The Persecution of the Church
For some years we have seen worldwide a mounting persecution against the Catholic Church. We have countries that have penalized the teaching of Catholic Doctrine on homosexual conduct as crime, claiming that such preaching leads to discrimination against those who have a homosexual inclination or practice this type of conduct. Recently the Irish government proposed legislation under which priests could face up to five years in prison for failure to disclose sexual crimes against minors if the crimes were brought up in sacramental confession. It is sad to note that it is the Irish government and not a foreign colonial power that is returning Ireland to the time of the Penal Laws that persecuted Catholics and the Catholic Church.
In Australia the independent Senator Nicholas Xenophon petitioned to make it a crime for priests to refuse to reveal cases of sexual abuse disclosed in the confessional. At the time of writing this article, the proposal of Senator Xenophon has not been backed by any of the mayor parties of Australia, but nevertheless it constitutes a dangerous precedent because it is explicitly linked with the Irish proposal.
It should be evident that these two legislative proposals, or any other that would try to force a priest to break in any way the seal of confession, constitute a fundamental attack on the objective freedom of the Church to function in accordance with the will of Jesus Christ. It is an objective attack against the rights of God. These proposals also constitute a gross violation of the right of the people to practice their religion, and as a consequence, they attack the God-given freedom to the full exercise of religion. If these proposals were to become law, we have the certainty that almost all priests will refuse to obey them, and potentially open themselves to legal prosecution simply for having the integrity to adhere to the duties of the priesthood.
The standard of secrecy protecting a confession outweighs any form of professional confidentiality, such as doctor-patient or lawyer-client relationships.. This type of confidentiality can have exceptions in certain special cases, but the secrecy of the seal of confession is absolute and never has exceptions. When a person confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed. The priest must maintain absolute and total secrecy about anything that a person confesses. For this reason, confessionals were developed with screens or as cubicles inserted into church walls to protect the anonymity of the penitent, and so that no one can overhear the confession. Due to the absolute nature of the seal of confession a priest cannot break it to save his own life, to protect his good name, to refute a false accusation, to save the life of another, to aid the course of justice (like reporting a crime), or to avert a public catastrophe.
The sacramental seal is referred to briefly but forcefully in the ritual, “Conscious that he has come to know the secret of another’s conscience only because he is God’s minister, the confessor is bound by the obligation of preserving the seal of confession absolutely unbroken.” A direct violation of the seal, one in which the penitent’s identity is revealed, is punished by an automatic excommunication of the priest, with remission of the penalty reserved to the Apostolic See. (C.C.L. c. 1388, 1) In the law of the Church, no distinctions are made among the matters confessed, whether the act is sinful in itself or the surrounding circumstances, or in the acts of reparation of penance that have been imposed to the penitent. So we need to underline that the secrecy concerns whatever has been communicated in confession, and it is total and absolute.
Indeed, many priests that have died as martyrs of the seal of confession. First and foremost is the emblematic case of St. John Nepomucene, who suffered martyrdom in Prague in the year 1393. He was the confessor of the Queen, Joanna. Her husband, King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, had suspicions about her fidelity, demanding from Fr. Nepomucene that he disclose the sins she confessed, which the priest categorically refused. So the King condemned the priest to be thrown into the River Moldau, which flows through Prague.
There is also the case of Father Felipe Ciscar Puig, a Spanish priest who was martyred during the terrible persecution of 1936 for protecting the seal of confession. He heard the confession of a fellow priest who was in prison with him. His jailers tried to get him to reveal the sins of the priest, and because he refused he was killed after a mock trial. We have also the case of Fr Francis Vernon Douglas, a missionary in The Philippines that was tortured to death by the Japanese during the Second World War for refusing to violate the seal of confession.
These proposed laws not only are unjust, but are also impossible to apply if the confession is received in the traditional way – through a grate and a veil. In this case the penitent remains anonymous and it is physically impossible for a confessor to attach the sins to a particular person, because his identity remains unknown.
These laws may very well also have unintended and negative side effects, as Irish journalist David Quinn, points out, “No child abuser will go to a priest in confession knowing the priest is required to inform the police. But cutting off the avenue of confession to a child abuser makes it less likely that he will talk to someone who can persuade him to take the next step.”
Forcing a priest to disclose what has occurred in the confessional is also a very dangerous step for a free society. It effectively makes every priest an agent of the State, and as a consequence it quickly paves the path towards a totalitarian state in which the government feels entitled to know about any private conversation whatsoever.d.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula
Interim President, Human Life International