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Sealing Confession: A Theological Justification for Keeping a Lid on It

April 22, 2021 10 min read
By Dr. Michael J. Morris Assistant Professor of Theology, University of Mary
Dr. Jared Schumacher Assistant Professor of Theology and Catholic Studies, University of Mary
A confessional

Recent political events have called into question the role of the sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance or Confession) in the life of the Catholic Faith. Or, more precisely, the necessity of the “seal” of confession has been lately challenged by political machinations, offering Catholics and other people of goodwill an opportunity for a greater understanding of the importance of the seal and its practical and political implications.

The precipitating factor for the controversy was the introduction of SB 2180, a senate bill in the State of North Dakota whose sole resolution was to strike from already existing legal codes the provision that “[a] member of the clergy, however, is not required to report [child abuse] circumstances if the knowledge or suspicion is derived from information received in the capacity of spiritual adviser.” In short, the code as it currently stands carved out an exception for spiritual advisors (not only Catholic priests), such that they not be forced by law to report instances of child abuse if knowledge of such crimes comes from spiritual counsel. Bill 2180 would revoke that existing exception, rendering clergy now, like its secular substitutes listed in the bill, a “mandatory reporter,” in effect turning spiritual advisors into potential police informants or face criminal consequences.

Rightly realizing that the practical outcome of the bill for Catholics would be that it puts an end to the protection offered to the faithful by the “seal,” Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck issued a letter to his flock encouraging Catholics to write their state senators requesting a ‘no’ vote on the legislation were it to make a floor vote, and further, encouraging prayer for elected officials in their pursuit of the common good with “prudence and wisdom.” Bishop Folda of Fargo sent his diocese a similar letter.

The prayers of the faithful seem to have worked. Mercifully, the legislation was withdrawn before the bill was brought to the floor for a vote, saving the common good from what would inevitably have been a political spectacle of the worst kind: one where everyone loses. But the showdown would have followed a script which it is not difficult to imagine, as it has been litigated in other culture-war battles for the past two or three decades with remarkable consistency.

On one side would have been arrayed the forces of a purely secular social justice, arguing that failure to support the law amounts to violence of the most abominable kind, violence against children. For this contingent, the seal ‘perpetuates oppression’ and thus cannot be tolerated to exist independent of the scrutiny of political oversight. Although seemingly well-intentioned, for many of these warriors, the end goal of the cultural contest would not have been coming to the aid of children (since no evidence was provided suggesting improved outcomes for children were the law to be changed), but the utilization of the controversy over the seal of the confessional to further empower state surveillance of the individual, especially where he is most free from state power: when in the “internal forum” in the house of God. This unstated ultimate aim of the bill was evinced by the lack of inclusion of attorneys in the list for mandatory reporting, since this relationship is already presumed captured by political oversight after a fashion.

On the other side would be gathered a coterie of conservative cultural conquistadors, who would have used the attempted political encroachment from the left as evidence of a need to move the political culture further ‘right,’ checking state power by a reassertion of the right to religious freedom. However, in our current political context, such a reassertion would likely have operated in one of two ways, both of which are, from a fully Catholic perspective, problematic: either, 1) the issue would provide added fodder for justifying a libertarian impulse towards a totally deregulated state (at the federal level). The net effect of this impulse would be an additional capture of politics by political economy, reducing the logic of the common good to a form of economic calculus; as Pope Francis has recently argued (Fratelli tutti, §11-12), ours is a day in which “[l]ocal conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy in order to impose a single cultural model.” With this politico-economic ideology operating in the background of the controversy, the danger here is that the common good of the polis would come ever more increasingly to be defined by expediting capital flow through state limitation. While capital considerations in political decision-making are certainly not an evil in themselves, the fact that this libertarian ideology has been mainstreamed in recent years would have the effect of turning the good of the seal into a market commodity, judged according to market logic. Mammon would triumph over morality, even when seemingly coming to its aid.

Or else, 2) the need for relying on the state’s religious freedom protections might further embolden a constructivist view of human society in general, and human rights in particular. In relying on state power to fight off other political actors internal to the body politic, Leviathan is awakened and reified. The biblical logic concerning secular law evidenced in verses like Matthew 5:25 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 should give Christians pause in thinking that recourse to the legal apparatus, despite its clear religious protections in current precedent, would be an unequivocal good. The current debate brewing in philosophy of law and American civil jurisprudence at large suggests a lack of consensus on the legitimating principle within law, as most of the dominant positions set up on the secularist assumption that laws are no more than human or social constructs. Far from view is the Catholic conception of human law as nested within and at the greater service of natural law, which itself meaningfully subsists only by participation in Divine law. Relying on the State to save ‘us’ from secularist overreach has the ironic effect of further consolidating secular state power over religion, in as much as the State in such cases is seen as determining the proper limits of “freedom” for religious practice where none is assumed to exist by nature.

The promise of the seal assures the penitent of the sacredness and consolation of this passing from darkness to light, from the silence of death to the succor of new life.

Had the culture war been pursued along these lines, lost from view would be any discussion of the goods–both natural and supernatural–which the seal exists to preserve and promote. Setting aside this potential political and social fallout for the moment, it is efficacious to consider these goods within the unity of the Church’s teaching on the sacrament and its role in the life of faith. For it is here that the benefit of the seal for the common good clarifies resolves.

Traditionally, the authority of the priest to offer God’s absolution for sins is rooted in Scripture. A seminal passage for understanding the origin of this priestly activity is found in Matthew 16:19, in which Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Behind this passage lies the imagery of Isaiah 22, in which Eliakim (the chief steward of the Kingdom of Judah) is entrusted with the key of the house of David and given the authority to “open and none shall shut…[and] shut and none shall open.” Although many have affirmed that the Matthean and Isaianic images describe political authority, the case has been made that this imagery also connotes cultic activity. Specifically, the language of binding and loosing/shutting and opening, which are taken to be linguistic parallels, suggests a unity of teaching authority and the power over social boundaries; both of which fell to the priests in ancient Israel and early Judaism. Additionally, as biblical scholar Michael Barber has convincingly argued (making use of Old Testament, early Jewish, and Rabbinic sources), such authority included the forgiveness of sins.1 Given that this priestly jurisdiction over sin is granted by Jesus directly to Peter and the apostles (cf. Matthew 18:18; John 20:23), it is appropriate that the exercise of such influence be seen as fundamental to the life of the Church from antiquity to the modern form of the sacramental rite. Hence, the Apostle, and not Caesar, is given power over sin.

It is fitting, also, that participation in the sacrament of penance occurs under the guarantee of the seal. In her mystical fashion, theologian Adrienne von Speyr relates the seal of confession to the silence of Holy Saturday; that is, the silence which occurs between the stillness of death and the Resurrection. Something of this transition takes place in the penitent’s movement from the burden of sin, which is bondage in death, to the grace of absolution, which is liberation and newness of life. The promise of the seal assures the penitent of the sacredness and consolation of this passing from darkness to light, from the silence of death to the succor of new life. Von Speyr writes:

The penitent should know he is protected against indiscretion and against any sort of misuse. He confesses to God so that God may absolve him, and God has decreed the intervention of the Church in order to make confession more human, more true, and more Christ-like. The confessor is the concreteness both of God and of the Church for the sake of the penitent, and for that reason he may not constitute an interruption of intimacy.2
The presence of the seal allows the priest in a free and unhindered manner to receive the sinner’s brokenness and offer God’s restorative mercy. Breaking the seal would shatter the theological imagery of the sacrament.

The existence of the seal is not only for the benefit of confessor and penitent, but also for the Church as the corporate body of Christ. Again, von Speyr explains: “The priest is not placed at the point where the sinner sins but, rather, where he speaks, confessing, with God… God allows the priest to see something of his activity by power of special grace, but he is not to see it for himself, but for God and the Church.”3 Violation of the seal, even in extreme cases, would discourage sinners from seeking the mercy of God and dissuade clergy from placing themselves in a legally compromised predicament when administering the Sacrament.

In light of these realities, it is proper for the Church to insist upon, under penalty of excommunication, the inviolability of the seal. According to canon law, by which the Latin (Western) Church is governed, “[a] confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.”4 This mandate is reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1467. Given the biblical understanding of the authority over sins entrusted to priests, as well as the theological weight of the power of the sacrament, it is clear why the Church has so fiercely guarded the sanctity of the sacrament of Reconciliation.

In conclusion, while well-intentioned in its desire to protect children, such political efforts to compromise the integrity of the sacramental order inevitably do more harm than good. But more than a threat to the self-understanding of the sacrament internal to the Catholic imagination, legally abolishing the theological space marked by the seal in effect eliminates the one locus of freedom from political surveillance left to post-political humanity, the place where a sinner can confront their actions and its source in their own concupiscence, and in so doing––at will, rather than under compulsion––begin to do penance in freedom. What greater service can the Church offer the world than that of being the last bastion of freedom in the struggle against sin?

Only when they remain sealed within the tomb of the confessional do our sins no longer threaten to rise to life within us.

1 Cf. M. P. Barber, “Jesus as the Davidic Temple Builder and Peter’s Priestly Role in Matthew 16:16-19,” JBL 132.4 (2013): 935-953.

2 A. von Speyr, Confession (Ignatius Press, 2017), 286.

3 Ibid., 288.

4 CIC, Can. 1388 §1. Likewise, for the Eastern Catholic Churches, cf. CCEO, Can. 1456.

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