Chaz Muth, Catholic News Service

SALEM, Ore. — When Ethan K. Alano walks into the reconciliation room at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, he bares his soul before God and goes into detail about his sins during confession. Alano’s trust in the priest is solid.

He is certain that anything he says in the confessional is confidential, allowing him to air his sins in complete specificity so that he may receive a just penance, reaffirming his relationship with the Lord.

That penitential confidence is a centuries-old rite in Catholicism and protecting it from governmental intrusion goes beyond tradition, religious freedom and Church law, said Auxiliary Bishop Peter L. Smith of Portland, who also is a canon lawyer.

It disenfranchises the sacrament if the faithful believe there is the slightest possibility that civil authorities could compel a priest to reveal what they have shared in the confessional, Bishop Smith told Catholic News Service in a May interview.

‘Encounter mercy of God’

In the confessional, “people encounter the mercy of God,” he said. “They encounter God’s forgiveness of them, but they also encounter the Lord helping them to live their lives more fully as he calls them to. So, that’s what we should experience in the sacrament of reconciliation.”

It’s the humanitarian benefit for the individual and society that has motivated the Church in making the priest-penitent privilege absolute.

So much so that the Code of Canon Law states the penalty for a priest who violates the seal of confession is automatic excommunication, which can only be lifted by the pope himself.

The punishment is that severe because penitents must be able to confess their sins in specificity in order to be reconciled with God and trust that the priest will honor confidentiality of the confessional, said Father Thomas V. Berg, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

The sanctity of the seal of the confession frequently prompts priests to assert that it’s an easy choice to make when deciding if they will obey a civil law that would compel them to reveal information heard in the confessional or face Church penalty and eternal damnation.

“I would never, ever allow them to force me to tell them anything I heard in the confessional,” said Father Lawrence C. Goode, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in East Palo Alto, California. “Certainly, I’d be willing to go to jail over it.”

Elected officials in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Chile have in recent years proposed laws that would compel priests to violate the seal of confession to report cases of child sexual abuse disclosed in the confessional.

While priests, bishops and Catholic leaders are especially sensitive to the need to bring those who sexually abuse children to justice — given the scandals that have dogged the Church in recent years, they object to any violation of the priest-penitent privilege in the confessional.

From a canonical viewpoint, the priest serves as a liaison between the penitent and God in the confessional and any information he hears doesn’t belong to him and therefore is not his to reveal, said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon and civil lawyer who teaches at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California.

Historically, the Church has affirmed the inviolability of the seal frequently, from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 through the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

How sacrament evolved

What we know today as penance, or reconciliation, wasn’t always a one-on-one confession between the priest and penitent.

“Clearly, the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation is part of the mission entrusted by Christ to the apostles,” said Father Ronald T. Kunkel, theology professor at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. “So, reconciliation began as a process whereas those who had been baptized, but had fallen into serious sin after baptism, could be reintegrated into the community” and receive the Eucharist.

In the early centuries of the Church, reconciliation was a public process, Father Kunkel told CNS in an April interview.

“People were in what was called the Order of Penitents, very much comparable to the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), so they were publicly identifiable as persons who were undergoing this period of penance in order to be fully reunited with the community,” he said. “And, they were only allowed to go through that process once in their lifetime.”

In the sixth century, when monks from Ireland began to travel throughout continental Europe, they brought with them their penitential practices of the Church, which included individual, repeatable confession.

That model became popular, and after some resistance it was accepted throughout the Church, Father Kunkel said.

It allowed confession to be private, confidential and frequent, he said.

Addressing a human need

Elected officials who craft legislation frequently don’t understand the true nature of confession and see it as a get-out-of-jail-free card for penitents, Bishop Smith said.

However, if the priest is acting within the true spirit of the sacrament, he helps guide the penitent to making restitution if the sin has wronged someone else, and he can withhold absolution if he doesn’t believe they are truly sorry for their offense, he said.

“One of the most important things and probably overlooked about confession is that first and foremost it’s a human need,” Father Berg said. “For centuries it has been the trust and the certainty of the laity that that is the one place they could relieve conscience of anything.”

Weekly confession for Elizabeth E. Santamaria of Palo Alto, California, has provided her with the serenity and stability she says she needs as she and her husband prepare for the birth of their first child later this year.

“Because I go to confession about once a week, I’m routinely examining my conscience in preparation, and the counsel I receive from the priest as he gives me my penance is invaluable,” Santamaria said in a May interview with CNS. “Not only does it unburden me of my sins, I believe it makes me a better person and a better citizen of the world.”

Confession shouldn’t be confused with psychotherapy, said Father Timothy J. Mockaitis, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Salem, Oregon.

“It’s not a place for long-term counseling,” Father Mockaitis told CNS. “But, the priest will offer spiritual counsel.”

That spiritual guidance is what Madison Richter-Egger of Omaha, Nebraska, has come to depend on in her regular confessions, to keep her emotionally and morally grounded.

“When I’m the most honest and raw with what’s happened in my life in the past month — or however long it’s been since my last confession — is when it’s most fruitful for me,” Richter-Egger said. “I don’t know where I would be without it. It’s really important to me.”

Follow Muth on Twitter: @chazmaniandevyl


‘Men of courage’ defend seal of confession 

What is spoken there is never repeated 

Chaz Muth, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK — A symbol of the historical commitment priests have to the seal of confession greets people as they cross the threshold of a Catholic church in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Above the door is a stone-carved image of St. John Nepomucene holding two fingers to his lips, signifying that priests must never reveal what is said to them in the confessional, even if that means paying the ultimate sacrifice of death.

This church is named for St. John Nepomucene — considered the patron saint for the seal of confession — and it’s adorned with artwork that tells the story of this 14th-century Bohemian priest who chose death rather than reveal what was said during the sacrament of penance.

His story demonstrates how seriously the Catholic Church takes the privilege between priest and penitent that a member of the clergy is willing to sacrifice his freedom, or even his life, to protect the seal of confession, said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon and civil lawyer who teaches at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California.

It also shows that the current struggle for the Church to have governments fully respect the sanctity of the seal of confession is not a new one, Father Pietrzyk told Catholic News Service in a May interview.

St. John Nepomucene was born sometime around 1340 and became a popular priest in what was then known as Bohemia. Ultimately, he was invited to be a confessor at the court of King Wenceslaus IV in Prague.

According to historical accounts, a jealous King Wenceslaus ordered John Nepomucene to tell him what his wife, Queen Johanna, revealed in the confessional and when he refused to break the seal of confession, the ruler made threats of torture and eventually had him bound and thrown off the Charles Bridge in Prague, where he drowned March 20, 1393.

Father John Nepomucene’s martyrdom for the seal of confession was accepted by the Church and he was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1729.

“St. John Nepomucene is a symbol of what all priests know and that is the seal of confession is absolute and the privilege between priest is penitent must be absolute,” said Father Richard D. Baker, pastor of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in New York City. “What happens there never, never is repeated.”

Uphold ‘sacredness of sacrament’

Father Pietrzyk makes a point of sharing this chapter in Church history with the seminarians he teaches in his penance class at St. Patrick’s Seminary to help them understand why priests are willing to be martyred to protect the sanctity of confession.

“To be a priest in the world today means to be a man of courage,” he said. “The sacredness of the sacrament is one thing they are committed to upholding and they do so with eyes open. They know the dangers and they are willing to undertake them because this is what God is calling them to do. This is what Christ is calling them to do.”

The Code of Canon Law states the penalty for a priest who violates the seal of confession is automatic excommunication, which can only be lifted by the pope himself.

The punishment is that severe because penitents must be able to confess their sins in specificity in order to be reconciled with God and trust that the priest will honor confidentiality of the confessional, said Father Thomas V. Berg, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

A bill going through the California Legislature would require a priest to report to civil authorities information concerning child sexual abuse learned in the confessional by another member of the clergy or a co-worker.

“I don’t think it would be a difficult decision for a priest to make when faced with this dilemma. Break the seal or go to jail? Absolutely, I would not break the seal of confession,” said Father Ryan P. Lewis of Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Omaha, Nebraska. “I would go to jail.”

Still under attack

Toward the end of the 20th century, Father Timothy J. Mockaitis of Eugene, Oregon, was engaged in his own battle against the state where he ministered to keep secret the contents of a 1996 confession he heard from a detention center inmate.

Father Mockaitis had been a chaplain at the Lane County Adult Detention Center at the time when he learned the confession he heard from an inmate and a suspect in a murder case had been secretly taped by jail officials and a state prosecutor was attempting to secure a legal way of listening to it.

The Archdiocese of Portland and Father Mockaitis objected to this use of a confession, demanded that the tape be destroyed and pursued the case through the legal system.

The 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals eventually ruled that the state of Oregon could not use the tape in a prosecution, but it didn’t order the destruction of the recording.

“So, we only viewed this as a partial victory,” Father Mockaitis told CNS in a May interview. “As far as I know, that tape is still sitting in an evidence locker somewhere. That tape is a symbol of the state’s violation of a sacramental confession and a violation of religious freedom.

“It’s an affront to the separation of Church and state and the fact that it still exists is a slap in the face to the Church,” said Father Mockaitis, who wrote a 2008 book titled “The Seal: A Priest’s Story,” recounting the episode. “The fact is, in a country whose foundation is based on religious freedom, this tape never should have been made in the first place.”

History shows there have been attempts by governments to obtain information revealed in the confessional for centuries, an effort that continues today.

In the past two years, lawmakers in the U.S., Australia and Chile have crafted legislation that would compel priests to violate the seal of confession, in one form or another, to address the global child sexual-abuse crisis, said Father Ronald T. Kunkel, theology professor at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago.

Father Kunkel has told seminarians at Mundelein to be prepared for the state to try and compel them, in some circumstances, to break the seal of confession.

“That threat is very real,” he said, “and that is something we simply cannot do.”