The seal of confession: some basics

Following on from threats in Ireland to require priests to break the seal of confession, I want to go through some of the basics concerning the seal, and then to deal specifically with some other questions (including what the priest might do if the civil authority asks him under penalty to break the seal.) I am particularly grateful for the manual of the saintly Fr Felix Cappello SJ: Tractatus Canonico-Moralis De Sacramentis Vol II.

This series is not intended as a spiritual guide for how to make a good confession: you can find such guides elsewhere (on my parish website for example.) What I am concerned to do here is to explain some of the canonical-theological questions that form a part of priestly theological formation but have not normally been part of ordinary catechesis for the sacrament. They are of some importance now because of attacks that have been made on the sacrament and are likely to continue.


The seal of confession is a strict obligation upon the priest to keep secret the sins that have been confessed and to abstain from any use of knowledge of those sins which might betray the penitent. The confessor may not speak in any way that might give those who hear him any grounds for suspecting the penitent of any sin that he has confessed.

A direct violation of the seal occurs when the priest reveals the identity of the penitent and the sin that they have committed. This is a serious crime in canon law and it incurs the penalty of automatic (“latae sententiae”) excommunication. This penalty is reserved to the Apostolic See which means that if a priest incurs this penalty, he can only be absolved from it by the Apostolic See. He cannot be absolved from it by another priest or Bishop.

An indirect violation of the seal occurs when the priest does not directly reveal the identity of the penitent and the sin that they have committed. This can happen if a confessor speaks of a sin told in confession without revealing who the penitent was. If people work out who it was, or even if they suspect whom it might have been, an indirect violation has been committed. An indirect violation can occur when a priest foolishly tells stories from the confessional in a sermon or in conversation. Even though he does not reveal who the penitent was, somebody might “put two and two together” and the priest has committed the crime of indirect violation. The code stipulates that this crime is to be punished “according to the gravity of the delict.”

The priest is also strictly forbidden to use any other knowledge acquired in the sacrament (i.e. knowledge about matters not connected with sin) if this would be in any way to the detriment of the penitent. This is not strictly speaking a violation of the seal itself, since it does not concern sins confessed. Nevertheless it is completely prohibited by the code, even when any danger of revelation is excluded. For example, if the confessor learned in the sacrament that a person was wealthy, it would be unlawful use of knowledge if he were to pester the penitent for a contribution to a building project, or encourage others to do so.

One matter that is sometimes not realised is that the penitent himself is not bound by the seal. A penitent is free to say that he has confessed such and such a sin (provided, of course, that he does not commit the sin of scandal.) The penitent may also give permission to the priest to talk to him about his sins outside of confession or at a subsequent confession. The priest is not to do this unless the penitent has freely and explicitly given him permission to do so.

In some cases, this is a good thing to do. A regular penitent who has explained the circumstances of his life, and past sins, to the confessor, or who has particular temptations to which he often succumbs, may give permission to the confessor to refer to this matter in order to receive appropriate counsel regularly as he engages in the spiritual battle. But the confessor may not presume this and should ask explicitly for permission if the penitent seems to presume that the priest will refer to previously confessed sins.

That’s enough for today. We also need to look at the reasons why the seal is binding, 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.

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