A+ A A-

The Confessional Seal


Dear Grace, I have not been to confession in a very long time and there is something I would like to know. A friend told me that, under certain conditions, a priest could divulge what you tell him, even in confession. Is this true?


Your friend is wrong. I have heard this question before and it is a shame how misinformation can keep a person from receiving the healing which Jesus offers us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (better known to many as confession). The Catholic Church declares every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the "sacramental seal," because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains "sealed" by the sacrament (CCC #1467).

A priest can speak to no one of anything you say to him in confession, and this includes you. For example, even if he is aware of your identity, and later runs into you in church or elsewhere, he may not bring up anything you said to him in confession, unless you first bring it up to him. Then, and only then, may he discuss it with you. Otherwise, he must remain silent. Under no circumstances may the seal of confession be broken. According to canon law, the penalty for a priest who violates this seal would be an automatic excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See. (canon 983, 1388)

It is very important to remember that when we confess our sins before a priest, he is standing there in Persona Christi (in the Person of Christ). It is Christ himself who hears our confession and forgives us. Jesus gave us this sacrament because he knew that we would continue to sin and be in need of reconciliation with God. So, he gave to his apostles his authority to forgive sins in his name when he said to them, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).

When we stay away from confession, it is often for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it is shame over what we have done. Or perhaps we think that the priest is going to be shocked by what we will say. I can assure you, however, that he will be happy that you are there, seeking reconciliation with God. Sin offends God, but he is always ready to forgive, if we will only turn to him and ask. Do not put it off any longer. Go as soon as you can. You will experience a joy and peace that the world can never offer. God loves you so much and his mercy is far greater than you may realize.

Listen to the words of Jesus as spoken to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and recorded in her diary: I want to give myself to souls and to fill them with my love, but few there are who want to accept all the graces My love has intended for them (p.388). Speak to the world about My mercy; let all mankind recognize My unfathomable mercy (p.333). The flames of mercy are burning Me clamoring to be spent; I want to keep pouring them out to souls; souls just dont want to believe in My goodness (p.99). I desire trust from My creatures. Encourage souls to place great trust in My fathomless mercy. Let the weak, sinful soul have no fear to approach Me, for even if it had more sins than there are grains of sand in the world, all would be drowned in the immeasurable depths of My mercy (p.400) (see Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul).

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 Churchs 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 Gods 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 persons 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.

The Author

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 or call 1-800-348-2440.

Readers are welcome to submit questions about the Catholic faith to: Grace MacKinnon, 1234 Russell Drive #103, Brownsville, Texas 78520. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to:

You may visit Grace online at

Copyright © 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon
back to top