The secrecy of confession is “inviolable,” reminds a note of the Apostolic Penitentiary, approved by Pope Francis and published on June 30, 2019, given that the recent crisis of sexual abuses witnessed the questioning of this secrecy.
At a time of “hypertrophy of communication,” the Penitentiary is anxious about a worrying “negative prejudice” in regard to the Catholic Church, whose existence is culturally presented and socially pieced together, on one hand, in the light of the tensions that can be verified within the hierarchy and, on the other, from the recent abuse scandals, hideously perpetrated by certain members of the clergy.”
So public opinion becomes a “tribunal,” where “the most private and confidential” <information> is made public, leading to careless judgments,” to injure irreparably the reputation of another as well as the right of every person to defend his/her intimacy.” Moreover, there are those that demand of the Church that she conform her juridical system to the civil system of the State where she finds herself, as “unique guarantee” of justice.
In face of this situation, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary, and Monsignor Krzysztof Nykiel, Regent of the Penitentiary, wish to clarify certain concepts “that seem to have become more foreign: the sacramental seal, inherent confidentiality of the extra-sacramental internal forum, the professional secrecy, and the criteria for all communication.
The “Inviolable” Secrecy of Confession
The inviolable secrecy of confession ”does not admit any exception in the ecclesial domain and even less so in the civil domain,” to such a point that confessors are called to defend it to the peril of their life (usque ad sanguinis effusionem), out of loyalty to the penitent and to attest to Salvation. In fact, the priests act “in the person of Christ” and, each time the Sacrament is conferred, Christ’s personal salvation for each man is realized.
The priest, the text continues, on hearing the sins “non ut homo, sed ut Deus — not as man, but as God,” “does not know” what was said to him” in confession “because he did not listen to it as man but in the name of God.” So he can “also ‘swear,’ without any prejudice to his conscience, ‘not to know’ what he knows as minister of God.” Moreover, he is prohibited “to willingly remember” the content of the confession and to mention it with the penitent outside of the Sacrament. Neither does the penitent have the power to release the confessor of this secrecy.
The priest-confessor is never authorized to “betray the penitent in word or in any other way,” specifies the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Canon 983, Paragraph 1), which reminds that the sacramental seal covers “ all that the penitent has accused himself of, also in the case where the confessor does not grant absolution.” If the sins confessed are crimes,” the confessor “is never permitted to impose on the penitent, as a condition for absolution, to bring a civil action.” This condition, in fact, belongs already to the structure of the Sacrament, which calls for “a sincere repentance” with the firm intention not to re-offend.
“All political action or all legislative initiative geared to “force” the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense to the Libertas Ecclesiae, which does not receive her legitimation from States but from God. It would also constitute a violation of religious freedom,” warns the Penitentiary. “To violate the secrecy is equivalent to violating the poor one who is in the sinner.”
Internal Forum, Spiritual Direction, Professional Secrets
The document focuses, moreover, on the question of the “extra-sacramental internal forum,” outside of confession, notably on the issue of “spiritual direction” where “the faithful entrusts his journey of conversion or of sanctification to a priest, a consecrated person or a layman,” “freely” opening “the secret of his conscience,” to be “directed and supported.” This particular domain calls for “a certain confidentiality” stemming from the “right of every person to have his/her intimacy respected.”
Other professional secrets “must be guarded except in the exceptional cases where the retention of the secrets causes the one who confides them, the one who receives them or a third person very grave damages only avoidable by divulging the truth” (CCC 2491).
Among the secrets the Apostolic Penitentiary mentions is the “pontifical secret,” which binds persons occupying certain posts in the service of the Apostolic See, for “the public good of the Church and the salvation of souls.”
In regard to communication, the Church has as fundamental criterion the precept of “brotherly love,” guarding “the good and security of another, respect of private life and the common good.” She also practices “fraternal correction”: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, <so> that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of the two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church” (Matthew 18:15-17).
At a time of mass communication, concludes the Apostolic Penitentiary, “it is necessary to re-learn the force of the word, its constructive power, but also its destructive potential; we must watch so that the sacramental seal is never violated by anyone and so that the necessary confidentiality linked to the exercise of the ecclesial ministry is always jealously protected, having as unique horizon the truth and integral good of persons.”