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- This article concerns a doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church only.
- For the similar principle in other denominations see Seal of the Confessional and the Anglican Church and Seal of the Confessional and the Lutheran Church.
In the Decretum of Gratian who compiled the edicts of previous councils and the principles of Church law which he published about 1151, we find 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
– Decretum, Secunda pars, dist. VI, c. II
- and he goes on to say that the violator of this law should be made a life-long, ignominious wanderer.
Canon 21 of the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215), binding on the whole Church, laid down the obligation of secrecy in the following words:
Let the priest absolutely beware that he does not by word or sign or by any manner whatever in any way betray the sinner: but if he should happen to need wiser counsel let him cautiously seek the same without any mention of person. For whoever shall dare to reveal a sin disclosed to him in the tribunal of penance we decree that he shall be not only deposed from the priestly office but that he shall also be sent into the confinement of a monastery to do perpetual penance
– Hefele-Leclercq, "Histoire des Conciles" at the year 1215; Mansi or Harduin, "Coll. conciliorum"
Notably, neither this canon nor the law of the Decretum purports to enact for the first time the secrecy of confession. The great fifteenth 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. (Cf. also Jos. Mascardus, De probationibus, Frankfort, 1703, arg. 378.)[clarification needed]
According to Roman Catholic Canon law 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.
Priests may not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others. For a priest to break confidentiality would lead to a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication, the lifting of which is reserved to the Holy See—in fact, to the Pope himself (Code of Canon Law, 1388 §1). It is presumed such a breach could be forgiven only with the lifting of the authority of that priest to ever hear confessions again, and a requirement that the priest undertake an extended period of penance, perhaps in a monastery. In the Early Modern period, some casuists (Thomas Sanchez, etc.) justified mental reservation, a form of deception which does not involve outright lying, in specific circumstances including when such an action is necessary to protect confidentiality under the seal of the confessional.
In a criminal matter, a priest may encourage or require the penitent to surrender to authorities and may withhold absolution if the penitent refuses to do so. However, this is the extent of the leverage they wield. They may not directly or indirectly disclose the matter to civil authorities themselves (see priest-penitent privilege).
There are limited cases where portions of a confession may be revealed to others, but always with the penitent's permission and always without actually revealing the penitent's identity. This is the case, for example, with more serious offenses, as some excommunicable offenses are reserved to the bishop or even to the Holy See, and their permission to grant absolution must be obtained. In these cases, the priest hearing the confession asks the permission of the penitent to write a petition, using pseudonyms and containing the absolute minimum information necessary, to the bishop or to the Apostolic Penitentiary, the cardinal delegated by the Pope to handle such requests. This request may be forwarded, sealed, through the apostolic delegate or nuncio in a country (the Pope's ambassador), to be guarded by the privilege of a diplomatic pouch.
The doctrine is respected in various degrees by civil governments as priest-penitent privilege.
- Seal of the Confessional and the Anglican Church
- Seal of the Confessional and the Lutheran Church
- John of Nepomuk, the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional