Why should priests be afforded greater privilege than lawyers?

Occasioned by questions raised in this thread.

I’m talking about privileged communications between a priest and those he confesses, a lawyer and his client, a doctor and his patient, etc. Only the priest has absolute privilege in the eyes of the law. If the lawyer or doctor learns of a crime that is about to be committed he or she must report it or fall foul of the law. Not so the priest, and I want to explore a little why that should be so.

Society recognizes, with the lawyer and doctor, that in some instances the principle of privileged communication must give way for the greater good, ie the prevention of a crime, perhaps even the preservation of human life.

The priest however has no such obligation. He pleads the absolute sanctity of the confessional and the solemn vows he has taken which forbid him to act on such knowledge, even if a life is in the balance. And remarkably the State accepts this. Where is the greater good now? The needs of the Church and its adherents are being placed above those of society.

Why should not the priest be subject to the same laws as the physician and lawyer? It could be made clear to those confessing that anything they admit to that is in the past is sacrosanct and will not be revealed but if the priest learns that a crime is about to be committed then he will report it. If it later transpires that the priest kept silent about something that could have been prevented then he should be prosecuted.

Ah, it may be replied, the priest’s role is different, he is acting in the place of God himself when he hears confessions, the sanctity of the confessional must be absolute. Such is the belief of the Church. It is not the belief of a secular State nor should it be allowed to outweigh considerations such as the safety of the State’s citizens.

When it comes to conflict between the interests of Man and God the State is duty bound to go with Man every time. The absolute privilege of the confessional should be made conditional and placed on the same footing as that of the lawyer and doctor. The Church must sometimes cut its cloth to the needs and interests of society, as it has in the past and will again in the future.

A client pays for the time spent communicating with his/her attorney or physician.
Fee for service.

A person communicating with a priest does not receive a bill at the end of the month. This is one large important difference.

Attorneys and physicians keep written records of their interactions with clients.
Priests cannot keep written records of confessions.
Another large and important difference.

Does it change anything the patient/client is being treated/advised by the lawyer/physician pro bono? Granted in both cases there would still be written records.

because the religious majority would flip out if it was any other way, just like if same sex couples could marry… no good reason except they want it that way.

I don’t think so, because there is still a fee, it’s been waved.
Can attorney’s claim pro bono time as a donation tax deduction?

I think the priest should only withhold information from the authorities if the victim to be also is a member of an congregation that believes in the sanctity of the confessional. That way the rest of us can get an heads up from the cops, and the believers can live (or die) by their beliefs.

I’m kidding… I guess.

Alternatively, the right of confidentially giving advice/confession should be extended to ordinary people.

Society has apparently decided that there is value in allowing people, even people who have committed a crime, to bare their soul to a trusted confidant. In some cases, that confidant may be a priest. But what if I am not religious? Why should I not be allowed to go and get advice from my brother or best friend? Or that guy at the local bar, who I consider to be exceptionally wise and insightful?

Not saying that this should necessarily keep the seal of the confessional absolute, but an attorney or doctor gets to keep his job if he is forced to break confidentiality as a result of a court order; a catholic priest loses his if he reveals secrets from the confessional regardless of what secular law might demand, and the resulting excommunication can only be reversed by the pope himself. There’s also many hundreds of years of precedent.

When one goes to confession, one doesn’t get advice. You go to get forgiveness.

Does the majority belong to religions that require priests (or pastors or whatever) to honor the confidentiality of the confessional in the manner of Catholics (who are only about 1/4 of the population)? Just wondering.

Aren’t the majority of confessions in Catholic church done anonymously in the booths?

Sometimes you get advice too.

Yes. Although you can go into an open window, it’s still considered to be anonymous.

True. But most people go for forgiveness and absolution first. If one wants merely advice from a priest, you don’t have to go confession. (And for serious crimes, MOST priests will say, “turn yourself in” or “don’t commit the act” - if someone hasn’t done it yet - as penance.)

The basic reasoning is that you want people to confess their crimes to a priest. On the other hand, you essentially don’t want people to confess their crimes to a lawyer or a psychologist. If people had reason to not confess their sins to a priest, then they would be at risk of eternal damnation, which is something no Christian should ever wish on another (theoretically). Psychologists and lawyers, however, are trying to help you. It’s their life goal to get you to give them the information they need to help you, but learning about criminal activity never helps with that. If you tell them this information, you’ve messed everyone up.

Being an atheist, I don’t particularly agree with the religious immunity, but this would be my appraisal of the current state of things.

I’m an atheist, but I’m not obsessive about consistency so I’m okay with this sort of legal compromise.

Let me say rather that I can see value in there being a person in the world that criminals can feel willing to talk to, who will almost certain advise them to turn themselves into the police. I suspect that in the grand scheme of things, this probably benefits the world more than the alternative. If priests were required to inform on the confessors, the number of confessors would likely shrink down to near zero. So you’d still not be getting any priests turning anyone in, and you wouldn’t have anyone acting a conscience for criminals. Or so I would assume.

I’m not particularly sold on this, I just could see it going either way easily enough that I don’t care largely until I see some sort of evidence for one side or the other.

You don’t actually need the priest’s cooperation. Just let the state get warrants to put listening devices in confessional booths. Nothing can go wrong with that, can it?

Because priests only fuck children while lawyers fuck everyone?


In California, a lawyer cannot be compelled to turn in a client who confesses to a crime and even if the lawyer wants to, it is not admissible in evidence without the agreement of the client. Prospective crimes have no privilege at all.

I could be wrong (and I’m sure I’ll get corrected quickly if I am :D) and I am not about to go wading through the Catholic Encyclopedia or other sources of canon law to check, but I get the impression that catholic confession does not need to be done in a confessional booth, just some place private. If that was the case it would be rather tricky to get warrants for all potential places where it could occur.