So why is the seal of confession inviolable? Why does the seal bind under such a grave obligation that the Church excommunicates any confessor who directly violates it? (See: The seal of confession: some basics)
There are two principal reasons why the priest must preserve the seal: the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion. The motive of justice is evident because the penitent, by the very fact of entering the confessional, or asking the priest to hear his confession (we’ll deal with “reconciliation rooms” another day) rightly expects that the priest will observe the seal. This is a contract entered into by the fact of the priest agreeing to hear a person’s confession. To mandate the violation of the seal is in effect to prohibit the celebration of the sacrament of Penance.
Much more grave than the obligation of justice towards the penitent is the obligation of religion due to the sacrament. The Catholic Encyclopaedia give a brief explanation of the virtue of religion which essentially summarises the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas. (Summa Theologica 2a 2ae q.81) Religion is a moral virtue by which we give to God what is His due; it is, as St Thomas says, a part of justice. In the case of the sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ, Fr Felix Cappello explains things well [my translation]:
By the very fact that Christ permitted, nay ordered, that all baptised sinners should use the sacrament and consequently make a secret confession, he granted an absolutely inviolable right, transcending the order of natural justice, to use this remedy. Therefore the knowledge which was their own before confession, after the communication made in confession, remains their own for every non-sacramental use, and that by a power altogether sacred, which no contrary human law can strike out, since every human law is of an inferior order: whence this right cannot be taken away or overridden by any means, or any pretext, or any motive.The penitent confesses his sins to God through the priest. If the seal were to be broken under some circumstances, it would put people off the sacrament and thereby prevent them from receiving the grace that they need in order to repent and amend their lives. It would also, and far more importantly, obstruct the will of God for sinners to make use of the sacrament of Penance and thereby enjoy eternal life. The grace of the sacrament is absolutely necessary for anyone who commits a mortal sin. To mandate the violation of the seal is in effect to prohibit the practice of the Catholic faith. Some secular commentators have spoken of the seal of confession as being somehow a right or privilege of the priest. That is a preposterous misrepresentation: it is a sacred and inviolable duty that the priest must fulfil for the sake of the penitent and for the sake of God's will to redeem sinners.
A possibly misleading phrase in this context is where theologians say that the penitent is confessing his sins as if to God "ut Deo." (You can easily imagine secularists deriding the idea that the priest makes himself to be a god etc.) In truth, the penitent is confessing his sins before God. The priest acts as the minister of Christ in a sacred trust which he may not violate for any cause - precisely because he is not in fact God. By virtue of the penitent’s confession ut Deo, the priest absolves the penitent and, if mortal sin is involved, thereby readmits him to Holy Communion.
There will be more to follow on the sacrament of confession. As I mentioned in my previous post, this series is not intended as a guide for making a devout confession but rather as an introduction to some canonical and theological questions regarding the sacrament which have become important recently. (For a leaflet on how to make a good confession, see my parish website.)
I have been told that the threat in Ireland to introduce a law compelling priests to violate the seal of confession has been withdrawn, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, I will continue with these posts because I think that the Irish proposal will be picked up by other secularists and may pose a problem for us. Further posts will look at the proper place, time and vesture for hearing confessions, one or two more particular crimes in canon law, the question of jurisdiction and the much misused expression “Ecclesia supplet”, and, of course, what to do if the civil authority tries to compel a priest to break the seal.