Thomas Seville CR reflects on the seal of the confessional

In my community, only one member has been imprisoned while a brother. The story is simple and also salutary. The brother was in the Community’s priory and living in South Africa in the days of apartheid, a system which he had opposed steadfastly. A member of the ANC, a proscribed organization, came seeking refuge and they talked; the fugitive was in great trouble. He left, but was followed closely by the security police who arrested our brother and tried to compel him to tell what he had heard. He refused and was brought before a court and he still refused to speak; the brother who has but lately gone to his rest was not given to much chat. He was sent to prison for contempt, for refusing to break confidentiality.

Secrecy under threat
The principle of confidentiality, of things legitimately kept secret is under some pressure in contemporary society. Paradoxically, this is taking place at a time when surveillance of citizens by the state has reached an extent without precedent. I would suggest that there are three principle reasons for the decline in respect for the keeping of confidentiality. First the idea of people who either are privileged to keep matters secret or are obliged to and moreover out of obedience to God is something which has become hard to understand, let alone respect. Second, figures such as ministers of religion have lost much of the standing which was once theirs in public life. Lastly and probably most significant is the impact of the awareness of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, sexual and otherwise, and especially by clergy. The standing of churches in this regard, with some reason, is not now a good one.

The heightened attention given to ensuring the safety and welcome given to the vulnerable is welcome; the provision of training in such areas, the employment of safeguarding officers and the development of guidelines to help parishes and clergy and other workers may be properly seen as penitence for past failings and now as part of the mission of the church in the name of Christ. Attention is given to the position of confidentiality in the work of clergy and in particular the hearing of confessions. Confidentiality is precious, but how much more so in the context of confession (the brother above was not hearing; if there was something worth going to prison for then, how much more so in the case of the confidentiality of a confession). However, one may note a different slant in recent guidelines from that given in the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy issued by York and Canterbury ten years ago.

Absolute confidence
Noting the regard to be had to confidentiality in general pastoral encounters, the older document is forthright about the confidentiality to be observed in the ministry of reconciliation. Even after the death of the penitent, matter cannot be disclosed. The priest may not refer to matter learnt in the confession unless permission is given by the penitent. Absolution may be withheld. Regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, the priest should encourage the reporting of this to the relevant authorities and, should make its performance a condition of absolution or even withhold absolution. This is clearly applied to those accusing themselves of such sins, not to victims where the issue is often to be the reception of forgiveness and acceptance by God. The obligation to confidentiality remains however, even ‘if a penitent’s behaviour gravely threatens his or her well-being or that of others’ (7.4). The Guidelines add notes referring to the famous Canon 113, based on the canon of Lateran IV (1215), which binds confidentiality on the confessor, under pain of being deprived of office. This remains church law, though it has not been recently tested in the civil courts and its status is therefore far from certain.

Some recent diocesan guidelines, reflecting the need to report abuse, while acknowledging the obligation to confidentiality in the confessional, however, make recommendations which modify it. In one such set, the priest is advised, in the case of withholding absolution, presumably if the penitent is not willing to report the matter to relevant authorities, to tell the bishop and to seek advice. Although the set is hedged with a condition on the consent of the penitent, it does seem to amount to risk qualifying the seal. If it has always been regarded as a breaking of the seal to identify a penitent, it is hard to see how seeking advice can be accomplished without risking disclosing the penitent’s identity, unless great care is taken, and this is not advised explicitly. The way this particular set of guidelines refers to the uncertain state of Canon 113 and absolute confidentiality is also markedly different from those of the Archbishops; in these the tone is concessive, almost as if its possible being ‘inconsistent with civil law’ (I quote) is something not unwelcome in this context. The legal position is described as ‘doubtful’ rather than the more accurate ‘uncertain’ of the earlier and still current Guidelines.

More troubling is the assimilation which may be here remarked to the ministers of the gospel being a part of a general safeguarding culture. That something like this is a social good may be recognised, and good safeguarding practices will be embraced happily, no doubt, but the confessor is not there to be a social worker, still less a police officer. The music a priest sings is as George Herbert once put it, ‘another music’, a music which is that of a different rule than the one which obtains here and now, the kingdom of God.

This difference is a challenge, the challenge between being so different as to make no sense or so similar that the grace of God in what Christians proclaim is squeezed to a transparency. Conflicts between civil law and the church’s ministry of reconciliation are nothing new or confined to oppressive regimes.

Canon Law
I have referred to canon 113 of 1604, left un-amended in the 1969 canons. It belongs to the teaching of the church that confidentiality is to be observed. Indeed, in 1959 the Convocations of York and Canterbury affirmed that complete confidentiality here was ‘an essential principle of Church doctrine’. It is not a matter just of law; although the canon is often referred to as a ground for the seal, the grounds go deeper. The ministry is part of the ministry of Jesus Christ to reconcile sinners, to restore those who sin to His church and to closer union with him. It is but a part of that continuing ministry, but it is a part of that ministry as it is of other Christian churches, whether they are Orthodox or Catholic where it has a higher profile than the Church of England, or among the Lutherans and Methodists. It is a ministry of mercy and is done by one who is in as much need of it as the one who comes seeking it.

New life through Christ
The seal is there for the sake of the sinner. The integrity of this church member, warts and all, their return to the way to holiness, warts and all, is paramount. Moreover, if sinners are to unburden themselves, seeking reconciliation from Christ through His church, then it is right that they have an expectation that such disclosure is treated as a disclosure made to Christ, not as part of the merely human transaction of ‘opening up’, however good that may be. In contrast to the confidential communications made to doctors or to therapists, there is a ‘third’ involved who is the most important and active element in the whole proceeding, namely Christ. It is the saving death and resurrection of Christ who works through this ministry, both the penitent and the minister, to the end that new life is given and the presence of the Spirit in the sinner renewed. It is to God that the penitent confesses; from Him it is that forgiveness is sought, through the agency of the priest. One can say that the nature of the confidentiality comes from the nature of the ministry, indeed from the wonder of God’s mercy itself.

The veil of another world
In practical terms, what sinner, how venial, how grave ’soever, would find a green light to bring their sins to God, to unburden conscience and be reconciled to God, with all the wonder and difficulties together that might entail, if on leaving the church they were to be met by a pair of handcuffs? It might be argued of course that there are exceptional circumstances and one breaking of the seal could hardly do anyone any harm. This is patently foolish, for once the confidentiality of one confession is shown not to hold, then the security of all who hear confessions is shaken. If there are exceptions allowed in the inviolability of the confession, then it quickly becomes meaningless.

Even if absolution is not given, confidentiality obtains [applies/pertains? AM] and obtains to everything disclosed in the confessional. However, the seal of the confessional does not extend to everything which may precede and follow the ministry; that is why it has always been regarded important to make clear what is a confession and what is not. Nor does it mean that other confidentialities are not of great importance and merit respect, such as that which falls to the meeting between a Christian and a soul-friend. Even outside the confessional, the courtesy is due to someone who has confided in a priest of asking their agreement should they think it right that a third party be involved. However, in the context of the confessional, what is said needs to be counted as not having been said; it is as if it has been buried. This was put with rhetorical vigour in earlier times. For example, Aquinas said that the priest knows the confession ‘not as man, but as God knows it’. Later, our own T T Carter opined that what the priest hears he ‘thus hears, he knows only sacramentally, as within the veil of another world.’ Nowadays we would put this more soberly perhaps, but the point remains that the seal is something owed to the nature of the ministry, something which is a sure gift of Christ, not to a supposed evidential privilege. It is simply a matter of what is the duty of the priest, as a minister of the forgiveness of Our Lord and Our Christ.

The ministry of reconciliation
Those who abuse the vulnerable are not queuing up at churches seeking reconciliation; nor are murderers, fraudsters, drug-dealers and the like. It has not been because of the keeping of such matters under the seal that the church has failed in her duty to children and the vulnerable. Among the abusers are those who are penitent and who want the forgiveness which comes from Christ alone; the path of returning to Christ will be one with demands and challenges, not least those entailed by the law and the administration of justice. Confessors will doubtless have occasion to relate these to the forgiveness God gives to those who are penitent; what is not to be done is for confessors to confuse being a minister of Christ and a policeman. If someone comes to the ministry of reconciliation who has abused someone, then there is likely to be a penitence which needs to be recognised and to be welcome in the name of Christ. One is not likely to be dealing with someone who is there it in order to mock the church, some may recall the confession scene in Jimmy McGovern’s film Priest, if they were, the seal would not apply, for it would not be a confession one was dealing with, but a sham.

In general, a confessor whose duty to keep mum is clear, is not likely to come across on a daily basis those who are confessing sins which have the light of the safeguarding officers upon them. What is more likely is the presence of those who have suffered abuse and who direct anger and blame towards themselves. The Church’s ministry of reconciliation is there for them, not least so that they may come to know that acceptance by Christ in their own lives again and so that the Church may also find forgiveness. ND