Seal of the confession


I understand that priests are never supposed to break confession. St. John of Nepomuk was murdered because of his refusal to break the confession, and is considered a martyr.

But it was proven that under excruciating torture most people will say anything to make the pain stop (one of the problems with torture is that people will even say things that arn’t true if it will end the pain).

If a priest gives out someone’s confession as a result of being tortured, will he still be excommunicated?


From the Code of Canon Law:

[quote=Can. 1388 §1 ]A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal, incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; he who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the offence.

So yes, as soon as he violates the seal, even under torture, he communicates himself automatically (latae sententiae). This punishment can only be lifted by the Pope. I think the Pope would fine good reason to do so, especially since further violations are not likely, but surely only after the most rigorous investigation, and I could well be wrong.


I have never read or heard of this ever happening…


Whoaaa…slow down…please don’t simply cut and paste canon law and then lead people to believe that it means exactly what it says.

Do you know the legal precedence for the meaning of “directly violates” in the application of this part of the code?

Does it mean, “willingly and knowingly broke the sacramental seal”, period…or does it mean “willingly and knowingly broke the sacramental seal while not under extreme duress, pain, and danger to self and others”?

To be fair, I don’t know, but like you, I am not a canonist, so my hunch is you don’t know either.

Canon Law is a complicated legal specialty that takes years of training and certification to be called a Canon Lawyer.

You cannot simply say, regardless of what the code says, how exactly canon law will apply to any given circumstance.

If Canon Law was so simple, there would be no need for the Church to have a literal army of Canon Lawyers to interpret the code, so any necessary actions can be taken with complete fairness and integrity.


Whatever, read the copyrighted commentary, it says as much that it admits of no exception. I had some canon law in law school (Ave Maria) and plain meaning goes far in my experience. One can put a disclaimer for every citation to Canon Law, and I can’t find a reason why such a disclaimer would hurt, but in many cases, as here, I think the plain meaning would control, certainly to answer a HYPOTHETICAL question. You fallaciously suggest that since there is an army of canon lawyers, therefore the canon law is not simple. While that might be true, it is not necessarily true, and the great numbers you refer to may be because of a few provisions only that have great practical significance in everyday life (like those regarding decrees of nullity).

So contrary to your suggestion to slow down, if I see the exact same question, I plan to answer it the exact same way. If you ever find more on this specific case, feel free to share, and I’ll be glad to listen.


“Whatever, read the copyrighted commentary, it says as much that it admits of no exception.” This can be found on page 1164 of the New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law (Beal, hardcover), first column, towards the bottom. I’ll quote one sentence: “The secrecy to be maintained concerning the penitent and his or her confession of sins is properly described as total.” It then goes on to talk about direct vs. indirect, though using other aspects of the term than you suggest. There is also pertinent commentary on p.1564.


Anyone can read, only a canon lawyer can accurately interpret the code…I’m not in the habit of blindly following anyone on an internet website, and taking their expertise as a given…sorry!


A status of canon lawyer is not one to guarantee infallibility. The next time you see a canon lawyer on here willing to comment, we’ll defer to him/her. Until then, we’ll give the OP the canon, and let him make an educated guess, rather than state nothing.


The section of canon cited above must be interpreted in light of this section:

In short, torture affects the imputability of the offense, and thus it cannot be assumed that a latae sententiae excommunication will apply. If fact, a reading of the section I cite would suggest that a priest who violates the seal under torture must receive a lesser penalty (if any penalty), noting: “the penalty established by law or precept must be tempered or a penance employed in its place”.


Please don’t confuse “we” with you and I, but speak only for yourself…many times I will say nothing because I subscribe to the old saying, “its better to appear foolish than to open your mouth and removing all doubt”!

Would you speak for the pope just because he doesn’t post on a CAF thread?:shrug:


I don’t think of canon lawyers as being people who are able to “interpret” the Code or canon law but are simply more knowledgeable in regard to what the law actually is. So, for the case at hand, it’s not so much interpreting canon 1388 but knowing (as referenced by “underacloud”) of the existence of c. 1323.3, which says “No one is liable to a penalty who, when violating a law or precept: … 3. acted under physical force…”

Torture is certainly physical force. So, the priest who directly violates the Seal always breaks the law, no matter the circumstances. But, if he is physically forced into doing this then he is not subject to the penalty of automatic excommunication. Without question, it would be the Holy See which would make the determination about how to proceed in such a case.



I hardly think most of us have to worry about someone torturing our priest to find out what sins we committed. The Seal of Confession is inviolable and stands in ALL circumstances. Priests are human beings and so anything is possible. You received your answers here. I was just thinking of my last confession and someone torturing my priest to know what I did. I think I’m pretty safe. :smiley:


Ah, but the thing about automatic excommunication is that, like mortal sin, one must commit the offence with free will in order to incur it. Being tortured does lessen the ability for one to use free will. Furthermore, if a priest is in such a situation it is very reasonable to believe God will give him the grace to not break the seal despite torture.


Do you know what torture is? It is not just ruffing someone up, is is causing him the worst pain imaginable and not stopping until he tells you what you want to hear. Heck there are even cases of people confessing to crimes THEY DIDNT COMMIT because the torture was so painful that they just wanted the pain to stop. One sad example is the Knights Templar, who were tortured into false confessions as a pretext for a greedy French King to plunder their hard earned wealth.

Torture isn’t something you can just shrug off or bear through, so it is unfair to say otherwise.


Yes, I know what torture is. Before being martyred, most of the saints were tortured in horrendous ways yet persevered. God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond our means.

Also, every priest I’ve spoken to has said that they don’t remember the sins that people confess after they leave.


The only reason I asked the question is that during past wars, american soldiers were sometimes forced to give information to the enemy as a result of barbaric torture. This is not because they were treasonous or wanted to help the enemy, it is because they suffered so much pain that they just wanted it to stop.

In fact, soldiers are taught that if they ever find themselves as POWs and are tortured for information, they should only try to minimize the information given under torture if doing so does not threaten their lives.

In other words; if information is tortured out of a soldier, then when that soldier gets rescued he won’t be charged with treason.

While many holy martyrs withstood torture, many other innocent people we’re not able to. E Knights Templar are an example I listed: they were tortured to the point where they confessed to crimes they didn’t admit. That doesn’t make them bad people, nor does it change the fact that they were a devout chivalrous order.

Priests are people, just like you and me. Almost anyone will crack under the right amount of pain, so it is insulting to say “he’ll go to hell if he doesn’t suck it up”. Torture is a situation where nobody can just ‘suck it up’.


I have a question about the seal of confession.

I was having a discussion in confession about an event that had taken place in my life. After a while the priest asked my permission to discuss the issue outside of confession. I think he wanted to talk to another priest about the issue. I said yes but only to me outside of confession. We never followed up on the issue outside of confession.

My question: is this really breaking the seal of confession since I wasn’t confessing a sin?

Can the seal of confession be removed by the confessee (like me)?


That’s a good question, and I don’t quite know.

No one can remove from the priest the seal. In fact if you wanted to bring up something that was discussed in Confession, you’d have to talk to him as if it was a totally new subject – technically he can’t even speak to you outside of confession about your own confession.


Thank you, Pat. I guess that explains the issue in the court case in Louisiana.


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