A priest should not break the seal even to save his own life
There is a grave obligation to keep secret whatever someone has revealed to a priest in the sacrament of penance. It is binding under mortal sin, with no exception, not even to save the confessor’s life.
The first martyr to defend this cause is St. John Nepomucene, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Prague. He was the Queen’s confessor. King Wenceslaus IV was a vicious young man who easily gave in to rage and caprice. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he was highly jealous and suspicious of his wife who was impeccable in character. Wenceslaus tortured St. John to reveal the Queen’s confessions but he would not. Finally St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned on March 20, 1393.
According to canon 983.1 of the Code of Canon Law, “the sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or any other manner or for any reason”. Like St. John a priest would not break the seal, not even to save his own life or protect his good name or refute false accusation or to save the life of another. As requested by politicians he cannot do so even to aid the course of justice or to avert a public calamity.
There are serious consequences when the seal is broken. Sins constitute the matter for confession. The integrity of this sacrament of penance instituted by Christ for the salvation of souls would be at one’s peril. (Matt 16:19, Jn 20:23) On the part of the penitent a very sacred trust is formed when a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest. As the ordained mediator of a very holy and precious sacrament, the priest knows that in the confessional the penitent speaks not so much to him, but through him to the Lord. In the absence of sanctity and security many would not easily avail themselves of this means to salvation.
On the part of the priest a severe sanction awaits him if he violates the confessional seal. “A confessor who directly violates the seal of confession incurs an automatic excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; if he does so indirectly, he is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the offense”. (Canon 1388.1) The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) also decreed that a priest offender should “not only be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance”.
The lay person also has the obligation to preserve secrecy in confession. Maybe when he acts as an interpreter or overhears someone’s confession (Canon 983.2) To violate the secrecy of another person’s confession is a mortal sin and warrants “a just penalty, not excluding excommunication” (Canon 1388.2) If a person falsely accuses a priest of breaking the seal of confession he commits a mortal sin and perhaps other canonical penalties, including excommunication.
Are there moments when issues in confession could be discussed outside the confessional? A young priest on his first day in the confessional meets a case of a reserved sin. He had not been told about the practice in the diocese. He may want to meet the bishop or an elderly priest to know the procedure to follow. He cannot help telling the sin he had heard. He delays the absolution and asks the permission of the penitent to discuss the matter with another person. When a confessor has to refer a case to the competent authority care must be taken to keep the identity of the penitent secret.
A penitent approached me for confession but pleaded that he would like to discuss the matter first in the office with me so that I can advise him on what to do. Eventually other members of the family were involved before proper counselling could be done. Again, a matter that needs counselling may be taken out of the confessional with the permission of the penitent. In another instance somebody comes to the office with a problem and says he had told you about it in the confessional. Even if you remember, it might be prudent to ask him to remind you about it. This could help avoid a situation where he would think you keep count of his sins. With the possibility of a face to face confession, recommended by Vatican II, it would be difficult for priests sometimes to claim anonymity of people whose sins they have heard, especially if they are of a particular nature. Future credibility, however, would demand them to be discreet.
What of cases where people feel exposed and betrayed when a sermon seems to speak about sins they had confessed? Since many people are likely to commit the same sin, there may be no clear proof that he is referring to a particular case. Examples and illustrations may be real or imaginary to make a point. That is Christ’s model as well. In some cases people really got angry that he was talking directly to them. But if the cap fits you why not wear it? At the same time this is a delicate matter where if a person is not mature he could be scandalised. He might even keep away from the sacrament for good. Know your congregation and be cautious, prudent and sensitive. On November 18, 1682 the Holy Office forbade confessors to make use of any knowledge that would “displease” the penitent or reveal his identity.