When does the seal of confession kick in?

Does it cover anything said in the confessional? Does it only apply if absolution occurs? Somewhere in between?

Hypothetical example: Say someone were to confess actively harboring suicidal thoughts/making a plan to kill themself, and the priest deemed them insufficiently repentant and withheld absolution. If the priest knew who the penitent was, could he call the police and ask them to do a welfare check based on this admission of suicidal thinking/planning, or would the seal still apply because the information came out within the context of confession (even if no absolution occurred)?

The seal applies even if there is no absolution.


So if it’s not contingent on absolution, is there a particular point in the sacrament when it begins to apply?


Most priests would consider the seal to apply to everything said in the Confessional, as that’s the safest way to go.

They might consider the seal to not apply if it was really obvious the person was in the confessional speaking for a purpose other than making a confession. For example, if someone ran into the confessional and yelled, “Father, the church is on fire! You need to get out of here!” then Father could probably tell the police and fire departments that he was hearing confessions when Parishioner X ran in and told him the church was on fire.


I always wonder about these far-fetched “what if…” confession scenarios. They cause me to wonder about the posters who make them, too.


OP, regarding your suicide hypothetical:

First, priests have explained before on here that they would try to get a suicidal person to meet with them outside the confessional so they can get them help.

Second, do you honestly think from a pastoral perspective, the priest’s main concern when a suicidal person says they’re making a suicide plan in confession is for the priest to tell them, “you’re not sufficiently repentant, no absolution for you.”

I agree with the above poster. What would motivate you to come up with this hypothetical? What is your point? Have you actually thought through how a prudent priest would act? Why do people constantly come up with weird (to say the least) confession hypotheticals?


Here’s the thing, though: @QuizBowlNerd’s hypothetical doesn’t even make sense. Priests don’t absolve for “plans for future events”, so it doesn’t make sense that a priest would say “you’re not sorry enough for this thing you haven’t even done yet, so I won’t absolve you for the sin you haven’t committed.”


That brings to mind the classic question, what if someone came and confessed something like “Father, I just planted a time bomb here in church set to go off in ten minutes”? Our pastor always said that in that instance he would find it necessary to take a restroom break.


He can’t betray the penitent…that doesn’t mean he can’t take action period. If he simply left the church to avoid the blast, he wouldn’t be betraying the penitent. That would be my understanding.

You’re right, it’s a bad example. I presume most priests would not act like that. I was grasping for some situation where absolution would be denied, and insufficient penitence was the only reason I could come up with. The actual situation is complicated because, while there might not have been grounds to deny absolution, the penitent didn’t know that at the time. A friend of mine once told me that after confessing depression/“death-centric” thoughts, the priest asked her to talk to someone about it, which she was not open to. She tried to deflect but finally ended up telling him she would (even though she didn’t intend to follow through) because, while he didn’t outright say he would withhold absolution if she didn’t agree, she got the impression he wasn’t going to let her go unless she did. He might have even made it her penance. She always wondered if she’d refused and just walked out without being absolved if there was any chance he’d have called the cops to check up on her. In hindsight, she said she realized that such a refusal on her part probably shouldn’t have been grounds to withhold absolution, so she might have been able to refuse and still be absolved, but she didn’t know that at the time.

My understanding is that the priest cannot act on any information that he received during confession. So even if the penitent told the priest that he had poisoned the wine used for mass, the priest could not do anything about it and would have to use the wine for the next mass.

Time for the priest to accidentally knock over the chalice.


That seems silly. The priest could just use different wine. And he could give a penance that the person confess what he had done to the police.

No, the priest is not allowed to do this. The priest cannot require that a person reveal his sins to anyone outside the confessional. (We’ve been over this on dozens of threads where people seem to think priests can require people to turn themselves in to the police as a condition of them getting absolution, or for penance.)

The priest could try to get the person to meet with him outside the confessional and talk to him outside confession, and if the person agreed and talked to him outside confession, then the priest could urge him to turn himself in, or even report to the police what the person said OUTSIDE confession.


Fair enough, but it has to be contrition for a sin committed, not one merely contemplated.

sigh. OK… now it’s clear. Your thought experiment is based on someone else’s misunderstanding of the sacrament of reconciliation, and a mistaken interpretation of a priest’s words while in the confessional. Got it. OK… let’s see if we can’t clear those up for you:

  • priests do not grant absolution for sins not (yet) committed, so even though suicidal ideation is a serious situation, it’s not a sin (and therefore, cannot be absolved).
  • priests cannot force a penance upon a person; it must be agreed to between confessor and penitent.
  • priests cannot make absolution conditional on the carrying out of a particular penance
  • priests cannot assign a penance that will publicly “out” a person, as such. (Often, priests will offer to accompany a penitent, if they wish the support that another person can offer, as the penitent takes reasonable and necessary steps in healing himself and others.

So, with all these things considered:

  • your friend was mistaken that the priest would have withheld absolution based on her unwillingness to seek counseling
  • your friend was mistaken that the priest was going to hold her hostage, so to speak, if she didn’t agree to seeking counseling
  • your friend was mistaken that the penance your friend would have received would be “you must attend counseling”

She seems to have later realized she was mistaken, so that’s good.

Yes, but… what if he just ‘happened’ to bump the cruet and the wine spilled out? (I see that 'Tis already beat me to the punch! :rofl: )

No. The priest may not do that.


As I understand it, the prohibition is against using information learned in confession to the detriment of the penitent, or in any way that might reveal the content of the confession, not that he cannot act at all. In the time bomb example, I don’t think there would be any prohibition against the priest, for example, pulling a fire alarm to clear the church, as long as he does not implicate the penitent in any way.


The seal isn’t contingent on whether or not a person is absolved - it covers the identity of the penitent and the nature of their confession (as well as whether or not absolution is granted).

Although not strictly a sin, I prefer not to dispute with a penitent whether or not their actions are sinful. If it’s significant enough for them to bring it to confession, I’ll do them the respect of treating it seriously rather than just dismissing it out of hand. Imo any priest who took that approach to suicidal ideation should have their faculty to hear confession withdrawn. Having been in that situation, I gave the person absolution and encouraged them to talk to me after about it (explaining why this was necessary) so I could help them and, thankfully, they did.

No, that’s not correct and neither is the bomb threat example. A priest can’t act on information received to the detriment of the penitent so the priest would be perfectly able to replace the wine or evacuate the church. The seal also wouldn’t apply if the person had no intention of confessing / availing themselves of the sacrament.


Right. I’m not suggesting you would say, brusquely, “that’s not a sin – get out of the confessional!”. However… would you absolve them for a sin they haven’t committed? (It would seem that the pastoral approach would be to offer an absolution – for the actual sins committed – without specifying that future plans aren’t included.)

I don’t think I suggested “dismissing out of hand”, though. Rather, I just commented on the OP’s assertion that absolution would be withheld.

Ah, but were the suicidal thoughts the only thing brought to confession? (No need to answer.). If they were, then I guess your thought was “I’m sure there are venial sins left unmentioned”, such that absolution made sense.

No, a priest could not go to the authorities and say I have just had a man/woman in my confessional who is likely to attempt to commit suicide in the very near future.

When he faced the ire of his bishop and the Holy See he would have no defence by the claim he didn’t grant absolution.

The seal of the sacrament applies from when you enter the confessional until you leave it. The priest cannot even go as far as saying, ‘I had Mr Bloggs in for confession today’. The priest cannot say who came to confession and can reveal NOTHING about what happened in the confessional

Generally, yes and in this sort of situation, definitely. The reason being that a person confessing suicidal ideation is obviously doing so because it’s troubling them and because they’re wanting help/forgiveness. To refuse absolution, on the basis that what they’re confessing isn’t’ strictly a sin (although imo that’s at least open to debate) would only serve to make things a whole lot worse. So, given a choice between potentially pushing someone over the edge and an unnecessary absolution, I’m pretty clear on which one I’d go for.

They may have confessed some acts of self harm but I don’t really remember. Regardless, they came seeking the Lord’s forgiveness for acts they considered sinful and that’s all that matters really.

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