Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Seal of Confession: What's said in the box, stays in the box... or not?

I have a memory of being a five-year old boy in a pre-primary class at a Catholic school in the western suburbs of Melbourne (St. Paul's, Sunshine - this is a shout out to you). I was with a couple of other classmates: Justin, a Vietnamese boy who lived down the road from me; and Steve (yes, another Steve), a Maltese boy (yes, another Maltese boy); and we had decided to go into our classroom during Recess and steal the lollies (that's "candy" to you North Americans, I suppose) from our teacher's lolly container. A bold move, especially for three five-year old boys.

Just to give things a little perspective: I had two main baby-sitters as a young boy growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne: Sesame Street, and my grandparents who - despite being in Australia for around 40 years at that stage - spoke english well enough to get them by, but would hear english words correctly but they'd come out all wrong (e.g. my nanna was recently told she had inflammation in her knee which caused swelling; she told us that it was "inflation" causing the swelling). Combine the two "teachers" of the english language together and you get a five-year old experiencing some difficulty in articulating his thought. Anyway, back to the lolly container caper, but remember this detail...

So there was Justin, myself, and Steve all at the lolly container which was perched on our teacher's desk which at the time was about 10 feet high to us. I had already stuck my my hand in the container and pulled out a few lollies to feast on (liquorice all sorts, a favourite of mine) and somewhere in the middle of or chewing on my first one I witnessed Justin and Steve debating on who of them should go first. To cut a long story short, they took some lollies - as did I - and we high-tailed it out of there! The game was, however, up when we resumed class after Recess.

I was dobbed in and the only one with blame laid. Even my five-year old mind could not comprehend it because I knew that there should be two others up there with me enduring the brutish verbal lashings of our pre-primary teacher, Mrs. Gardener (I can still smell the coffee on her breath even today). The problem was though that I didn't know how to articulate the fact that there were others in on this dastardly crime; Sesame Street and my broken English-speaking grandparents never taught me how to rat-out someone or even how to proclaim my [partial] innocence! All I could think of was how to ask for more food! So I had no choice but to confess. The experience was completely humiliating and my poor mother - much to her own embarrassment - was made to purchase replacement lollies. I remember walking into the classroom the following morning with my mother holding my hand, and in her other hand a bag of new liquorice all-sorts. I was then made to apologise to Mrs. Gardener in front of the whole class; my sin was known by the entire class, and all the while my "partners" in this crime, Justin and Steve, were too giving me a look with my classmates as if to say, "How could he do such a thing?" I later learned that if you're going to do something naughty, put all the blame on the kid who couldn't speak English that well.

So what does that story have to do with the Seal of Confession? Well first all, confessing a wrong that you've done sucks. Getting the truth out there doesn't suck, but it's looking at the people you've hurt in the eye and admitting that you're the cause of that hurt. It's also tough saying sorry for what you've done even though you know very well that you should not have done those things in the first place, and this is what hurts others the most. I struggle with Confession for these reasons. Yes, I go to Confession willingly, but no matter how many times I have been, the confessing never gets any easier, so I do take solace in the fact that my priest is the only other human being apart from myself hearing these confessions and that my sins are for no one else but God. It is with this in mind that we place a high level of trust in our priests; they are bound to the Seal of Confession, that your sins confessed will not leave the confessional.

Let's first have a look at what the Code of Canon Law says (addressed in canons 983 and 984, and paragraph 1467 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church) about the Seal of Confession and then apply this to one or two hypothetical situations:

Can. 983 §1 The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a *confessor in any way to betray the **penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion. 

§2 An interpreter, if there is one, is also obliged to observe this secret, as are all others who in any way whatever have come to a knowledge of sins from a confession. 

Can. 984 §1 The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded. 

§2 A person who is in authority may not in any way, for the purpose of external governance, use knowledge about sins which has at any time come to him from the hearing of confession.

*the priest

The key things to take away from canons 983 and 984 are the following:

1.) The sins that you confess stay in the confessional, i.e. what's said in the box stays in the box, and you'll be surprised at how poor your parish priest's memory is regarding your sins, even your habitual ones. You might even excuse your priest for being an amnesiac!
2.) Anything you say in the confessional will not be used against you to your detriment and no "external governance" (e.g. the police) has the right to go to your priest and make them share any information relating to a crime, investigation, etc.

So practically what does that mean? To iterate the strength of the seal, here's a [bizarre] question a friend put to me concerning something spoken about inside the confessional:

"Would it be okay for a priest to use a recipe he heard about in the confessional spoken about by a penitent?"

Like I said: bizarre question, but it's actually a good example to use to demonstrate the extent to which the seal extends. I first asked the following question to learn a little bit more about the scenario:

"Was the recipe shared before or after absolution?"

If the recipe was shared after absolution, then that information is not bound to the Seal of Confession, so it would be okay for the priest to use the recipe if this is the case.

If the recipe was shared before absolution, then the general rule of thumb would - to be completely on the safe side - that the recipe would not be used even though it seems such a harmless thing.

The follow-up question to this pertained to how the recipe was acquired in the first place. Yes, again, this is a bizarre question to ask and seems highly unlikely to take place, but it's all about the principle:

"What if the recipe was shared after absolution but was stolen from somebody else?"

This required a bit of thinking, but I think I understood the parameters well enough to deliver a response.

The recipe was given after absolution so this would make it okay to be shared since this information is not part of the confession, but it was stolen, and stealing concerns grave matter which is a mortal sin. If the recipe was stolen, then this sin of stealing needed to be confessed. It would also not be moral for the priest to use the recipe due to the means by which it was acquired. By benefitting from something that was stolen, you participate in the stealing, and by participating in stealing, you participate in sin; you participate in evil. Additionally the recipe would still not be allowed to be shared and used externally even after absolution was given for the sin(s) [of stealing]. A confession would then need to be made for the sin of stealing (obviously) but even then - after absolution - the recipe should not be shared/used.

I told you it was a strange question, but despite its peculiarity, it highlighted how indeed tight that confessional seal is.

Your sins will not leave that confessional, and what ever is said - even if it is said beyond the bounds of the confession - it cannot be used against you. Period.

Thank you Jesus for the gift of confession and for giving man the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23).

Ite in pace.

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