The attack on the seal of confession, The Anchor, January 25, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
January 25, 2013

Other than those of Czech origin, few Catholics know the moving story of St. John Nepomuc.

He was a virtuous and brilliant young priest who, in addition to serving as vicar general of the Archdiocese of Prague toward the end of the 14th century, was appointed a chaplain to the court of Bohemian King Wenceslaus IV. (He’s quite different from the famous “Good King Wenceslaus,” who was martyred in 935). Among those who came to Father John for spiritual direction and Confession was Queen Sophia, who struggled with her husband’s unfounded and all-consuming jealousy.

Knowing that she was going to Confession to the young priest, Wenceslaus invited him to his palace and tried to bribe him to reveal to him the contents of the queen’s Confession, but St. John replied that the Seal of the Sacrament of Confession prevented his disclosing anything. The king then tried torture. He had Father John thrown in prison where he was racked and had his sides burned with torches, but the only thing that he said during his suffering were the names of Jesus and Mary. After one more failed attempt to alter the priest’s resolve, Wenceslaus had him paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, a mockery of the Sacramental seal, to the Charles Bridge, where his hands and feet were bound and he was thrown into the Moldau River where he drowned. Since, he has been considered a martyr to the Seal of Confession and a patron saint of confessors.

I bring his story up because some secularists in our society are trying to make more martyrs to the seal.

Early last month, the leader of Australia, Julia Gillard, threw her weight behind a proposal to eliminate any civil protections to the Seal of the Confessional in order to try to force priests to divulge the contents of what they hear in Confession in the case of the sexual abuse of minors. Australian Senator Nick Xenophon called the government’s recognition of the inviolability of the seal a “medieval law that needs to change.” Even Catholic politicians are joining the chorus, like Parliamentarian and opposition leader Tony Abbott, who said that civil law has to take precedence over Church law and that everyone, including priests, must obey the law.

If an abuser comes to Confession, they argue, the priest must be mandated to break the seal and report the abuser to the civil authorities. The prevention of child abuse must trump any and all other concerns, they say.

Such a push is not unique to Australia. There was a strong legislative effort to do so in Ireland two years ago, which failed. There were legislative attempts to do so in Maryland, New Hampshire and Connecticut during the last decade. As an aggressive form of secularism intolerant of religious freedom and of the sanctity of conscience continues to strengthen and assert itself through governmental structures, we should expect such attacks against the Seal of Confession — and against the priests who keep the seal — to grow, not lessen.

In response to this push for eliminating the sacramental seal, we should understand a few things.

First, we can safely say that calls for eliminating the Seal of Confession are coming from those who don’t appreciate the purpose of the Seal of Confession, very likely because they don’t receive it. If someone considers the Sacrament of Penance itself “medieval,” then it’s somewhat logical that he would think that the sacramental seal is medieval as well. If such public servants were regular recipients of the Sacrament, on the other hand, I don’t think they’d be pushing for priests to be able to reveal the contents of Confession; TMZ and the National Enquirer would probably be willing to build a few posh basilicas in order to get priests to reveal the dirt that politicians and other public figures have confessed. The sacred inviolability of the seal — that priests cannot betray a penitent by word or any other manner for any reason whatsoever — is something that allows everyone to be able to come for spiritual help and mercy, and the more we receive that help and mercy the more we appreciate the importance of the seal.

Second, at a strictly practical level, if abusers knew that priests would be legally obliged to pass on their crimes to police at the risk of fines or imprisonment, do you think they would even go near a confessional? By effectively barring from coming to Confession a child sexual abuser who recognizes that what he’s doing is wrong and needs God’s forgiveness, we would be robbing confessors of the chance to try to persuade abusers to get help and to do justice for those they’ve hurt by turning themselves in — as every good confessor does when a murderer, rapist, abuser or other violent criminal approaches. It’s ludicrous to think confessors would just give them three Our Fathers as a penance and send them on their way with a lollipop, as some of these politicians attacking the seal want to pretend.

Third, priests wouldn’t break the Seal of Confession anyway. This is one of the most beautiful realities of the priesthood that few Catholics appreciate enough. By his ordination, a priest has made the commitment never to reveal what you or anyone else says to him in the Sacrament of Penance, even to save his own life, even if all you confessed were a few venial sins. He can’t break the seal even when someone is calumniously attacking his good name. He can’t break the seal to defend himself against a false accusation, even when the one framing him had confessed, as was powerfully portrayed in Hitchcock’s “I Confess.” He can’t break the seal to save the life of another or to avert a public disaster. He can’t break the seal even to stop the brutal torture of his mother before his eyes. That’s how important the seal is and how committed a priest is to protecting it. And that’s how important the Sacrament of Confession is if it requires that level of commitment and potential sacrifice from those who administer it.

We live in an iconoclastic, consumerist age where, like all public figures, priests are criticized on just about everything. A lot of this criticism is, of course, valid. But I wonder sometimes whether those doing the criticism of a priest’s idiosyncrasies, or accent, or particular pastoral decisions reflect enough on the fact that every priest — including those they don’t like, or even those in most need of God’s mercy themselves — has made a commitment to be imprisoned, tortured or even killed in order to protect what you tell him in Confession. Every priest has made the commitment to allow his reputation to be destroyed to protect even what an eight-year-old tells him in her first Confession. Priests have made a commitment to die for you, in order to make it possible for you to approach without fear the Lamb of God and receive His mercy.

The stopping of the abominable horror of the sexual abuse of minors or any other crime doesn’t require another abuse against faithful priests and the Sacrament of Confession, which are part of the solution, not the problem.

When civil leaders are channeling tyrannical King Wenceslaus and threatening to throw priests in prison or off modern bridges, it’s time for Catholics and all those who respect the legitimate rights of religious freedom to recognize what’s going on and step up in defense, rather than join the politically correct mob.