I know that the seal of confession is inviolable and that the priest cannot compel a penitent to reveal his sins to anyone else as a condition of absolution. Hence, a repentant murderer cannot be required to turn himself in to the police; an unfaithful spouse will not be compelled to tell his wife.
I am trying to find the official source for this teaching. I have found Jimmy Akin commentary and a Q&A from Catholic Answers and loads of opinions from armchair theologians, but I can’t find anything in canon law specifically. I was asked to provide the source for this claim. Any leads?
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.
§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.
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.
§2. A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.
Thank you. I understand that this refers to the sacramental seal. Someone might argue that it only applies to the confessor, and that the confessor would still be permitted to require the penitent to reveal his own sins.
Do you know of any directives, official letters, etc that specifically indicate that a confessor cannot assign a penance that involves revealing confessed sins to a third party?
Joe, I agree with you. Can you see how that’s an interpretation of canon law, though, and not explicit in the text? A betrayal is usually when someone breaks another’s trust or confidence. It’s not immediately apparent that a penitent being asked to display remorse by turning himself in to the police, for example, is the same as a confessor betraying that penitent by going to the police himself. He’s not breaking his trust, one might argue; he’s just withholding absolution until the penitent displays true remorse as manifest by collaborating with justice.
Or so goes the argument. The person I’m discussing this with is adamant that a person cannot profit by sin and that the priest is permitted to ask the penitent to make restitution, even if doing so requires the penitent to make known one of his sins.
I have to believe that this is clarified somewhere.
You won’t find this spelled out in the Code of Canon Law. In fact, it provides a counter-argument in canon 982: “Whoever confesses to have denounced falsely an innocent confessor to ecclesiastical authority concerning the crime of solicitation to sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is not to be absolved unless the person has first formally retracted the false denunciation and is prepared to repair damages if there are any.” There is no other canon like this, related to other sins. Nevertheless, this canon does demand that the priest not absolve until the penitent has “formally retracted…” This formal retraction would necessarily involve revealing the sin to a third party.
As to the broader question of what a confessor can impose as a penance, the Code says: “The confessor is to impose salutary and suitable penances in accord with the quality and number of sins, taking into account the condition of the penitent. The penitent is obliged to fulfill these personally” (c. 981). Certainly, the confessor has to absolve when he is not in doubt about the penitent’s disposition (c. 980). And, the penance should be such that the penitent is able to fulfill it (implied in c. 981).
There is also the Rite of Penance which states: "A penitent who has been the cause of harm or scandal to others is to be led by the priest to resolve to make due restitution (n. 18). This does not require a revelation of sin but if you steal $20 from the grocery store and the priest says: “Return that money.”…the clerk might put two and two together if you decide to personally return the money. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1459-1460.
If the confessor imposed as a penance: “Tell the store clerk that you stole $20.”, that’s a different matter and is what you are asking about. That would get into the area of making a person harm his own good name and this, in my understanding, is something that is not generally allowed. A person has a right to his “good name” and so revealing hidden sins would harm his good name/reputation. Canon 220 is somewhat related to this.
All that being said, as far as I know, there is no law specifically forbidding a priest from imposing a penance such as “turn yourself in to the police for that crime.”
He has a moral obligation to make reparation. That may not always involve turning yourself in. For instance, think of a country with overzealous death-penalty sentences.
The long and short of it I think however (I would of course love to see some official documentation of it) is that turning yourself in is not normally prescribed as penance. If it became routine practice to demand everyone turn themselves in to the secular authorities for their crimes as part of penance, whole chunks of people would stop seeking the Sacrament.
I would like to agree with what he said. Like “Scottgun” said, if it became commonplace for priests to require manifestation of sin, people would not want to bother with Confession and just do their best with a perfect act of contrition…
Canon 982 throws a wrench into my agreement. The law would never require, or even suggest, that a priest has to break the seal in order for a person to be absolved: “You must first retract your false denunciation (i.e., admit your hidden sin). Then, come back and I can absolve you.” So, while I agree with the conclusion and want to agree, I don’t think the argumentation is solid. The prohibition on imposing a penance which requires a manifestation of the sin to another party, it seems, has to be based on something other than the inviolability of the Seal.
I have found, though, that the old Roman Ritual expressly said that public penance is not imposed for hidden sins (Sacrament of Penance, n. 22). And, older “manuals” link this prohibition to the Seal, saying that it would be an indirect violation of it.
I am totally ignorant as to the thought-process behind the revision of this Rite. Having admitted that, I think it could have been omitted for other reasons. It could have been left out because it was thought to be common knowledge, not in dispute, and not worth repeating. That happens. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for common knowledge to be forgotten and indisputable assertions to be contradicted.
Even if there isn’t an expressed rule in this regard, I don’t think the Church wants public penances (i.e., penances which make it possible to determine a person’s sins). The development of the Sacrament of Penance, over the course of 2000 years, makes that quite clear.