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Seal of Confession
 Penance & Reconcil. 

Seal of Confession

Regarding the sins revealed to him in sacramental confession, the priest is bound to inviolable secrecy. From this obligation he cannot be excused either to save his own life or good name, to save the life of another, to further the ends of human justice, or to avert any public calamity. No law can compel him to divulge the sins confessed to him, or any oath which he takes—e.g., as a witness in court. He cannot reveal them either directly—i.e., by repeating them in so many words—or indirectly—i.e., by any sign or action, or by giving information based on what heknows through confession. The only possible release from the obligation of secrecy is the permission to speak of the sins given freely and formally by the penitent himself. Without such permission, the violation of the seal of confession would not only be a grievous sin, but also a sacrilege. It would be contrary to the natural law because it would be an abuse of the penitent’s confidence and an injury, very serious perhaps, to his reputation. It would also violate the Divine law, which, while imposing the obligation to confess, likewise forbids the revelation of that which is confessed. That it would infringe ecclesiastical law is evident from the strict prohibition and the severe penalties enacted in this matter by the Church. “Let him beware of betraying the sinner by word or sign or in any other way whatsoever. . . we decree that he who dares to reveal a sin made known to him in the tribunal of penance shall not only be deposed from the priestly office, but shall moreover be subjected to close confinement in a monastery and the performance of perpetual penance” (Fourth Lateran Council, cap. xxi; Denzinger, “Enchir.”, 438). Furthermore, by a decree of the Holy Office (18 Nov., 1682), confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in confession that would displease the penitent, even though the non-use would occasion him greater displeasure.

These prohibitions, as well as the general obligation of secrecy, apply only to what the confessor learns through confession made as part of the sacrament. He is not bound by the seal as regards what may be told him by a person who, he is sure, has no intention of making a sacramental confession but merely speaks to him “in confidence”; prudence, however, may impose silence concerning what he learns in this way. Nor does the obligation of the seal prevent the confessor from speaking of things which he has learned outside confession, though the same things have also been told him in confession; here again, however, other reasons may oblige him to observe secrecy. The same obligation, with the limitations indicated, rests upon all those who in one way or another acquire a knowledge of what is said in confession, e.g., an interpreter who translates for the priest the words of the penitent, a person who either accidentally or intentionally overhears the confession, an ecclesiastical superior (e.g., a bishop) to whom the confessor applies for authorization to absolve the penitent from a reserved case. Even the penitent, according to some theologians, is bound to secrecy; but the more general opinion leaves him free; as he can authorize the confessor to speak of what he has confessed, he can also, of his own accord, speak to others. But he is obliged to take care that what he reveals shall cast no blame or suspicion on the confessor, since the latter cannot defend himself. In a word, it is more in keeping with the intention of the Church and with the reverence due to the sacrament that the penitent himself should refrain from speaking of his confession. Such, undoubtedly, was the motive that prompted St. Leo to condemn the practice of letting the penitent read in public a written statement of his sins (see above); and it needs scarcely be added that the Church, while recognizing the validity of public confession, by no means requires it; as the Council of Trent declares, it would be imprudent to prescribe such a confession by any human enactment.


Written by Edward J. Hanna. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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