The Confessional Seal Under Attack in California

March 05, 2019

The seal of the confessional, an inviolable doctrine that directs priests to disclose nothing they learn from penitents in the Sacrament of Confession, is under attack in California. A proposed piece of legislation, known as SB 360, was introduced by state senator Jerry Hill of San Mateo:

While clergy are among the 46 professions designated in California as mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect, the state recognizes a special exemption for a cleric “who acquires knowledge or a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect during a penitential communication.”

SB 360, if passed, would do away with this exemption, leaving Catholic priests and other Christian clergy who recognize the seal of the confessional in a precarious position. A priest who learns of potential abuse during Confession would be forced to choose between following the precepts of the Church or the dictates of secular law. A spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, responded to the bill by stating, “Getting the government in the confessional has nothing to do with protecting children and has everything to do with eroding the basic rights and liberties we have as Americans.”

The Church’s Law

While the seal of the confessional dates back to the early Church, Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 codified the doctrine as follows:

Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner: but if he should happen to need wiser counsel let him cautiously seek the same without any mention of person. For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance.

Canon 6 of the Council of Trent reaffirmed this precept as follows:

If any one…saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention; let him be anathema.

Although the separated Eastern communions, such as the Orthodox Church, have not delineated the doctrine as precisely as the Catholic Church, they hold the seal of the confessional in principle as no less sacred. Indeed, an authoritative collection of Eastern canons, known as the Pedalion (or “Rudder”), states that a priest who disobeys the secrecy of the confessional is to be deposed.

Protecting the Seal

In times past there would be no question that a choice between ecclesiastical law and a contrary secular law is no choice at all. Catholics, either clerical or lay, cannot in “good conscience” turn their backs on the Church’s teachings and canons. As difficult as it may be, priests must uphold the confessional seal in order to protect the integrity of the Sacrament. If this means incurring civil penalties, be they fines or imprisonment, then so be it. To hold otherwise is tantamount to subordinating the Church’s teachings to the shifting whims of the secular state.

All hope is not lost, however. Catholics everywhere – not just in California – should make their voices heard by contacting members of the California state senate to voice their opposition to SB 360. While it is important, particularly at this time, for the Church to do everything in its power to the protection of children from abuse and neglect, undermining the seal of confession is out of the question. Unless this is made clear to California lawmakers, the rights of the Church will be compromised to the detriment of all the Faithful.