How should a Catholic respond to this question about confession?

Sorry if this is the wrong forum…not sure where to put this question. I’ll ask it anyway:

How should a Catholic respond to someone who says that priests should be required to break the seal of confession when someone confesses crimes such as child abuse, murder, etc.? When told that lawyers aren’t required to do that due to the attorney/client privilege they said, “But priests are supposed to represent God…they have a higher responsibility.”

Priests encourage people to make restitution and turn themselves in.
I’ll bet people don’t know that.
The Church is in the business of forgiveness. Justice is a civil matter.
It’s probably going to be difficult for people to grasp. But that’s the crux of it.
(no pun intended) The priests responsibility is to bring people back to God.
Their “higher authority”.
Maybe someone else can state it better.

Some things:

  1. OP, if you’re really getting asked this question - as opposed to a mere hypothetical - I suspect there may be some other ant-Catholic biases at play. The law, for example, recognizes a “clergy-penitent” privilege, so it’s not just Catholicism, i.e., the question itself might be a smokescreen for anti-Catholic animus.

  2. As to my proof of that, ask your friend or whoever asked: since civil law allows the privilege for a Jew who, say, confesses a crime to a rabbi, is the problem with civil law allowing privileged communications between any clergyperson, or just with Catholic priests?

  3. Now as to the whole “the priest represents God!” bit, I believe the answer is that the priest is the representative of God’s forgiveness, not, by contrast, of His justice on this earth - that’s what civil law is for.

  4. Think about it: if we somehow allow the seal of the confessional to be broken once, immediately the floodgates are open and no one will ever confess to a priest ever again.

Some things are forever.

Crime is not. Human justice is not.

But the Holy Church is.

To sacrifice what is eternal for what is not is never a good idea.

Someone said, long ago, that it was better to let ten guilty go than to execute one innocent.

I’d expand that.

Better to let 100,000 criminals go, however heinous the crime, than to allow one person to go to Hell because they were deterred from Confession!


What a wonderful response! :thumbsup:

The “clergy-penitent” privilege clause is very similar to the “attorney-client” privilege clause.

The atheist argument in favor of “clergy-penitent” would be something like this: when a person talks to a clergy member about crimes, etc., it’s because they most likely feel remorseful for what they did. It’s possible that a clergy person could get a criminal to change his/her ways.

But if the clergy-penitent privilege is removed, then people will not confess their sins and will not receive the consulting from a clergy person sinners need to improve their lives.

So even for the atheist, the “clergy-penitent” privilege clause has societal advantages.

God Bless.

Well, tell me this, I’d say. If God is willing to forgive you of your sins, and He can know you’re really truly contrite for them, even if the state doesn’t want to forgive you, aren’t you really forgiven? Aren’t you forgiven by an authority higher than even the President?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re off scot-free. We still have to make up for it - and a thing like murder’s a big thing to make up for. But who is anyone, even the President of the United States, to disrupt the mercy of God?

That’s a mercy every person’s entitled to. And everyone else gets it in this land. We Catholics just get it through our priests rather than directly.

Hey everyone,

Thank you so much for your responses. They are all very helpful and I appreciate it.
I’ve decided to break my friend’s question into two parts. First I need to show that the sacrament of confession was instituted by Christ and that it is biblical. Then I can address the “seal of confession” and how it is practiced.

When I told my friend that if there wasn’t a “seal of confession” nobody would ever go she responded with “Bingo, we don’t need it…we can confess to God directly and don’t need a priest” because we are forgiven anyway if we are truly repentant.

Thanks again for your responses. I’m gonna work on part one. Any suggestions would be helpful. I’m looking at James 5 and John 20 for right now. My friend struggled with James 5 but explained away John 20 through a commentary that didn’t really make much sense for that passage.

I should explain a little more about James 5 from my last post.

My friend is struggling with the idea of a human man “judging” whether or not someone is truly sorry for their sins and offering God’s forgiveness (or retaining their sins) because no human person can know another person’s heart. I know James 5 deals with the anointing of the sick and not necessarily confession, but the struggle remains there for her because men have been given the power to forgive sins and only God can know their heart.

Yes, this is an issue. It doesn’t seem to make much sense. And yet, there it is in the bible.

Revelation trumps understanding. And Jesus revealed something very clearly there.


This is an argument that you can’t “win”. All you can do is share your belief as a Catholic, including our understanding of those bible verses and the history of the sacrament in the Church. You will not be able to change someone else’s mind about it, if their mind is firmly set. If there mind is somewhat open, you can plant something of a seed perhaps.

PS it is worth noting that some protestants still practise confession, as either a sacrament or a rite. Anglicans and Lutherans for example.

My response to the question is simply to state the fact that it is a pointless conversation for non-Catholics to be having.

I think non-Catholics think that if it becomes law Catholic Priests will follow it. I aim to make it absolutely clear that won’t hapeen. If nothing else, confessions will become completely anonymous so that even if a Priest wanted to turn someone in, he wouldn’t be able to. He’d have no idea whatsoever who confessed to him.

They can make it law that Catholic priests are required to break the seal of confession and it will be nothing but a useless law. It will not get followed. The Church will continue to instruct it’s priests that they are not to break the seal. Priests will continue not to break the seal. So why change the law? Unless people want to see priests locked up there is absolutely no benefit. That’s the only outcome that is going to happen with any regularity.

If they I feel they are open to it at that point I may decide to explain why priests are forbidden to break the seal. A fairly simple explanation. We believe that confession of all mortal sins is required for salvation. If someone has a fear that they will face secular consequences by confessing to a Priest, they may choose not to do so. In that case they will not have access to the forgiveness that comes through confession. Given the Church is all about getting forgiveness to the people, that is an unacceptable outcome. People must have access to confession and we are to do everything to give them the opportunity and safety to make use of it.

I may also try to show that it isn’t a “won’t” issue rather than a “can’t” issue. A priest who did this would incur an automatic excommunication reserved which can only be lifted (I believe) by the Pope. Even a secular person should be able to accept that someone who has dedicated his life to his faith in such a manner as the Priesthood requires isn’t likely to take been kicked out of that faith lightly.

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