A child's question: "Can the priest tell the Pope your sins?"

My daughter is preparing for her first Confession and I was explaining to her about the seal. I thought you would be amused by her question “Can the priest tell the Pope your sins?”

I am glad that you knew the answer to your daughter’s question and that you were able to explain to her that the priest is not allowed to reveal anyone’s sins, even to the Pope. As so often, the simple questions of young children take us deeper than we might think at first.

The Pope is the supreme legislator in the Church. If the confessional seal were a matter of ecclesiastical law, he would be able to dispense from it. Catholics know instinctively that there would be something wrong with that. Their instinct is right because the confessional seal binds the priest by divine law, not Church law. The only person who can give a priest permission to speak about a confessed sin is the penitent himself. If the priest, in the context of sacramental confession, comes to know of a grave evil that could threaten another, or the state, he can only urge the penitent to make it known: under penalty of denying absolution if necessary. The Church can also take action against particular sins by imposing ecclesiastical penalties such as excommunication, or by making a sin a “reserved sin” for which penance and permission to absolve can only be given by the Bishop or by the Holy See (the identity of the penitent is concealed in such cases to preserve the seal.)

Various corrupt rulers and governments in history have attempted to force priests to break the seal of confession. What they have failed to realise is that a priest who breaks the seal is acting as if he were God, assuming the power to set aside a matter of divine law. St John Nepomuk, who was martyred by a King Wenceslaus (not the “Good” one) for refusing to break the seal of confession, is a reminder to priests of the sacredness of the trust committed to them, and to governments that it is foolish to attempt to overcome that trust.

Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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