From the mailbox: a question on the seal of Confession
by Dr. Edward Peters

I have some questions about the seal of Confession. Okay.

Last year, a young person told a Catholic priest about a difficult experience. Okay, nothing unusual about that, but such disclosures, not being made for the purposes of seeking reconciliation with God after personal sin (see cc. 959, 987), do not of themselves suggest sacramental Confession or issues related to the seal of Confession.

The priest thought it was a grave matter, informed the pastor, and the bishop was informed, and the matter became public. Well, I can’t assess the prudence of such decisions (whatever exactly they were), but nothing suggests canonical illegality here, at least, nothing related to the seal of Confession, as above.

Later the person claimed to have talked with the priest under the seal of Confession and was shocked that the priest had informed others. Ah, well, although one hears of such things, individuals cannot simply designate conversations with clerics as ‘being under the seal’ nor can priests confer such status to disclosures that are not covered by the seal of Confession. Natural, even grave, obligations of secrecy might well attach to certain communications made in confidence, indeed civil law might even privilege them, but they are not canonical ‘seal’ cases unless the canon law of the seal applies, in which case, however, the canon law of the seal applies in all its force.

Then it was revealed that the person is a Protestant. Okay, that changes nothing I’ve said above.

The official Catholic explanation now seems to be that if a Protestant confesses to a Catholic priest it is not a valid sacramental confession and therefore the seal of Confession need not be observed. Is this tenable? Well, no, it’s not tenable.

First, the mere fact that a Confession was not valid (say for lack of jurisdiction by the confessor) or that it was not completed (say, because the penitent changed his/her mind, or the priest got sick and could not continue) does not obviate the obligation to preserve the seal of Confession. So the ‘official’ explanation clearly does not work in that regard.

Second, Protestants can unquestionably receive the sacrament of Confession validly and licitly under certain circumstances (e.g., c. 844), a fact that illustrates the Church’s radical, if rarely exercised, authority over all the baptized (not just Catholics). If, therefore, in all other respects a given communication satisfied the conditions for the seal of Confession, then the mere fact that the ‘penitent’ was a baptized non-Catholic—and setting aside the possible illiceity of the priest’s sacramental actions—would not, in my opinion, release him from the obligation of preserving the seal. As such, the ‘official’ explanation probably does not work in that regard, either.

But, while the ‘official’ explanation as to why the seal of Confession does not apply in this case seems flawed, as I said above, I don’t see how this was a seal case at all; it does not look like a confessional communication in the first place.

Dr. Edward Peters | February 5, 2014 at 10:23 am | Categories: Uncategorized | URL: http://wp.me/p25nov-FO

Dr. Edward Peters

Dr. Edward Peters joined Sacred Heart Major Seminary in 2005 with his appointment to the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Peters went to Saint Louis University on a musicianship award, majoring in Political Science (B.A. 1979). He became active in pro-life activities and Catholic discussion groups and sang in the schola cantorum of Msgr. Martin Hellriegel’s renowned Holy Cross Parish in North St. Louis. Peters then attended the University of Missouri at Columbia School of Law where he took his J.D. degree in 1982. He was a Superior Oralist in Tate Hall’s Moot Court, received a teaching assistantship in the Legal Research and Writing Program, and began writing for religious and legal journals. He was admitted to the Missouri Bar Association in 1982.

In 1985 Peters began studies in canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, earning his licentiate degree (J.C.L.) in 1988 and becoming the first canon law student to be named a Johannes Quasten Fellow. He completed doctoral course work in 1990 and defended his dissertation “Penal Procedural Law in the 1983 Code of Canon Law” in August 1991.

For ten years Peters served variously as diocesan Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor, Director of the Office for Canonical Affairs, Defender of the Bond, and Collegial Judge for diocesan and appellate tribunals in the Dioceses of Duluth (Province of St. Paul/Minneapolis) and San Diego (Province of Los Angeles). Throughout this time he continued writing for a wide variety of religious and secular publications (his articles and reviews have since appeared in some seventy-five publications) and serving as a canonical consultant to numerous ecclesiastical institutions and persons. During this same time, in addition to several years of adjunct teaching in canon law through the University of Dallas, Peters made dozens of appearances in Catholic and secular media explaining the interplay between Church law and life.

From 2001-2005 Peters taught canon law, ecclesiastical structures, and liturgy/sacraments for the (Graduate) Institute for Pastoral Theology in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These same years saw the completion of his 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law in English Translation (2001) and the release of his textual history of the 1983 Code, Incrementa in Progressu 1983 Codicis Iuris Canonici (2005), both works winning international acclaim.

Since joining the Sacred Heart faculty in 2005, Peters has taught in the licentiate, theologate, and collegiate programs. Among his services to the wider Church are his work with the Religious Sign Translation Committee of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf and his numerous submissions as a canonical expert and amicus curiae in various US court cases impacting the Holy See and religious freedom in the United States. In 2010, Peters was named a Referendary of the Apostolic Signatura by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, becoming the first layman so appointed since the reconstitution of Signatura over 100 years ago. In 2012, Peters was named by His Holiness an expert consultant to the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.

Dr. Peters and his wife Angela have six children, several godchildren, and, through PIME Missionaries of Detroit, sponsor three children overseas. Their family interests include American Sign Language, chess, astronomy, classic cinema, and great books. Peters maintains a prominent educational website dedicated to ecclesiastical law, www.Canonlaw.info.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas