In the wake of the awful child abuse scandals, several legislatures throughout the country are considering laws which would require the clergy to inform authorities of any cases of suspected child abuse. Massachusetts enacted such a law last year, but exempted any information that was obtained in the confessional.
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However, several states have introduced similar legislation, including Virginia (where the bill died in committee). Kentucky and New Hampshire have pending legislation to eliminate the priest-penitent privilege. In the United States, what has been said between a priest and a penitent in the Sacrament of Penance has been considered sacred and inviolable, as part of the guarantee of religious freedom.
The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed. While the priest is the minister of the sacrament, Christ is forgiving the sins, and the priest must not reveal to anyone else what has been really confessed to the Lord. Moreover, what sins are forgiven are now in one's past not to be carried into the present via some communication. Therefore, the priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that a person confesses. For this reason, confessionals were developed with screens to protect the anonymity of the penitent and to alleviate the possibility of the priest remembering a “face” with a confession. This secrecy is called “the sacramental seal,” “the seal of the confessional,” or “the seal of confession.” Actually, given the circumstances today, perhaps for the protection of both the priest and the penitent, the practice of “face to face” confession should be halted, except for exceptional circumstances.
The sacramental seal is inviolable. Quoting Canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism states, “It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (no. 2490). A priest, therefore, cannot break the seal to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public calamity. He cannot be compelled by law to disclose a person's confession or be bound by any oath he takes, e.g. as a witness in a court trial. A priest cannot reveal the contents of a confession either directly, by repeating the substance of what has been said, or indirectly, by some sign, suggestion, or action. A Decree from the Holy Office (Nov. 18, 1682) mandated that confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in the confession that would “displease” the penitent or reveal his identity.
Therefore, from the time a person makes the sign of the cross and begins “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” to the last words of absolution, the information exchanged between the priest and the penitent is protected by the sacramental seal. Even if a confession is made in a less formal atmosphere or in a less formal way, if a priest imparts absolution, what he absolves is under the sacramental seal never to be revealed by him.
What happens if a priest violates the seal of confession? The Catechism (no. 1467) cites the Code of Canon Law (no. 1388.1) in addressing this issue, which states, “A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if he does so only indirectly, he is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the offense.” From the severity of the punishment, we can clearly see how sacred the sacramental seal of confession is in the eyes of the Church.
Given this review of the sanctity and inviolability of the sacramental seal, Cardinal McCarrick is correct in telling his priests to ignore such a law. The demands of God's law outweigh the demands of civil law. Civil law which contradicts God's law is unjust and not binding. For instance, abortion is legal in our country; however, because abortion is legal does not make it just and right, because in the light of God's law, abortion is an intrinsically evil act. In the same way, legislatures may promulgate laws which require the breaking of the sacramental seal of confession and judges may imprison priests who disobey such laws; nevertheless, God's law supersedes civil law, and in this case the priest must be civilly disobedient because he cannot break the sacramental seal.
A beautiful story (perhaps embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague. King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened to be the Queen's confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became increasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her conduct. Wencelaus, as king, demanded that St. John break the sacramental seal. Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen's confessions, he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned on March 20, 1393. Similar stories abound, especially in the past century during the awful persecution of the Church under Communism and Naziism, where priests were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because they would not break the sacramental seal.
Each priest realizes that he is the ordained mediator of a very sacred and precious sacrament. He knows that in the confessional, the penitent speaks not so much to him, but through him to the Lord. Therefore, humbled by his position, the priest knows that whatever is said in confession must remain secret at all costs.