Is the Seal of the Confessional of Apostolic Origin?

I refer to this recent news: Anglican priests freed to report serious crimes, including child abuse

My historical and Catholic senses were alarmed by the following…

*Anglican priests will no longer be bound by **the 1000-year-old convention of confidentiality in confessions *when they are told of serious crimes, including child abuse.

The implication is that the Seal of the Confessional is “only” 1000 years old.

From Wikipedia:

Gratian, who compiled the edicts of previous Catholic Ecumenical Councils and the principles of church law, published the Decretum about 1151. It includes the following declaration of the law as to the seal of confession: “Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed.” Gratian goes on to say that the violator of this law should be made a lifelong, ignominious wanderer.(Secunda pars, dist. VI, c. II)

This little bit of history (which may be what the author of the news referred to!) seems to be the basis of the claim that the Seal of the Confessional is a “convention” which is “1000 years old”.

The obvious response is that the fact that the first recorded law is in 1151 is no evidence that the principal and practice is not much older.

Again from Wikipedia:

Notably, neither this canon nor the law of the Decretum purports to enact for the first time the secrecy of confession.

I’ve done some googling and found surprisingly little information.

I can just mention a little that I have learned previously, which is: In the early Church there was some public confession of sins. This was, however, for sins that were already publicly known, such as apostosy and, say, public indescretions. We believe (know?) that private confession also dates to the early Church.

I am willing to conjecture that private confession, and the Seal of the Confessional, is, in fact, of Apostolic origin, even if that can’t be proven. I suspect that there is no evidence that it was "introduced’ in 1151, or 900, or at 400, or any other time.

The 15th century English canonist William Lyndwood speaks of two reasons why a priest is bound to keep secret a confession, the first being on account of the sacrament because** it is almost (quasi) of the essence of the sacrament to keep secret the confession**. (emphasis added).

Any thoughts, or, preferably, information?




I’d also be very interested in information about the practices in the Orthodox and Coptic Churches, as such provides very helpful confirmation of universal church teaching.

The seal of the confessional has always been sealed.

private confession has always been private #7

“You [priests], then, who are disciples of our illustrious physician [Christ], you ought not deny a curative to those in need of healing. And if anyone uncovers his wound before you, give him the remedy of repentance. And he that is ashamed to make known his weakness, encourage him so that he will not hide it from you. And when he has revealed it to you, do not make it public, lest because of it the innocent might be reckoned as guilty by our enemies and by those who hate us” (Treatises 7:3 [A.D. 340])

-Aphraahat the Persian Sage

Thanks for the replies. :slight_smile: :thumbsup:

I followed the linked thread, and it is clear that private, secret confession not been practiced always and everywhere, but where it wasn’t it was due to the usual misunderstandings and disagreements about doctrine and practice. Disagreements and misunderstandings on many matters have been part of Church history and have been settled by the Church. When they are settled, they do not become “true” at the time of the decree, but rather, in general, the Church says that it has only decided on something which was always in the deposit of faith. In the case of private confession, it seems to have been **settled **by 1151, if not earlier.

Tracing the links back to Trent, I found this:

“If anyone says that sacramental confession was not instituted by divine law or that it is not necessary for salvation according to the same law; or if anyone says that the method which the Catholic Church has always observed from the very beginning, and still observes, of confessing secretly to the priest alone is foreign to the institution and command of Christ, and that it is a human origin: let him be anathema."

Firstly, “confessing **secretly **to the priest alone” clearly implies the Seal of the Confessional.

The council says of private confession that it is “the method which the Catholic Church has always observed from the very beginning,”. ie. It is of Apostolic origin.

So the Church has dogmatically and infallibly ruled on a matter of history.

As for normal historical evidence, we have “Aphraahat the Sage”, as cited by ChrisRedfield, Pope Leo the Great, as cited by steve b ( #7) and various other evidence from the 4th century onwards.

Case closed?

Thanks for the post. It is a sad thing that happened with tis in Australia and will very much harm the church. There is either a total seal on the confessional or no seal.

Well that’s the Anglicans for you. Catholic priests are now and always bound by the Silence of the Confessional. That’s not up for change–ever!


I posted the question because I was alarmed by the reporter’s statement about the history of the seal, but I agree with your thoughts on this.

To me there are two practical problems with allowing any exception to the seal:

Firstly, if a priest hears a serious sin, with consequences for others, eg. adultery, then he may feel it necessary to inform someone. That’s human nature - once one get’s it into one’s head that one “must” do something, the sense of personal obligation overrides any laws, unless those laws are absolute and beyond question.

Secondly, penitents will enter the confessional knowing that some sins may be revealed. While I may be confident that I have not done anything for which there is an exception to the seal, objectively, I may fear subjectively that my sins, which feel oppressively horrible to me, are not safe with the priest. Perhaps I have sinned against the parish community and he may feel obliged to take some action (eg. remove me from a ministry) or I may have done something which is on the edge of the reportable range or may, in the confessional, remember something which is reportable, or just express myself poorly. I may be unaware of the legal ramifications of a sin. Such will change the nature of the confessional for many except those with fairly trivial sins to confess.

Thanks for your thoughts!

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit