Are the rules for the sacrament of penance laid out in the Bible? Should priests who refuse to break the confessional seal in abuse cases go to jail?

The question has been in the news in Australia, in the context of the debate in the country over whether the seal of confession should apply in abuse cases.

Multiple Australian states have now passed or are considering passing laws that would make non-disclosure of suspected abuse revealed in the confessional an offence punishable by prison time.

Driving the news

Kevin Dillon, a Victorian parish priest known for his work with abuse survivors, said confession was not so much a teaching of Jesus as much as a Church tradition, and as such has rules “not written in Scripture”.

“The Church makes the rules as to how the sacraments are enacted, and it is within the competence of the church to support its priests to not be put into this sort of situation [being prosecuted for not revealing details of a confession] by saying, in these sort of circumstances, well, the seal of confession need not apply”, Dillon said.

Is the priest correct? Does it matter?


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Go deeper

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.

“He [the priest can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives.

“This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the ‘sacramental seal’, because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament”.

But the Catechism also acknowledges that secrecy in confessions hasn’t always been the Church’s norm:

“Over the centuries the concrete form in which the Church has exercised this power received from the Lord has varied considerably.

“During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation.

“To this ‘order of penitents’ (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime.

“During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church.

“From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest.

“This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration.

“In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practiced down to our day”.

The point is that, the difficult question of the exact correct interpretation of the Bible aside, the Church hasn’t always considered secrecy in confession to be a biblical mandate, on even the Catechism’s own admission.

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Why it matters

Dr. Rodger Austin, an Australian canon lawyer, admitted to the ABC that “you’ll look in vain for the words ‘seal of confession'” in the Bible.

Ian Waters, professor of canon law at the Catholic Theological College, agreed that “the Bible does not refer to sacramental confession or the confessional seal”.

Des Cahill, a former priest and professor at RMIT University, quoted from early twentieth-century theologian Bertand Kurtscheid, author of a history of the seal of confession:

“Christ gave no express command regarding the seal; at least none that has come down to us. Moreover, the seal necessarily presupposes a secret confession which Christ has nowhere proscribed as the sole admissible form”.

But if individual, secret confession is simply a seventh-century invention – eventually codified at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 – does that mean both individuality and secrecy can and should simply be done away with in practice?

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What’s next

There are powerful theological reasons for not doing away with either the personal or secretive nature of confession.

The Vatican reiterated in June this year, for example, that in confession:

“The priest, in fact, becomes aware of the sins of the penitent … not as man, but as God, to such an extent that he simply ‘does not know’ what he was told during confession, because he did not listen to him as a man but, precisely, in the name of God”.

But there are also human reasons for maintaining individual, private confession, as the Catechism explains:

“The confession (or disclosure) of sins, even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible”.

It’s true that individual, secret confession has great theological and human value.

But it’s also true that the Church has changed multiple times in history the way it has carried out the practice.

It’s that flexibility the Church will have to draw on as it continues to face the fallout of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Will forcing priests to reveal the content of confessions make children safer?

Lawmakers from Ireland to California to Chile are coming to that conviction, and it’s up to the Church to respond.

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