The sacredness of the sacramental seal

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The Tasmanian government has decided to move ahead with legislation that if passed by the Legislative Council would require Catholic priests to break the seal of confession.

At the recent Ad Limina meeting for Australian Bishops, the Pope made it clear there can be no exceptions to the inviolability of the seal of confession.

Recently the Pope commented on moves to require priests to break the seal with these words, “Reconciliation itself is a benefit that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded with all her moral and legal might, with the sacramental seal. Although it is not always understood by the modern mentality, it is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the freedom of conscience of the penitent, who must be certain, at any time, that the sacramental conversation will remain within the secrecy of the confessional, between one’s conscience that opens to grace, and God, with the necessary mediation of the priest. The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor can lay any claim to it.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary, one of three tribunals in the Roman Curia, which has competence in this matter, produced a document following requests from a number of bishops in different parts of the world. The document confirmed the traditional Catholic teaching.

The confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, "to betray the penitent with words or in any other way" (can.983, §1 CIC), as well as "it is totally forbidden for the confessor to make use of the knowledge acquired from confession when it might harm the penitent, even excluding any danger of revelation" (can.984, §1 CIC). 

The Catholic Church has undertaken significant work to respond to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It has produced National Guidelines for child safety which incorporate the recommendations of the Royal Commission. The bishops have established a body to oversee compliance with these National Standards.

The Archdiocese of Hobart has produced “Safe Communities” which outlines policies, procedures and practices to be followed in all agencies of the Catholic Church in Tasmania. Priests and all who work for the Church understand their obligations before the law to report on matters of child sexual abuse. Priests, however, cannot comply with law that would require them to violate their commitment to the Church’s consistent teaching on the inviolability of the sacramental seal. As Archbishop it is my duty to uphold Catholic teaching on this matter.

It is important to note that governments throughout history have sought to force priests to break the seal of the confessional for some particular reason or other. Several priests have been martyred for refusing to betray the promise they made before God to uphold the seal of the confessional.

Governments can give all sorts of justifications for wanting to know what has been confessed to a priest, from the most noble (the protection of innocent human life) to the most base (the maintenance of political power). But the reality is that saints, like St Mateo Correa Magallanes and St John Nepomucene, who gave their life defending the seal of the confessional, knew that no matter what the reason was given by government, no matter how noble their intentions, breaking the seal of the confessional would constitute the end of the sacrament. If one priest was to break it the faithful would lose confidence that what they confess could be made public or used against them.

The sacrament of Confession is a great gift for us in living the Christian life. It is a ministry entrusted to priests and has been ordained by Christ: “whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven”. (Jn 20:23) Over the ages it has been a powerful means of conversion, of overcoming sin and of growth in holiness.

I want to once again assure the Catholic people that the Church takes the issue of child sexual abuse with the utmost seriousness and is doing everything it can to ensure a safe environment for all children and vulnerable persons who have contact with the Church. However, priests will be faithful to their solemn duty never to divulge anything revealed to them in the confessional.

Archbishop Julian Porteous