A Sacred Trust Threatened: Breaking the Seal of Confession

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A Sacred Trust Threatened Breaking the Seal of Confession
The seal of confession has long been an essential aspect of the sacrament of Penance whereby the sinner frees himself from the bondage of sin. Recent legislation threatens to break the sacred trust between penetant and confessor, undermining a 2000 year-old tradition.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”

These opening words of confession constitute a sublime act of humility that marks the lives of so many Catholics.

In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, a renewed emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance, the sacrament whereby the Church invites the sinner to reform his life and progress in virtue, would be a natural solution to a crisis that has put everything in disarray.

Dissident reformers, however, don’t see it that way and are adding to the confusion. They appear intent upon changing the Church and see confession as a target rather than a solution. Ironically, some of the same critics who accuse the Church of having broken trust in the scandals now want to break the priest’s most sacred trust, the Seal of Confession.

States Seek to Change the Church

The growing cry for revealing confession testimony is taking the form of legislation heralded as a way to “protect the children.” In fact, Catholic activists and victims’ advocate groups are pressuring state legislatures to enact laws that will force priests to break the Seal of Confession in abuse cases.

In an atmosphere of intense media hype, legislators, many of whom are not Catholic, are accommodating these very vocal constituents and introducing an assortment of bills.

To their credit, legislatures in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, and Kentucky have rejected such attempts. Nevertheless, the effort continues. In early March, new anti-Seal bills were introduced in Nevada and Florida, and in New Hampshire a bill entered in January will soon be debated.

It should be noted that such measures have no precedent in American law. In the United States, the government has always considered what has been said between a priest and a penitent in confession as sacred and inviolable. It was part of the guarantee of religious freedom.

That guarantee now faces a grave threat.

A Sacred Trust Threatened Breaking the Seal of Confession
Illegalizing the seal of confession would not only undermine the sacrament, but force priests to become “mandated reporters” of the state.

A Profound Misunderstanding

The cry to remove the Seal of Confession shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Sacrament of Penance. This is hardly surprising, for from the beginning shoddy theology has plagued the sexual abuse scandals. All too often, those proposing solutions have only a superficial knowledge of Catholic issues.

To many observers, confession is but glorified spiritual counseling much like any professional counseling. Yet, ironically, even secular professionals enjoy confidentiality with their patients. Many of the new bills now seek to strip priest and clergy of this same right and turn them into “mandated reporters” of the State.

Confession with Christ

What opponents of confession fail to realize is that confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality or secrecy. Confession is a supernatural affair. When a person confesses his sins, the priest is merely the minister, acting in the person of Christ. In reality, it is Christ who forgives the sins, and the priest has no right to reveal anything that is confessed to Christ.

Breaking the seal of confession would turn Christ into a “mandated reporter” of the State.

Sacred Trust Established

One condition for confession to be effective is the existence of a sacred trust between the priest and the penitent.

Sins that are forgiven are consigned to the person’s past. They are only forgiven if the sinner is sorry for them and resolves to make amends. This can happen only in an atmosphere where the sinner fears nothing from the priest and has the certainty that his sins cannot be revealed. For this reason, confessionals traditionally had screens to protect the penitent’s anonymity and lessen the possibility of the priest associating a “face” with a confession.

A Serious Obligation

The moral obligation of priests who hear confession is so great that the Church’s Code of Canon Law qualifies it as “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 cannot use the knowledge he gains in the confession even to save his own life or reputation or to refute a false accusation. He cannot even say what he did not hear in confession.

To safeguard this sacred trust, the Church imposes the highest of sanctions. Should a confessor directly violate the Seal of Confession, he incurs automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See (Code of Canon Law, no. 1388.1).

The bills now being considered would force priests to violate the law since, in these cases, God’s law supersedes civil law. To illustrate the importance of the Seal of Confession, both Cardinal McCarrick of Washington and Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore “promised to go to jail rather than obey a law requiring them to break the seal of the sacrament” (CNS, March 7, 2003).

Priest Prefers Death to Betrayal

Saint John Nepomucene (1340–1393), vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague, was a martyr for the Seal of Confession when he refused to reveal to King Wenceslaus IV the contents of the queen’s confession.

Confessors under Communism and Nazism suffered prison, torture, and execution rather than break the sacramental seal.

The Threat Within

The greatest threat to the Seal of Confession does not come from media reporters or non-Catholic legislators. The greatest threat comes from within.

Many activists of the Catholic left, galvanized by the sexual abuse scandals, are proving to be major proponents of mandated reporting. Groups such as Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) are actively seeking such laws. These organizations seem to hold a vision of the Sacrament wherein the Seal of Confession is just another senseless rule instituted by a male hierarchy to control the faithful. “The Church uses the rule as yet another way to protect themselves and continue the great web of secrecy,” said SNAP’s Phil Saviano in an interview with WorldNetDaily.1

While not speaking officially for the organization, Voice of the Faithful member Anne Coughlin is almost single-handedly responsible for pressuring for the New Hampshire bill against the Seal. She admits “she has no evidence whatsoever to show that priests in New Hampshire are being told in the confessional of crimes against children: ‘I can’t prove that ever happened. But I’m absolutely convinced that it has.’”2

A Sacred Trust Threatened Breaking the Seal of Confession
Despite a total lack of “smoking gun” evidence that breaking confession’s seal would protect children, Church reformers are intent on promoting their agenda.

No Smoking Gun

Perhaps that is the most disturbing aspect of the legal measures now being discussed. There is no evidence at all that eliminating the Seal of Confession would help protect children. There are no credible studies to indicate that turning priests into mandated reporters would stop child abuse.

Quite to the contrary, the very nature of the Sacrament would lead one to believe that abusers who so heinously have committed crimes will simply stay away from Confession.

American TFP Campaign

Responding to the efforts to remove the Seal of Confession, the American TFP’s The Church Shall Prevail campaign is mobilizing friends and supporters.

“We hope this campaign will mobilize all American Catholics,” said Thomas McKenna, campaign director. “The plain truth is that New Hampshire is the battlefield where the future of the confessional is being decided.”

Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., has invited Catholics to join the campaign. Recalling past attempts to break the Seal, Bishop Baker encouraged members, stressing that “your assistance and participation now will assure that this unjust and shortsighted attack on one of our Sacraments will once again be repelled.”

The American TFP’s “Crusade for Confession” is yet one more step to respond to the scandals and the democratic reforms that threaten the Church. Structural and systemic changes like eliminating the Seal are exactly the kind of reforms foreseen in the TFP’s latest book, I Have Weathered Other Storms (To purchase your copy of I Have Weathered Other Storms, click here).

Until today, the state had absolutely no say in what sins a priest must or must not report to civil authorities, because the Seal was absolute. It was between the priest, the penitent, and God. The Church Shall Prevail campaign hopes American Catholics will react to keep it that way.


  1. Paul Sperry, “Priest hiding behind confession seal,” 6/13/02 http://www.wnd.com/news/Article_ID=27954
  2. “Catholics Could Lose Seal of Confession,” http://www.newsmax.com/showinside.shtml?a=2003/1/25/141548, 1/25/2003.

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