How should we respond to threats from the State to make the seal of confession a criminal offence?

In response to threats from the State to make preserving the seal of confession a criminal offence, I think that we should answer carefully. Most importantly we should avoid conceding in any way the erroneous proposition that the seal is somehow a “privilege” of the priest. Here, unfortunately I beg to differ from some of the things that Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary has said. (See: Paolo Rodari. There is a report in English report at Irish Central.)

First of all, from the point of view of diplomacy, with the deepest respect to the His Grace, I think that it is a mistake to refer to the proposal from Irish Prime Minister Enda Kelly and others as “absurd and out of the question” (“E’ assurda. E’ una proposta irricevibile” ) In Ireland, there is fury about the appalling failure of the Church to protect children and we should acknowledge that people will propose solutions that are as extreme as the violation of the seal of confession. What we need to do is to acknowledge the justified anger that is now at boiling point, and calmly explain why we cannot allow the violation of the seal of confession. If prelates from other countries want to know the mood in Ireland, it would be a sobering reality-check if they would take a flight to Dublin and walk around the city in a clerical collar for an hour or so.

Archbishop Girotti goes on to say:
Ireland can approve all the laws that it wants but it must always know that the Church will never submit to the obligation of the confessor to denounce to the civil authority. Confession is a private question which allows the penitent to be corrected and purified. The secret is a necessary condition. This does not mean that the bishops should not be vigilant regarding paedophiles and, if the appropriate evidence is there, to require such people to pay for their crimes. But if anyone wants to violate the confession, the response of the Church will always be “No”.
Again, with the deepest respect to the His Grace, I think that this is unhelpful. What we need to convey is that the Church simply does not have the competence to dispense confessors from the seal of confession because the binding nature of the seal is a matter of divine law, not ecclesiastical law. The Church can change the penalties relating to the violation of the seal but it has no authority to release a confessor from the obligation of the seal. It is not a matter of saying “No” but of saying “We are not allowed to do this.”

The question of the seal being binding under divine law is obviously something that needs to be explored further and therefore I will write another post to deal with this subject specifically. (See: The confessional seal: a matter of divine, not merely human, law) We'll also need to consider what the priest should say and do if asked about matter that is under the seal.

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