The Seal of Confession

by Fr Mark Baumgarten

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is in the public spotlight at present – specifically the confessional seal, by which the priest is forbidden—under pain of excommunication—from betraying in any way the confidence of those whose confessions he hears.

A number of civil jurisdictions—including Western Australia—are now proposing laws designed to compel priests to break the seal of confession if they hear about instances of child sexual abuse.

As I’ve said before, I’m as sickened and indeed angry as anyone about the horrible crimes that have rocked the Church I love, and as a priest I’ve been tarnished by association with them.  We must do all we can to bring healing and justice to victims, accountability to perpetrators, and to enact reforms that will help our Church return to holiness.  The problem is that the proposed laws will not actually make young people any safer, and they may actually make things worse.

I suspect there’s some wild fantasising about what goes on in the confessional in the popular imagination.  The notion that criminals are all lining up to confess their sins is just silly (except perhaps occasionally when they’re already in prison).  And in the very rare instance that someone might confess a serious crime with true contrition, the confessional is perhaps the only place where they might be given serious counsel, including potentially being exhorted to turn themselves in.  But of course, the likelihood that someone would confess a crime if they know the priest was required to report it to the authorities is virtually non-existent.

In any event, a penitent always has the option of confessing anonymously.  Most of the time I have no idea whose confession I am hearing, either because I don’t recognise them or because they are behind the screen.  Indeed, I suspect one result of this sort of legislation would be that many parishes would likely phase out face-to-face confession and make it all anonymous so as to protect the priest.

This kind of legislation is also unenforceable.  Short of bugging confessionals, the only way to catch a priest in this would be to try to trap him with fake penitents armed with recording devices, which would be a particularly malicious course of action.

Whatever happens, let me assure my fellow Catholics that we priests fully intend to honour the solemn commitments that we have made, which includes protecting the seal of confession.  I would absolutely go to jail or face any other civil penalty before I broke the sacramental seal, and I suspect all priests—regardless of their ideological persuasion—would say the same.  Indeed, there have been a few priest saints over the centuries who have actually been martyred for their refusal to break the confessional seal.

The healing that we Catholics believe takes place in this sacrament has eternal significance, and this far outweighs any this-worldly consequences we might face for refusing to divulge what has been shared therein.  As Pope Francis has said, the confessional seal is an “indispensable” part of the sacrament, allowing the penitent the freedom to be completely open to the supernatural mercy of Christ, and “no human power has—nor may it claim—jurisdiction over it.”

Aside from the Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is probably my favourite thing about being a priest.  There have been times when I’ve run out of tissues—the healing has been that powerful—and it’s something I suspect non-Catholics can’t fully appreciate.

And so if there is a silver-lining to be found in all of this, it is perhaps that these public debates about confession will remind Catholics of this sacrament’s power and importance.  The angels and saints in heaven rejoice whenever a sinner returns to the Lord in this sacrament and receives his healing – so may we always cherish and protect this great sacrament of mercy, and never take it for granted.

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