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Monday, July 14, 2014

The Seal of the Confessional

After reading this article concerning the Louisiana Supreme Court's attempt to jail a priest for refusing to break the seal of the confessional, it occurred to me that people only associate this seal with priests - they fail to associate with lay people. And that is a serious mistake.

Note two pieces of information:
Fr. Bayhi is not accused of any physical or sexual wrongdoing himself, but refuses to confirm whether the girl, who was 12 at the time of the alleged abuse, did confess to him, and what the contents of the alleged confessions were...
In an unusual move, Fr. Bayhi’s diocese — which typically has a policy against commenting on legal cases — released a statement in opposition to the ruling.
“A priest is compelled never to break that seal [of confession],” it says. “Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him. If necessary, the priest would have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty…. A priest/confessor who violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication.”
Note the two elements of the seal of the confessional. A priest not only cannot indicate what sins were confessed, he is not even permitted to indicate that someone went to confession with him.

And lay people are under the same seal. Let us assume, for instance, that through some quirk of remarkably bad luck, I were to hear part or all of someone's confession. I would violate the seal if I were to reveal what I had heard. But I would also violate the seal if I were to indicate that I knew this person had gone to confession at all. And in both cases, I would be subject to the same penalty a priest would be subject to for having broken the seal - automatic excommunication.

Now, let us say I saw Joe Smith in the confessional line. Could I remark on that to someone else? Yes, because I don't necessarily know why he was in line.  Perhaps he only appeared to be in line, but was actually waiting for some event to start. Perhaps he was standing in line to hold a place for someone else. Even if I saw him enter the confessional, I would not necessarily know that he did so in order to confess and receive absolution. Perhaps he and Father had a pre-arranged agreement whereby he was able to receive five minutes of spiritual direction this way, without confession or absolution, because he had no other time in which to arrange it. I don't know.

But insofar as I do know that Joe Smith confessed his sins and received absolution, I am no more permitted to remark on it publicly than any priest would be.  And no priest is permitted to remark on it at all.

Indeed, even speaking in a way that implied I had such knowledge when, in fact, I did not would be a gross violation of Joe's rights as a Catholic. This is between him and Jesus. I am not part of his conversation with God, nor may I pretend that I was.

I cannot say that someone is in a state of grace or not, I cannot publicly imply knowledge of a penitent's reception of absolution. These things are not known by me and I violate the penitent's dignity and the very Truth to pretend that I know either one.

So, let us imagine a hypothetical situation in which a parish staff member was given to understand in some way that someone had gone to confession. Insofar as that parish staff member was given that understanding by a priest, the priest has violated the seal of the confessional. Insofar as that staff member made public his/her understanding, whether actual or implied, of the penitent's reception of absolution, that staff member may well also have violated the seal of the confessional. Insofar as that understanding was made public, both the staff member and the priest responsible for that staff member bear responsibility before the bishop and before God.

Now, we all condemn the sin of child rape. But a priest who commits such a sin is not excommunicated by the very act. True, he is in a state of mortal sin by having knowingly and willfully committed the act, but he is not automatically excommunicated. But breaking the seal of the confessional is a much more heinous sin than even the rape of a child.

Just as a parishioner would be duty-bound to report to the bishop the possibility of impropriety between an ordained man and a child, so much more is a parishioner duty-bound to report the possibility of impropriety concerning the confessional seal.

If I have in any way misunderstood the seal, I would be gladdened to be corrected in the comments. But this is the understanding I was given in my graduate theology training, and this is the understanding every priest I have ever met has communicated to me.

Pray for priests, especially the priests of Louisiana, but also the priests throughout the nation, that they may successfully avoid this most grievous sin. And insofar as any of us laity become aware of the possibility that this sin may have been committed, pray for the laity, that we have the courage to say what needs to be said to the bishop whose responsibility it is to guard the seal of the confessional. For if we stand silent while the confessional seal is being violated, it is worse than if we stood silent while a child was being violated.


Doug Pearson said...

Good reminder for us all Steve, thanks!

Roger Ramjet said...

So if a man passed away, and his wife said to the priest there at the time - "thank goodness he went to confession yesterday." And then the priest reported to others that the deceased had gone to confession just a few days before he died, would any one be excommunicated in that case?

Roger Ramjet said...

Sorry, I guess the better question would be: has anyone violated the seal in this case?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

The man may report his confession to anyone he wants. He mentioned it to his wife, and he is bound to her by sacrament. His wife mentions it to the priest, from whom she seeks spiritual consolation at the death of her spouse. These are all fine.

But unless the priest has reason to believe the man wanted the priest to mention it to the world, the priest is supposed to have the good sense to keep his mouth shut. He is supposed to give good example concerning discussion of the sacrament, and part of that good example is not getting in the habit of discussing the confessional habits of identifiable parishioners, living or dead.

Depending on the exact circumstances surrounding your hypothetical, the priest wouldn't violate the seal of the confessional necessarily, but if he had heard the man's confession, then he has to have the permission of the man to discuss even the fact that the man had gone to confession. Whether he would actually have violated the seal in this instance cannot be easily determined from the paucity of the detail provided.

But he certainly violated prudence and good judgement by broadcasting this to the parish, or by allowing a parish staff member to comment on whether a Catholic is in "a state of grace" - a condition known only to God, and not even necessarily known to the penitent (recall Joan of Arc's reply when asked that question: "If I am not, may God bring me to it, if I am, may God keep me in it."