The Seal of the Confessional: A Priest’s Perspective
Given the appropriate and necessary commitment to protect the vulnerable in our churches and in society at large from sexual abuse, some in the church think it equally necessary to dispense with the sanctity of the seal of confession and to opt instead for mandatory reporting — by priests — to civil authorities. While I honor and share their concern for the vulnerable, I cannot agree with this proposed change to the Church’s sacramental understanding and practice, and I would like to present a case for inviolability of the seal of confession in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
One holy catholic and apostolic Church
On Sundays, other Major Feast Days, and other times as appointed, the faithful stand during the Liturgy and confess their faith in the words of the Nicene Creed — words including these:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
This statement is more than a notional recognition of the existence of “a church.” It is an expression of faith in “one Church” that shares a common faith including common holy orders and sacraments. Further, it is a proclamation that we, in the ACNA, consider ourselves part of that Church along with all those who maintain holy orders and faithfully administer the sacraments, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Anything done unilaterally by the ACNA or its clergy in contravention of shared faith and practice strikes a hammer blow against the ACNA’s claim to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church and against the hope for visible, communal unity. It is arguable that those who refuse to acknowledge and fail to practice that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (Vincentian Canon) are thereby placing themselves outside the Church catholic.
This has significant ramifications for the ACNA, GAFCON, and the Anglican Communion, and certainly pertains to the abandonment of the seal of confession. The inviolability of the seal is the long established and universally recognized understanding and practice of the Church catholic. The Decretum of Gratian (1215), which purports to compile earlier Church decrees, notes:
Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed.
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) Canon 21 states:
Let the confessor take absolute care not to betray the sinner through word or sign, or in any other way whatsoever. In case he needs expert advice he may seek it without, however, in any way indicating the person. For we decree that he who presumes to reveal a sin which has been manifested to him in the tribunal of penance is not only to be deposed from the priestly office, but also to be consigned to a closed monastery for perpetual penance.
Closer to home, The Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in North America (BCP 2019) contains this instruction regarding the seal of the confessional:
The content of a confession is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion. The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken (BCP 2019, p. 222).
Canons, decrees, and rubrics could be multiplied, but it is the case that the one holy catholic and apostolic Church — East and West together — insists on the absolute sanctity of the confessional seal. Until the entire Church — the entire Church — is led to contrary consensus by the Holy Spirit, no member communion of that Church has the right to contravene that sacramental practice and, at the same time, proclaim itself part of the church Catholic. Even less may any individual priest do so. If a priest feels he cannot maintain the seal, he should not receive confessions.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s
Many states, including my own, have designated priests and ministers as mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse. That means nothing short of this: those civil authorities have claimed jurisdiction and authority over the sacraments of the Church. And that, the Church cannot allow if it is to render unto Caesar only that which is Caesar’s and unto God everything that is God’s. To capitulate to the mandatory reporters statute simply because it is the “law of the land” is to bow to Caesar as Lord. What sacraments are to “fall” next?
Will the civil authorities one day claim sole jurisdiction over marriage and decree by law that if a church marries anyone it must marry everyone, i.e., that a church may not determine for itself, based on its understanding of the faith, who meets the criteria for Holy Matrimony?
Will the civil authorities one day ban baptism because it imparts a unique identity upon the baptizand that conflicts with society’s notion of identity, as fluid as that now seems?
Will the civil authorities one day define all talk of sin, repentance, and judgment as “hate speech” and impose civil or criminal penalties for the proclamation of the Gospel?
Perhaps this sounds alarmist, but it is currently being realized — at least in part — in Western countries. The Church cannot capitulate even to something that sounds inherently good and reasonable, like mandatory reporting of sexual abuse revealed in the context of sacramental confession lest it relinquish authority over its sacraments.
Sin and forgiveness versus crime and punishment
Sacramental confession exists to address sin and forgiveness, not crime and punishment. A priest is an advocate for the sinner, not an accuser of the criminal. While a priest’s heart can and does ache for the victim of any evil, his focus must be on the penitent in front of him, a penitent who may well be the victimizer. Multiple souls may be in the balance, but this one soul who has come to confess is the one who must take priority in that moment. The priest’s role is to lead this soul to true repentance and amendment of life so that absolution may be pronounced. This is not a matter of crime and punishment.
This also is not callous disregard for the victim of evil: far from it. But where do we stop when we ask the priest to report criminal behavior? Reporting sexual abuse seems so reasonable. But what about embezzlement? That is not a victimless crime and may cause serious and permanent damage. Should a priest report that to the authorities or to the victim? Why not? The selling of illegal drugs: does a priest report it or not? Think through this carefully. What crimes will we mandate a priest to report, and how do we determine that? This is the nullification of the sacrament of confession.
Nothing new under the sun
Ironically and paradoxically, each generation considers itself intellectually and morally superior to all preceding generations (false progressivism) and also fallen from former greatness (false “golden age”). The truth is much simpler, as Ecclesiastes writes:
Ecclesiastes 1:9–11 (ESV): 9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
I quote this with no sense of futility, but rather to note that nothing heard in twenty-first century confessionals would have shocked our priestly forefathers; sin is boringly banal in its consistency. Sexual abuse — Lord, have mercy! — is nothing new under the sun, though society’s attitude toward it evolves. Our forefathers in holy orders were presented with the same dilemma we face today: the confession of heinous sin and the sanctity of the confessional seal. They were wise and faithful enough to address the former without forsaking the latter. I submit that wisdom lies in preserving the received wisdom of the Tradition, in keeping with G. K. Chesterton:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around (“The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908)).
Now, this next, similar point is entirely personal and subjective and does not constitute a reasoned argument; I insist on it nonetheless. Those who are not in the Tradition, i.e. those who are not in holy orders and actively receiving confessions, should exercise a great degree of humility in advocating abandonment of the seal. The sacraments mean quite different things to practitioners than to theoreticians or critics. Even further — Lord, forgive my arrogance! — those who do not regularly avail themselves of confession should most certainly adopt the humility of the “mature” Job:
Job 42:3b (ESV): Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
Binding and loosing
I write this during the Triduum, the three days of Holy Week culminating with the Great Vigil of Easter. On that first Easter Day, Jesus appeared to his disciple in the Upper Room and commissioned them to carry on his work in the world:
John 20:22–23 (ESV): 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
This, and parallel passages, form the basis for sacramental confession and absolution. It is the apostolic authority of binding and loosing conferred upon the twelve by Jesus through the Holy Spirit, and bequeathed to their successors — bishops and priests — through the laying on of hands. I speak as one who shoulders this responsibility; it is great grace and heavy burden: forgiveness is grace; withholding forgiveness is heavy burden.
The point is simply that the granting of absolution is not automatic nor is it a right that the penitent may demand. It is a prayerful and prudential decision made by the priest. A confession is valid, i.e., genuine and “meriting” absolution only when certain elements are present. The penitent must exhibit contrition: the recognition and acknowledgment of sin and godly sorrow for it. Further, as applicable, the penitent must bear evidence of — or resolve to accomplish at the earliest opportunity — reconciliation, restitution, and restoration. In short, the penitent must submit to justice — the putting to rights, as far as is possible, what he or she violated — and must exhibit or commit to amendment of life.
A few examples might clarify this. Suppose a man confesses that he had spoken angry words to his wife. He now recognizes his wrong and is truly sorry for it. Before pronouncing absolution, I would ask if he had reconciled to his wife by confessing his wrong to her and by seeking her forgiveness. If he had not, I would ask him to do so and then return for absolution. Or, if a woman confesses that she had stolen some petty cash from her office, I would ask if she had returned it. If she had not, I would not pronounce absolution until she does so. Absolution does not bypass godly justice, but rather promotes it and is dependent upon it.
Now a more difficult situation, but no less clear. Suppose a man confesses to sexually abusing a minor. He is contrite. But that is not enough for the granting of absolution. Has he begun the process of restitution and restoration? Has he concrete plans for amendment of life? Has he met the demands of godly justice which would require, in part, his self-reporting to the civil authorities? Until these have been done, I could not, in good faith, pronounce absolution. I would offer to go with him to the authorities; I would not spiritually abandon him. I would, with all that is in me, attempt to lead him to the point where absolution is appropriate, and then journey with him beyond that to amendment of life. What I would not do — what I cannot do — is to violate the morally absolute seal of confession if he decides to leave the confessional with his sins unforgiven and bound to him. Or, if I did violate the seal, I would report myself to my bishop and ask to be relieved of my priesthood.
On a personal note, I have been a priest for only seven years. But my experience is that Anglicans do not beat down the doors of the confessional or queue up for hours waiting their turn. The opposite seems to be true. Most take advantage of that unfortunate Anglican loophole, “None must.” So, the likelihood of an Anglican priest hearing the confession of a sexual abuser is relatively small. To overturn the consensus fidelium of the Church catholic, to bow the knee to Caesar and relinquish authority of the sacraments to the civil authorities, to turn from sin and forgiveness to crime and punishment for the sake of this unlikely event, to jettison the Tradition is inexcusable, particularly when the priest already has the apostolic authority of binding and loosing. The principle is sound and must be zealously guarded: the secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for a confessor.