,” to the point that he simply “does not know” what was said to him in confession, because he did not hear it as a man but, precisely, in the name of God. The confessor could, therefore, also “swear,” without any prejudice to his own conscience, that he “does not know” what he knows only as God’s minister. By its peculiar nature, the sacramental seal even binds the confessor “interiorly,” to the point that he is forbidden from voluntarily remembering and he is required to suppress any involuntary memory of it.

Pointing to the divine origin of the sacraments, the cardinal said: “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 lives and saves them.”

This, he said, is the reason why priests are called, if necessary, to defend the secret of the content of Confession “to the shedding of blood,” not only through “loyalty to the penitent,” but, moreover, “out of respect for the sanctity of the sacrament.”

The cardinal also noted that the seal of confession cannot be waved even if a penitent agrees to or demands that its content be disclosed. 

“The secrecy of confession is not an obligation imposed from the outside, but rather an intrinsic requirement of the sacrament and, as such, cannot be dissolved even by the penitent,” the Major Penitentiary explained. “Once the sacrament has been celebrated, [the penitent] does not have the power to relieve the confessor of the obligation of secrecy, because this duty comes directly from God,” he said.

“The penitent does not speak to the confessor as a man, but to God, so to stake a claim to what rightfully belongs to God would be a sacrilege,” he added. 

Cardinal Piacenza stressed that, given the divine and supernatural origin of the sacrament of Confession, its seal cannot be compared to “professional secrecy required by doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers, etc.” It is “essential to insist” on their incomparability, he said, “in order to prevent secular laws from applying to the seal, which is inviolable, the exceptions legitimately applied to professional secrecy.”

He said any “political action” or “legislative initiative” aimed at “forcing” priests to violate the sacramental seal would therefore constitute “an unacceptable offence against the libertas Ecclesiae” [liberty of the Church], which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God.”

“It would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, which legally underpins all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors,” he said. “Violating the seal would be tantamount to violating the poor man who is in the sinner.”

Sacramental seal under attack

In March, the Australian Capital Territory passed legislation requiring everyone in the territory to report allegations of sexual abuse, including Catholic priests who hear of the allegation in the confessional. 

Shortly after the legislation passed, Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn issued a statement saying that priests will not violate the seal of Confession despite the new law.  “In the unlikely case of unreported child abuse being disclosed during confession,” he said “priests will, without breaching the seal of Confession, take the opportunity to encourage and assist the person to report to civil authorities.”

A similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 360, is currently being reviewed in the California State assembly. Archbishop JoséGomez of Los Angeles called the bill “an unacceptable violation of our religious freedoms.” The California archbishop said it “denies the sanctity of confession to every priest in the state and to thousands of Catholics who work with priests in parishes and other Church agencies and ministries.”

To those who would suggest that the refusal to violate the seal makes a priest complicit in evil, Cardinal Piacenza said in this week’s note that the sacramental seal and the sanctity of Confession “can never constitute some form of connivance with evil.”

“On the contrary,” he insisted, “they represent the only true antidote to evil that threatens man and the whole world; they are the real possibility of abandoning oneself to God’s love, of allowing oneself to be converted and transformed by this love, learning to correspond concretely to it in one’s own life.” 

“In the presence of sins that constitute a type of crime, it is never allowed to impose on the penitent, as a condition for absolution, the obligation to turn himself in to civil justice.” 

At the same time, he added, “sincere repentance, together with the firm intention to amend and not to repeat the evil committed, belongs to the very ‘structure’ of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as a condition for its validity.” 

“If a penitent who has been a victim of the evil of others is present, it would be the duty of the confessor to instruct him about his rights, as well as about the concrete juridical instruments to be used to report the fact in the civil and/or ecclesiastical forum and to invoke its justice,” the head of the Vatican tribunal explained.

The sacrament of Confession was instituted by Christ to be a “safe harbor of salvation for sinner,” Cardinal Piacenza said. “If trust in the seal were to be defrauded, the faithful would be discouraged to access the sacrament of Reconciliation, which would obviously lead to serious damage to souls.”

“It is precisely this concern for the salus animarum [salvation of souls] that moves the Church to establish the most severe penalties for those who violate the seal,” he said.


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