The seal of confession is one of the most cherished and important aspects of sacramental practice in the Catholic Church. Given the seal of confession, a penitent can approach the confessional and be forthright and honest with his sins knowing that the priest cannot without repercussion betray the penitent by revealing his sins. Effectively the seal of confession permits the sinner to come face to face with God in the confessional, so that the revelation of his sins is a genuine revelation to himself of what he has done wrong and a bringing of these to God (Who already knows the sins in question) in an act of confession whereby the penitent makes himself vulnerable and asks for forgiveness. The confessional is a humbling place because the penitent reflects on himself and discerns within himself his own weaknesses, realises what they are, and determines that he does not want to remain in his sins. As such the confessional is a vulnerable place where everything is laid bare before God, and this vulnerability is one of the reasons why the Church looks upon violations of the seal of confession with the utmost seriousness.
However, the seal of confession raises an issue. Evidently all sorts of things will be revealed in the confessional that will be uncomfortable. These can range from the perfectly legal yet sinful, to the illegal and sinful. In all of this the priest is bound by the seal of confession, and the challenge is precisely whether or not that seal is appropriate when illegal matters, especially abuse, are confessed. Catholic teaching is that the seal remains in place when illegal matters are confessed, so that the priest cannot break the seal when pressurised by the secular authorities to do so. This leaves one with an uneasy feeling that the priest in adhering to the seal enables the practitioner of illegalities to remain in practice. This is the challenge now placed before the seal of confession in light of revelations of abuse within the Catholic Church.
A Practical Consideration
The first thing to reflect upon here is something practical. Confessions are now often held in a confessional box. This box has a screen between the penitent and the priest, and the screen can range from a metal grill to a curtain. Such an arrangement preserves the anonymity of the confessional so as to make it practically impossible to violate the seal even if the priest wanted to do so. With such an arrangement, the value of any evidence gathered from the confessional where the penitent is practically anonymous would be negligible (Jeremy Bentham makes a similar point in a passage quoted below, though not for the same reasons).
Nevertheless, confession does not have to be so anonymous, and confession can be had face to face. In those cases, evidence collected from the confessional would likely not be negligible, and so the argument is made that in those cases the seal should be broken so as to facilitate investigation of criminal activity.
We do not have to look too far in the secular world to observe something akin to the confessional seal; this is found in both journalism and in the legal profession, though of course to a different extent and with different conditions than that of confession. Nevertheless, in both journalism and the legal profession there is recognised the principle that there obtains a certain relationship wherein disclosures can be made which disclosures cannot be used to prejudice the person at some later date.
This principle is more controversial and less embedded in the world of journalism than it is in the legal profession. Journalists, especially investigative ones, tend to maintain the confidentiality of their sources, and this precisely so that their sources can feel confident in approaching the journalist with information. Whilst this is a practice in journalism, it is not as well embedded as the same principle is in the legal profession.
There exists a long-standing legal practice in common law known as professional privilege. The principle behind professional privilege is that a client can make disclosures to his lawyer without fear that these disclosures will prejudice him in the future. Whilst there are certain circumstances in which privilege does not apply, the idea behind it is that if it were not in place and a client could not reveal something in confidence to his counsel, then it would be impossible to have a justice system with a professional class of legal men and women, since nobody could trust such people with their disclosures. As Lord Brougham put it in Greenough v Gaskell (1833): ‘…[I]t is out of regard to the interests of justice, which cannot be upholden, and to the administration of justice, which cannot go on without the aid of men skilled in jurisprudence, in the practice of the courts, and in those matters affecting rights and obligations which form the subject of all judicial proceedings. If the privilege did not exist at all, everyone would be thrown upon his own legal resources, deprived of professional assistance, a man would not venture to consult any skilful person, or would only dare tell his counsellor half his case’.
The Confessional Seal
Turning to confession then, and in a similar vein to journalism and the legal profession, if there were no seal of confession, an individual would be unable to bring his sins before God in the sacrament without fear that the priest would reveal his sins to others. People would gradually cease to confess their sins, and their souls would be lost. As Jeremy Bentham (not exactly a friend to Catholicism) put it: ‘The advantage gained by the coercion, gained in the shape of assistance to justice, would be casual, and even rare: the mischief produced by it, constant and all-extensive…The advantages of a temporal nature, which, in the countries in which this religious practice is in use, flow from it at present, would in a great degree be lost: the loss of them would be as extensive as the good effects of the coercion in the character of an aid to justice. To form any comparative estimate of the bad and good effects flowing from this institution, belongs not, even in a point of view purely temporal, to the design of this work. The basis of the inquiry is that this institution is an essential feature of the Catholic religion, and that the Catholic religion is not to be suppressed by force.’
What is being enabled is not the ability of those breaking the law to continue breaking it (for obviously the advice and admonition of the priest, as well as legal professionals and journalists, would be not to break the law); rather, what is being enabled is a special relationship whereby one can reveal to another one’s mistakes without fear of prejudice. Such a relationship is somewhat necessary in the legal profession and in investigative journalism, but it is also necessary in the spiritual life so that the sinner may confidently come before God and make himself vulnerable; otherwise sinners will not trust the confessional and will not likely confess their sins. This lack of confidence in and falling away from confession will not only apply to those committing abuse or other illegal activities, but also to those not breaking the law but still caught up in sin and seeking reconciliation. It is the normal everyday individual who abides by the law but finds himself sinning who will cease to approach the confessional if the seal is broken. Hence the need for the seal to remain in place.