Catholics: a question about confession

I’ve got a question about confession, and about how confidential it is.

I’ve heard that the confidentiality is absolute, that the priest can’t repeat, to anybody, what he’s heard.

Movies have made a point of that, the priest hears a really heinous crime confessed, but can’t tell anyone.

My question is this, how accurate is that? I mean, I don’t take the movies as an accurate depiction of religious practice. I also don’t imagine that many folks who commit really ugly acts tend to go to confession much. But what if a priest heard the confession of someone he knew, or recognized, and this person told him of a serious crime they’d perpetrated? How is he supposed to deal with that?

By keeping it utterly secret. The seal of the confessional is absolute.

He would probably urge the penitent to turn himself in. He might even withhold absolution unless the penitent did so.

But he couldn’t say, “…or I’ll turn you in myself.” Canon law forbids it, and secular law would make his testimony inadmissible.

A confessor can’t say anything, period. He may (must) encourage criminals to confess their crimes to the authorities, but I don’t think that it can be assigned as penance.

The priest can (and typically does) urge the penitent to go to the authorities himself. And I believe, though I’m not certain, that the priest is also allowed to act to prevent an evil (if, for instance, someone comes into the confessional and confesses that they’re currently planning a crime).

If a priest breaks his vow he can always go to confession afterwards.

I’ll use the illustration that was used when the seal of the confessional was explained to me before I joined the Church:

If a person came to the priest and confessed to murder, with the blood of the murdered person still on his/her hands, and after confession shook the priest’s hands. Then the police came and found blood on the priest’s hand, all the priest could say was “a penitent came to me for confession”. He could not say the person confessed to murder, he could not even indicate if this person was male or female. The priest could be arrested and executed for the murder, but he can not break the seal of the confessional.

A theme that comes up, sometimes, in TV or movies, is that the cops suspect that a priest heard information at a confession that could be important in their investigation of a crime. The priest says “Sorry, can’t tell you what he [the suspect] said.”

So what would happen in these circumstances? Could the priest be forced, in court, to reveal what he was told in confession?

St. John Nepomucene is revered for not breaking the seal of the confessional even when he was killed for it.

No, he can’t. Breaking the seal of the confession is one of the few things that results in immediate excommunication from the Church.

Only a direct breaking of the seal results in immediate excommunication. An ‘indirect’ violation (making reference to someone, perhaps, using knowledge gained from the confession) does not necessarily require excommunication.

Well, right, but the point is that breaking the seal of the confessional is considered worse than even a mortal sin that one could have absolved by going to confession. I believe it’s considered a crime against the Church.


All fifty states have a statute recognizing some form of the priest-penitent privilege. There are some variants that make it important, though, to ask in what state our hypothetical priest finds himself.

Virginia’s Code § 19.2-271.3 governs the use of the privilege in criminal trials, to pick an example I’m familiar with. In Virginia, the privilege belongs to the priest, so he could choose to testify, but could not be forced. O’Dell v. Commonwealth, 234 Va. 672, cert. denied, 488 U.S. 871 (1988).

As previously stated, though, canon law would forbid the priest from making that choice.

It’s worth taking into account here that other churches than the Catholic do practice confession. Notably the Eastern Orthodox consider it a significant element of their spiritual life. Higher-church Anglicans will often have private confession, though it’s not mandatory and many Anglicans never participate in it. The traditional formula is “All can, some should, none must.” I don’t know Orthodox standards for the seal of the confessional; the few Anglican priests I’ve heard discuss the subject regard it as equally absolute as do Catholics.

I’d speculate that the privilege at law you note as belonging to the priest may address a church that does not deem the seal as absolute – giving room for both those that do (to invoke it) and those that do not to choose to testirfy).

Thank you everyone for your replies. I appreciate you taking the time to explain!

That’s all very well in theory.

In practice, I’m told quite a few priests denounced penitents (or rather, sons of penitents whose devout parents, neighbours or siblings had confessed about) to Franco’s people during the Spanish Civil War for example.

Considering Franco stood for tradition & religion while the revolutionaries were for the most part intellectuals, communists and anarchists, and considering men of the cloth are, well, men per definition and therefore faillible, I wouldn’t think it such a stretch to believe such an allegation.

How can you confess your neighbors’ sins? I believe you were “told” BS.

Confession is not just about sin and absolution - it’s also a way to ask for guidance or counsel on matters that you’d wish remain secret, or that you can tell no one else. Or merely tell secrets that burden your soul to someone who’s dutybound not to repeat them.
Even more so in the pre-shrink days.

I’d still like to get a cite showing many priests in Spain denounced people to the police.

I’m no historian, haven’t read any book on the subject save for Malraux’s L’Espoir, and I must confess (ha !) my search-fu is failing me : the only relevant data I could find was a mention of the fact in Ken Loach’s “Land & Freedom” - not exactly impartial, although according to Wikipedia it’s based on a historical event.

Other than that, I did find quite a few stories about priests breaking the seal of confession, but none specifically relating to the Spanish Civil War. But I reiterate that the idea is not *that *far-fetched.

OOT, I did stumble upon a news bit I find absolutely hilarious : after shepherding his village for a long time, Spanish priest leaves the Church so he can marry. Ex-priest then proceeds to run for mayor and get elected thrice in a row by essentially blackmailing the whole town with all the crap he’s heard them tell him in confession, a secret he’s not technically bound to anymore.
In a flatter world, that guy’d be Patrician :slight_smile:

Thanks Bricker, very informative.