VATICAN (CNS): The need for the absolute secrecy of confession “comes directly from revealed divine law and has its roots in the very nature of the sacrament to the point that no exception whatsoever can be admitted in the ecclesial sphere and even less in the civil one,” a new Vatican document said.
The “note of the Apostolic Penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal” was approved by Pope Francis on June 21 and published by the Vatican July 1.
Pope Francis ordered the publication of a document in light of “a worrying negative prejudice” against the Catholic Church, affirming the absolute secrecy of everything said in confession and calling on priests to defend it at all costs, even at the cost of their lives.
The note was signed by Mauro Cardinal Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.
The did not mention any specific proposed legislation, such as that working its way through the California legislature or proposed in Australia, but pointed out that, “Any political action of legislative initiative aimed at breaking the inviolability of the sacramental seal would be an unacceptable offense against the liberty of the Church, which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God.”
The Vatican document explained, “The priest, in fact, comes to know 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 in the confessional because he did not listen as a man, but precisely in the name of God.”
It said, “A confessor’s defense of the sacramental seal, if necessary, even to the point of shedding blood, is not only an obligatory act of allegiance to the penitent but is much more: it is a necessary witness—a martyrdom—to the unique and universal saving power of Christ and his Church.”
The new Vatican document also placed the question of secrecy in the larger context of a “cultural and moral ‘involution’” that seems incapable of “recognising and respecting” essential elements of human existence and life in the Church.
Too often “the judgment of public opinion” is invoked as the highest court and people feel free to publish or broadcast anything with the excuse of letting the public be the judge without concern for a person’s conscience, reputation and right to defend him- or herself, the document pointed out.
“In such a context,” the note said, “there seems to be confirmation of a certain worrying negative prejudice against the Catholic Church,” both because of “the tensions that can be seen within the hierarchy and resulting from the recent scandals of abuse horribly perpetrated by some members of the clergy.”
The prejudice, it said, “sometimes translates into an unjustifiable ‘demand’ that the Church itself, in some matters, conform its own juridical system to the civil laws of the states in which it lives as the only possible ‘guarantee of honesty and integrity’.”
The Catholic Church “always has safeguarded the sacramental seal with all its moral and juridical strength. It is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the freedom of conscience of the penitent,” the note said.
When administering the sacrament of reconciliation, it said, a priest acts not as himself but “in the person of Christ.” Not only is he not free to divulge anything about the confession to anyone, including the penitent outside the confessional, but he even is “obliged to suppress every involuntary memory of it.”
A refusal to reveal what was said in a confession can never be described as complicity with or covering up evil and that confession is “the one real antidote to evil” because it is the place where a person can abandon themselves to God and repent, the note elaborated.
The document specified that when a penitent confesses to a sin that is a crime, the priest can never make turning themselves in a condition of being granted sacramental forgiveness, although sincere repentance and a resolution to not sin again are part of “the very structure” of the sacrament.
When the victim of a crime mentions it in confession, the document said, the confessor should instruct the person about his or her rights and about the practical steps the person can take with both civil and Church authorities to report the crime.
“We must be watchful that the sacramental seal is never violated by anyone and that the necessary reserve connected to the exercise of Church ministry is always jealously safeguarded, having as its only purpose the truth and integral good of the person,” the document said.
The note from the Apostolic Penitentiary said the secrecy extends to communications between a person and their spiritual director when dealing with matters of conscience. In fact, it noted the Church practice that spiritual directors of seminarians, like their confessors, are not permitted to intervene in seminary staff discussions about whether a candidate should be ordained.
The document noted that the same kind of “professional secret” or confidentiality found in relations between some professionals and their clients or patients is valid also for Church officials acting on behalf of the Vatican in certain cases, particularly when the case is covered under “pontifical secret.”