In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 classic, “I Confess,” a young priest refuses to reveal to investigators the identity of a murderer who confessed the crime during the sacrament of reconciliation. Because of that and some other circumstantial evidence, the priest himself is charged with the crime until the guilty man’s wife comes forward with the truth.
No matter what the priest in the film had heard in the confessional, the seal of confession, a church law dating back at least to the 12th century would have prohibited him from telling anyone or revealing the penitent’s identity.
Long a source of contention in court cases, the seal is now threatened in Ireland. In the wake of a report revealing that allegations of abuse by clergy were mishandled and withheld from police, the Irish government has said it plans to introduce legislation to require priests to reveal details of child abuse, even if they become known during confession. Priests who refuse would face up to five years in prison.
The seal of confession now upholds confidentiality but there is evidence that the sacrament wasn’t always so private. In the early Church, at least certain serious sins were confessed before the entire congregation and penance was done publically.
In the fourth century, St. Pacian identified three sins that had to be confessed publically: murder, idolatry and adultery. Other sin could be atoned for privately with good works. Because in civil society adultery was a capital offense for women at that time, those who confessed were given a milder penance to avoid criminal prosecution.
Gradually, both confession and penance became private. In the fifth century, Pope Leo I wrote on the importance of safeguarding the secret of confession to the bishops of three dioceses where the names of penitents and their public penances were regularly read aloud in church.
The Emperor Charlemagne made public the sacredness of the seal of confession in 813. More than three centuries later in 1151, the seal of confession became known—along with the severe punishment for violating it at that time–in a declaration that was part of a compilation of council edicts and principles of Church Law:
“Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed”, and he goes on to say that the violator of this law should be made “a life-long, ignominious wanderer.”
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) presents the obligation of secrecy to the entire Church in no uncertain terms:
“… For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance.”
Confessors who directly violate the Seal of confession are no longer banished to a lifetime of solitary punishment but they do face automatic excommunication, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
As to whether any civil government can override a priest’s obligation to maintain the seal of confession, Canon Lawyer Edward N. Peters writes in his blog:
“The seal of confession is a not creature of civil law, rather, it rests on divine law and is articulated by canon law (see cc. 983 and 1388). Because the state has no authority over the seal of confession, it can exercise no authority over the seal by way imposing, regulating, or revoking it, in whole or even in part.”
We can trust that our confessors won’t identify us or our sins outside the confessional. Hopefully, they can trust us to defend them when they and Church teaching are attacked.