Seal of Confession, etc. If priest learns he fathered a child

~ On the use of knowledge gained confidentially ~

Please note, this post is not about absolution or the conditions under which absolution is valid or invalid.

This post is about two things:

First,

Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

Second,

The related (though distinct) topic of information gained by a priest in spiritual direction or private conversation wherein confidentiality is expected, or information was shared on the assumption that trust would not be betrayed.

I am not posing a specific question. Instead, I’m doing something similar to what is done in the News section of the forum – posting content as a point of departure and basis for conversation.

Now that I have established the topic, I pose the scenario.

The following scene and montages are from a Mexican telenovela called El Privilegio de Amar (1998) • “The Privilege to Love” . I added English subtitles.


Context for the above scene:

The woman, Luciana, walks toward the confessional as the priest is standing up, having finished hearing confessions. He sees her but doesn’t recognize her. He motions her to approach. She kneels behind the screen. After he asks her what brings her, she remarks that he has a poor memory, and went on to say that they had shared important moments in the home of his parents. At that point, a look of shock and distress comes over the priest and he asks her what her name is, and she tells him. The scene then cuts to a different scene and characters. When it cuts back to the priest and the woman, they are no longer in the confessional, but having a conversation face to face.

In case anyone is wondering, no, this story isn’t an anti-Catholic production. Quite the opposite. It’s a story about wounds, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

The protagonist, Cristina, is the daughter of the priest. She was conceived when he was a young man about to head off to seminary, urged into the priesthood by his mother. Luciana, the young woman who worked in the family home as a maid, was in love with him, and suffered interiorly. They got involved one night when they were conversing alone in a bedroom, after he had been packing his things. He left, never finding out that she became pregnant…until 20 years later. She abandoned her baby due to poverty.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to examine the whole story. I’ve chosen a specific topic, as described above.

The opening credits. I am posting it because the opening is a symbolic scene – it is not a scene
from any of the episodes. It is a staged, uninterrupted sequence that was specifically crafted to reveal the entire cast and capture the essence of a complex story in under two minutes. This telenovela is 155 episodes long. It has a beautiful ending.

A telenovela (literally: “television novel”) is a Latin American television genre

For comparison, “sit com”, “talk show”, “reality tv” are genres.

Sometimes “telenovela” gets translated as a “soap opera” but that’s misleading. There are key genre-related and cultural differences. One of the big differences is that a telenovela has a definite beginning and end, just like a novel. It does not go on for years. When aired on TV, it lasts several months, but less than a year, from beginning to end.

It’s one self-contained story, with a very specific plot, protagonists, antagonists (villains), and good vs. evil.

Traditionally there is an explicit Catholic undertone. This is a very interesting topic in its own right - the creative adaptions of Catholic characters (spanning every type of moral variety, virtuous, vicious, and everything in between). But I don’t want to get sidetracked. The episodes are called chapters. Each subsequent chapter picks up where the previous ended.

Telenovelas borrow elements from theatre, and center around the universal themes of love and romance. At the core of the story is a couple that is struggling to make their love and relationship work, but the relationship is tested in very serious and drastic ways. This is particularly true of the melodramas (a subgenre of drama).

The telenovela above is produced by Televisa. In a certain sense, Televisa is to Mexico what Hollywood is to the USA in terms of being an icon of the country. However, Hollywood is much more famous around the world. Hollywood industry specializes in films, Televisa company specializes in telenovelas for a primarily Latin America audience. The classic telenovelas taught moral lessons while delivering strong, emotionally engaging stories that encompassed both immense tragedy, joy, and poetic justice, culminating in a happy ending to a hard-fought love. For this reason, in Spanish, Televisa is known as “the factory of dreams”.

What does this have to do with confession? It seems clear that the woman didn’t go to confess to the priest, she wanted to get together with him and talk about the past. Which is fine, but given that they then end up having a chat outside the confessional, confession doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. A prudent priest would likely tell her to see another priest for her confession and spiritual direction.

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Ana, I remember hearing that a priest cannot offer
absolution to someone he commuted a sin with.

Hope that helps.

Telenovelas get things wrong all the time.

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Oh, the priest is Cesar Evora!

He was Gabriel in Laberintos de Pasion.

My grandmother always watched Novelas growing up because Spanish was easy for her to understand.

I used to watch them with my parents as well.

Luz Clarita.

Cañaveral de pasiones.

Laberintos de pasión

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Confession in films often gets stuff wrong. Just like how lawyers in films routinely commit serious violations of ethics or civ pro to the point where the films get used as teaching tools.

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You mean you guys can’t so much as flirt with your clients or counsel them on how to break the law?! :rofl:

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You’re not supposed to do that, but actually as violations go that stuff is considered pretty minor.
Privilege violations, on the other hand, are not.

Then you have stuff like “The Verdict” where the lawyer rejects a settlement without asking his client, tampers with someone’s mail, and then the jury considers evidence it was told by the judge to ignore. Or “The Lincoln Lawyer” where so much was haywire I’m still sorting it all out.

Interestingly, one of the more allegedly “correct” legal movies is “My Cousin Vinny”, so they say.

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Ah, I probably should have explained. I recall when I was young, I saw a scene that I never forgot, but it was from a different telenovela. It involved a villain (a very sick and perverse man) asking an elderly, retired priest if he would hear his confession. In point of fact, the villain wasn’t contrite. The reason he wanted to “confess” was just to torment the poor priest given that the content of the confession involved saying something he (the villain) had done to the detriment of the priest’s granddaughter. The consequence of which is that, her biological little boy was in the hands of another family, and she was raising a boy not her own, but unaware of it. Because of what the villain did when the boys were just newborn babies.

The point here is not so much what he did, but the fact that he disclosed the information under the pretext of confession.

Luciana (the woman described in my earlier post) is not a villain. I agree that what she wanted was to talk to him. Nonetheless, it’s not clear from the scene when exactly the seal-of-the-confession stops applying. If I have time later today I will upload the confessional scene and add subtitles to it. It’s short.

Presumably the priest stopped the confession so they could discuss.

But I’ve gone to Confession outside of a confessional area, so that can’t be what determines when the confession is happening. In other words, the thing that determines the window of time that the seal applies. Does it require the priest to indicate the transition from confession to ordinary conversation?

Yes, that is true. But I think that’s why Luciana and Padre go from talking in the confessional through the screen, to talking in the pews of the church. I think it’s implied that he did not give her absolution, since they had sexual intimacy 20 years prior which is what she was referring to when she said (while behind the screen) “we shared important moments in the home of your parents”.

What is not clear is when the seal stopped applying, because it would seem she intended to share the information under the protection of the seal… Had Father not ended the confessional scene.

Later today I will try to upload the scene when she approached the confessional (with subtitles). I’d love to hear comments!

Any Canon law experts on this forum that I could tag?

Technically, confession begins with the penitent saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.

If the priest was confused on whether or not someone was confessing to him, he’d ask.

OP, I understand that you were hoping to spark a conversation with this thread but I find myself baffled. What do you wish to discuss? Clarity and concision are your friends on this forum.

I Confess, by Hitchcock was a very good example of a confession in film that was done correctly. It is also a very pro-Catholic movie. The priest in that movie is presented very well as a masculine, faithful man.

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I would like to discuss what a priest would be able to do and would not be able to do if he found out that he fathered a child. Specifically, if he found out in the context of sacramental confession, or in a conversation linked to confession, or confidential (even if non-sacramental) conversation.

By “able”, we can mean able in the ethical sense, the canonical sense, (wherever it applies), prudential, and practical sense. I’m interested in considering the issue from any of those angles.

For example, would he be able to seek out a paternity test?

Could he approach someone from the past or someone in connection to the woman who conceived (e.g. acquaintance of the woman, family member) to try and get information?

Last year, in Mexico, I discovered that my uncle (who has never married) fathered a daughter. He has never mentioned having a daughter. What happened is that my aunt (his sister) told me privately that a woman approached her and identified herself as his ex girlfriend from over 18 years ago and told her about their daughter.

We ended up meeting with the woman in a plaza and she told us the whole story. But the daughter doesn’t know that the man who raised her isn’t her biological father. So the woman urged us to not drop any hints when seeing her daughter.

The daughter was taking a stroll with her own baby, but eventually approached the three of us while we were sitting on the plaza bench and I could immediately tell the resemblance. We chatted casually for a while, and I added her on Instagram because, if she’s my cousin, I would like her in my life. The mom sent me follow-up pictures of her daughter, after the meeting, and the resemblance is even more obvious in the pictures.

The story in a nutshell is that my uncle and the woman broke up, and she ended up moving to the USA. She got married civilly but that marriage broke down.

In a visit to Mexico, she had a run in with my uncle one night. It was a December and it happened during the town’s Christmas festivities. They slept together. She became pregnant, (she even remembered the dates of when they slept together and when she missed her period! ) but never told him directly. However, she knows that he heard the rumor of her pregnancy. I also vaguely remember her saying that my uncle’s friend saw her when she was visibly pregnant.

She went on to contract another marriage.

Is your uncle a priest?

Forgive me, but linking your personal family experience with the specific question of “What could a priest do if someone approached him in confession and told him he had unknowingly fathered a child?” seems really bizarre to me.

No, he isn’t a priest. I mentioned this anecdote to give a personal example of “acting upon the knowledge” that someone fathered a child.

In this case, it meant setting up a meet up with the woman, in a public space, where my aunt and I knew that we would be able to see her daughter (because she told us her daughter would be nearby).

I’m using that simply as an example of what
I understand to be “use of knowledge”. Though there are many other examples, and that’s part of what I’m trying to get people to discuss.

What are the parameters of “use of knowledge” gained in Confession. And use of knowledge gained in confidence?

Is there a way of using knowledge such that it doesn’t break the Seal? Etc.

Yes, it is one of the few movies where confession is properly presented.
And then we have movies like “Godfather III” where the priest basically states Michael is unrepentant and then absolves him anyway, or “Annabelle: Creation” where a religious sister is hearing confessions, or “The Confession” where a priest is lying to the penitent.

“I Confess” was an anomaly, done by an excellent director, in an era when Catholics generally went to confession every week and would have cared and been very aware if something was amiss with the film. It’s not like that now. Most of the tme characters aren’t even going to confession to confess and be absolved, instead they’re going in there to yell about how they don’t believe in God or to murder the priest or, as in this case, to reconnect with the priest they had an affair with years prior.

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The priest would presumably ask that the person meet with him outside the confessional.
Presumably that’s what happened here.
It’s too bad the film didn’t show the priest doing that so it would be clear that the two people weren’t in confession/ under the seal any more. Presumably either the filmmakers thought that detail was unimportant and/or don’t really understand how confession works.

I’m not sure those are the only two options. Intentional suspense is a third. Provoking thought in the viewer is another.

Even a casual non-Catholic would be able to notice that something changed…“Wait…why didn’t they just stay in the confessional? Why did they go to the pews?”

Also, don’t forget the element of symbolism.

What do pews represent? Why would a priest sit in a pew with a penitent? What sort of connotation does this have that is different from a priest sitting inside a confessional hearing the penitent?

Remember also, Mexico (like other Latin American countries) are predominately Catholic countries. So much so that many times a Mass is held for the cast when a telenovela is going to begin production/filming, because so many of the actors are Catholic. The reason this is relevant is that in a Catholic country, it is much easier to ensure that you “get it right” when representing Catholic sacraments on television or film.

That certainly doesn’t mean the creators can’t get it wrong. It just means that they have the advantage and ready access of easily getting answers to questions they have in regards to the accuracy of how a priest is portrayed in a scene that involve things like the administration of the sacraments.

Treading the line between accurate depiction, creativity, and originality can be a very, very difficult thing to pull off. Especially when dealing with something as delicate as Catholicism. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

I’m not seeing how it’s suspenseful. What’s the suspense? Being on the edge of your seat to see if the priest does something wrong vis-a-vis this penitent?

I think perhaps I just don’t appreciate the dramatic value of this entire plot. It sounds like an old tired rehash of the “Thorn Birds” trope.

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