17 July 2011

Sermon on the Seal of the Confessional

This sermon was delivered today by Canon Michael Wiener of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest:



A few days ago the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said that his government would soon introduce legislation that would make it mandatory for priests to reveal details of child abuse, even if they become known in the confessionals. If the proposal becomes law, a priest who withholds information received under the seal of confession could be put into prison for up to five years. The Prime Minister made the point that canon law would not be allowed to supersede state law.

This is not the first time in history that the seal of confession and with it the sacredness of the sacrament of confession is being attacked. What seems new is the climate of indifference in which this new version of “Kirchenkampf” is noticed with not much surprise. However, the events in Ireland, until very recently a supposedly “Catholic country” and an example of traditional piety for many people, should move us to consider the spiritual nature and characteristics of the sacrament of penance.

If we are – and rightly so, we should be - appalled by this statement of a representative of the state, what are the reasons for our being horrified?

In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council, in its 21st constitution, obliged Roman Catholic priests to respect the seal of confession under all circumstances:

“Let him [the priest] take the utmost care … not to betray the sinner at all by word or sign or in any other way. If the priest needs wise advice, let him seek it cautiously without any mention of the person concerned. For if anyone presumes to reveal a sin disclosed to him in confession, we decree that he is not only to be deposed from his priestly office but also to be confined to a strict monastery to do perpetual penance.”

And during the 14th Session of the Council of Trent the Church declared in Canon VI. regarding the sacrament of penance that the secrecy of confession has been always observed by the Church, that it belongs to this sacrament as it was instituted by Christ Himself and that the practice of defending this seal of confession under all circumstances is not mere “human invention”.

Who can forgive sins but God alone? Our Lord Jesus Christ forgave sins on earth as God and man – until the last moment, hanging on the cross, and especially there, His humanity is the instrument of the forgiveness of our sins. “Amen I say to you: This day you shall be with me in paradise.”

The work of our redemption is entrusted to those free instruments which act as extension of the humanity of Christ and in which His Divinity continues to make everything new which is touched by it. Priests, Roman Catholic priests, of the true Church of Christ, have received the power and the mandate to continue to absolve from sins which are confessed personally and with a contrite heart.

The priest extends divine power, the power of mercy! That is the true reason why he has to keep the secret of confession. As mere man the priest will never be able to absolve from sins, and as mere man he has never heard what the penitent was whispering in his ear. Only as a man who has received a special character, the priestly character, is the priest able to absolve from sins. And only as a priest of the Most High has he been entrusted with the secrets of another man’s conscience. The priestly ear is an instrument which God uses to continue to make the merciful heart of Jesus the source of all forgiveness and peace.

There is an infinite difference between professional or natural secrets and the secrets protected by the seal of confession. Professional secrets, knowledge of natural facts, which were learned by exercising the profession of a nurse, a doctor, or an accountant, sometimes have to be revealed, “especially when their preservation would do serious damage to a third party or to the common good.”

“The knowledge of the confessional is not man’s but God’s; at no time does it belong to the priest. He cannot reveal it, even not to save his own soul from hell, to save a nation from annihilation, to save the Church from being utterly obliterated. The priest simply does not know these things.” (W. Farrell)

God forgives sins, but He does not reveal them. St. Thomas explains that secrecy belongs to the very character of the sacrament of penance:

“God hides the sins of those who submit to Him by Penance; wherefore this also should be signified in the sacrament of Penance, and consequently the sacrament demands that the confession should remain hidden, and he who divulges a confession sins by violating the sacrament.” (ST Suppl. q. 11, a. 1)

There are also other reasons which support the existence of the seal of confession, the fact that man is more attracted to this sacrament and can approach it with greater simplicity. But these reasons are secondary; they don’t belong to the essence of the sacrament.

Those who want to subject confession to the legislations of states deny the holiness of the work of the Church. A good priest will always urge a penitent strongly to reveal crimes, also crimes of the kind the Irish Prime Minister had in mind. But to force priests to break the seal of confession means to deny the work of Christ for the salvation of souls. True source of salvation is to be found in the forgiveness of sins.

Modern culture knows public confessions, but no forgiveness. It demands exhibition of sins, but doesn’t require contrition. However, true justice is possible only by true forgiveness.

Let us pray to St. John of Nepomuk who was killed by the King of Bohemia because he refused to divulge the secrets of the confessional. Let us pray for his intercession and assistance in these dark times. - St. Nepomuk, pray for us.



Latinmassgirl said...

If a person confesses the crime of child abuse, I should think they would be ashamed enough to go to confession behind the screen and not face-to-face. There is no way that the priest can be expected to know for sure whom is in the dark, so the law is just ridiculous besides being unjust.

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Latinmassgirl,

Quite right. The law is a symbolic slap at the Chruch. However, it is aimed at a fraternal culture of priests who confess to each other and who recognize each other whether they are behind the grae or not.

In some cases the failure of the Church to report has been defended by saying the local ordinary's knowledge came to him in a counselling session that was under the seal.

THis whole thing is horrible but predictable given the magnitude of the evil and the increasing magnitude of the state apparatus.

St. Guy

JBQ said...

I served in the Mediterranean with the Navy in 1975. We had two Brit officers come on our ship for anti-submarine warfare training. One of the Brits had two brothers killed in Ireland. The other told me that the Brits would like to unite Ireland and get out. However, they knew that the Provisionals wanted to step in and create a socialist republic. That is what the violence has been all about. The radicals are anti-Catholic and receive weapons from the Iranians who get them from China. The Provisionals also now have developed a political presence of which the fruits are this effort against confession. You have to know also that there is a history of Provisional priests who have used confession to spot and have executed collaborators against a socialist Ireland.

JBQ said...

About one month ago, I attended Mass at St. Francis and Canon Weiner gave the sermon. In it, he stated that "blood will flow" in the Western world among the faithful. Liberal Catholics believe that Teilhard de Chardin will convert the socialist beast of Marx and Lenin. The Reverend Malachi Brandan Martin believed otherwise.