Dear Grace: I just read your answer to the question posed in a previous article about priests not being able to reveal what is said to them in Confession. How does the seal of the sacrament pertain to confession about abuse? What if another priest confesses to abusing a child in some way?
It is unfortunate
that the recent revelations of the moral misconduct on the part of a minority
of Catholic priests has resulted in the questioning of some of the Church’s practices,
among them the sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Penance or Confession.
One positive result of this, however, is that it provides an opportunity to clarify
anew the teaching of Christ through his Church.
We begin by reiterating that canon law states the following: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (canon 983, §1). There are no exceptions to this law, no matter who the penitent is. This applies to all the faithful — bishops, priests, religious, and laity. The sacramental seal is protection of the sacred trust between the person confessing his sin and God, and nothing or no one may break it.
Having answered your question, let us go further and discuss how is it that we view Confession. Do we see it as merely a way of having a place to go and “get things off our chest” and then go back out into the world only to continue to commit the same sin again and again? It is sad indeed that, for many, Confession has become a sort of “absolution machine” — a room with a revolving door, if you will. To view it this way, however, is to miss the true essence of this powerful and essential sacrament, and a most gracious gift from God.
Sin, especially grave, or mortal sin, offends God. When it is mortal sin, it breaks our communion with Him. We have chosen ourselves or our own will or desires ahead of God. A reconciliation and restoration is necessary. But before that may take place, the person must be truly contrite for his or her sin. And this true contrition implies conversion of heart and mind. This means that when we go to confess our sins before a priest, who is standing there for Christ as His minister, we must have the intention to never commit this sin again. If we do not have this intention, then the Confession would be meaningless and invalid. And even if we do commit the same sin again, it still holds that at the time of the confession, we must be truly sorry and intend, with God’s help, to not do it again. It is then that God forgives us.
This requirement regarding contrition was recently addressed by Our Holy Father John Paul II in an apostolic letter issued in the form of motu proprio: “It is clear that penitents living in a habitual state of serious sin and who do not intend to change their situation cannot validly receive absolution” (Misericordia Dei, 7c). The letter declares that, “this decree shall have full and lasting force and be observed from this day forward” (April 7, 2002).
In 1984, the pope dealt with the same subject in the Post-Synodal Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia: “penance is closely connected with reconciliation, for reconciliation with God, with oneself and with others implies overcoming that radical break which is sin. And this is achieved only through the interior transformation or conversion which bears fruit in a person’s life through acts of penance.”
So, what can or should a priest do if a penitent confesses a serious crime like child abuse? Moral responsibility would seem to require him to do all in his power to encourage the person to turn himself in to the proper authorities. The Church teaches clearly that all must live in accordance with the law of God and the civil law. Child abuse is a crime that should not go unpunished. Every effort must be made to protect the innocent.
While the priest may not break the seal of confession by revealing what has been said to him or use this information in any way against the penitent, he is in a position to help him to face his own sin, thus leading him to true contrition, and this contrition should lead him or her to want to do the right thing.
Grace D. MacKinnon "The Confessional Seal." Catholic Exchange (June 2002).
Reprinted with permission of Grace MacKinnon.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. She is the author of Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith published by Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-348-2440.
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