Thomas Seville CR summarizes the practical and theological arguments for the seal of the confessional

The issue of the abuse of children and the vulnerable is perhaps the issue of our times. In the past twenty years it has become apparent that the maltreatment of many young and vulnerable people has been not an exception and not rare, but something which has occurred in all parts of society. What has shaken society all the harder is that it has been those in positions of authority and who enjoy great respect who have been among those who have committed grave offences. The results of abuse for many have been lasting; lives have been blighted, and lost through suicide. These offences have also been committed by those particularly associated with the mission of Christ and his church, by bishops, priests and religious. The church has certainly made efforts to make amends and to work towards a safeguarding culture, so that these things are not repeated; no one would say that all has been done that needs to be done.

Furthermore, the reaction to it is made stronger by the shock at its extent and a sense of incomprehension as to how such things happen or indeed what leads some rather than others to abuse. We share deep shame at the inadequate regard shown by the church to those who are victims of abuse, and the protection given to perpetrators. Although some things have been done, many feel the need to do something which really shows that the church means business in this area. One example of this is pressure for the repeal of the law on the complete confidentiality of what is said to the priest in the confessional, inviolable to all intents and purposes, commonly called the ‘seal.’

I want to begin this treatment of the seal with a bit of history. Despite the difference from early modern Europe, some points remain the same. I will then go on—at greater length—to show why keeping the seal is not only right, but necessary.

I refer to the good old days of King James VI and I. The previous century had seen major changes in the practice of making confessions to a minister. One of the few things not to be altered was the obligation of the minister to keep quiet about anything heard in the context of the confession. There would have been contexts in which a penitent confessed sins with others around, such as in the context of a sick- or death-bed confession. There the confidence which would fall on the priest would fall on those who heard such matters, but this would be a moral matter and was left untouched.

This was confirmed in the canons of 1603, with the qualification that exempted the minister from such confidentiality if, by keeping it, he committed a crime which carried the death penalty. In particular, this meant the crime of misprision of treason. This quaintly entitled crime denotes the case of someone who, knowing of an act of treason or a plan to commit one, fails to report it to competent authority. It used to be a capital crime but has not been so for two centuries. It would have applied to a priest who heard the confession of someone who had planned to kill the sovereign; if it was discovered that the priest had done this and kept his counsel, then he would have committed a capital crime. Apart from this it is worth noting that the absolute confidentiality of this ministry has been the law of this land for more than 800 years and remains so.

The qualification was not an idle piece of lawyerly fun; attempts on the lives of rulers at this time were many, e.g. there were twenty-five on Henri of Navarre alone, the last being successful. Such a fear was indubitably unreasonable, paranoiac indeed, but it formed the background both in France and in England for the state to seek to make information received under the seal information which a suspect needed to make known to competent authority. If you heard about treason you were obliged to tell, unless you wanted to meet your death and moreover by an execution of remarkable brutality. For rulers, this was a time when it was not surprising if you thought you were in danger of your life and you had little idea of where exactly the gun or the poignard was coming from. Or, indeed, gunpowder. It was not surprising that the seal came in for stick. Does this remind you of something?

King James VI and I was, in addition to being an able politician, also possessed of a theological mind and, no stranger to being conjured against, sent an attack on the seal unqualified to the sovereigns of Europe. It formed a subsidiary part of his defense of the oath of allegiance being required of all his subjects. Bellarmine and Coeffeteau replied and du Perron drafted a response. The last named, brought up Protestant, argued that the seal served not only the good of the church but also that of the state, as well as that of the penitent. Without the seal, no one would confess an intention to assassinate and that therefore an opportunity would be lost of preventing such a crime, by reminding the penitent of the wrath which would fall on him if he proceeded and of moving him to repentance. Du Perron also argued that the confessor should seek to warn the king without doing anything that would lead to the identification of the penitent.

This remains a good reminder that when faced with the revelation in the confessional of a sin that is also a serious crime something is being told to you because it cannot go further and may well not have been made known otherwise, and that someone’s salvation is at stake. Furthermore, preventing a crime makes for the good of society, and there is the opportunity of assisting a criminal to make themselves known to the authorities.

When I make confession to another Christian, according to the advice given by the Letter of James (5.16), I am trusting that person and God in that person. According to the seriousness of the communication, I expect the communication to be respected. One of the means of respecting it is the practice of discretion and, more fully, confidentiality.

Confidentiality between persons remains a valued practice. It protects the persons of those who have good reason to communicate personal data to another for their good or for the law or medicine, allowing two or more persons to proceed without incurring the obligation to report further. It is commonly regarded as a good in society that confidentiality in certain cases must be kept for its good or the good of persons in that society; it can build, repair and deepen relationships. It can thus promote society’s good. It can secure the wellbeing and the good of another person, irrespective of who they are or what they have done.

Confidentiality, however, is clearly patent of abuse. Confidentiality agreements can be and have been used to conceal wrongdoing and to intimidate those who may have good reason to go public: one sees that in the harm incurred by employees who make public certain harmful or criminal behaviour at their place of work. In the public sphere the publicity given to the abuse of confidentiality has given rise to an atmosphere of suspicion towards those who are in positions of power keeping stuff confidential. The converse—keeping matters confidential for the sake of an individual’s good or protection—enjoys protection in law in some areas of life and is worthy of praise when someone suffers harm rather than break a trust. Exceptions can be made and professions have guidelines in order to protect both the giver and receiver of care or advice. In matters regarding abuse, in most cases there is an obligation on the professional to make the matter known to a competent authority.

There is, however, the protection claimed for the priest who hears a confession and when a penitent comes to make their confession with a view to absolution. In general, a high standard of confidentiality is something which a parishioner has a right to expect from a priest. However, that confidentiality which falls to the priest in the context of this ministry is of a different kind: this confidentiality is usually proportionate to the serious of its object and nature.

This is so in the case of confession. In a confession what is communicated is communicated to God with a view to receiving the assurance of God’s mercy. Because a confession is something made directly to God, in the presence of a minister of God, it is as serious as it gets. It is a ‘sacramental ministry,’ a sacrament, something which is a gift to the church by Christ even though at Pentecost she was not handed a nice ‘Rites of Penance.’ The present form has changed much since early times.

It is important to stress that the practice of absolute confidentiality accorded to the penitent in confession has a theological rationale. The seal is something which arises out of the church’s ministry of reconciliation. It is one part of a larger whole, the church’s witness to Christ and her obedience to him. One cannot separate the issue of the seal from central matters of the faith: reconciliation, Christ and the church. This is why it does in fact touch the faith.

The reconciliation of sinners is foundational to the church’s purpose and life; she would look rather silly without it! She receives as part of this the ministry of reconciling sinners after baptism with God, with the church and with each other. It belongs to the good news of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. By his incarnation, cross and resurrection God has put away the power of sin to separate humanity from himself and from each other: Jesus Christ has united what is alien from God, making one what was divided (Col. 1.15–17). His death and resurrection, by which he saved sinners, is the supremely free gift of God which is the gospel.

As a communion of believers with God and each other, the church owes her life and existence to this work of God. The church is the calling and creation of God, by his word and spirit, to communicate this work. She manifests and expresses the ‘mystery of Christ’ (Eph. 3.4, Col. 2.2 et al.) By baptism people become members of the body, and by sharing in the eucharist they share in the body: 1 Cor. 10.16–17; 11.23–29. The Holy Spirit makes the work of reconciliation effective in her members. This may be through preaching and the sacraments, the prayers of the church and the witness of her members, but can also be through the acts of conversion, repentance and reconciliation offered by Christ through the church (Matt. 18.15–20; 1 John 1.5–10). For the ordained ministry, the work of reconciliation is at the heart of their vocation; it is an extension of the mission of Christ to reconcile. Indeed the whole matter of the seal can be led back to this reality: that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5.21).

Among the gifts received by the church from Christ for his mission there is the power of binding and loosing, sometimes referred to as the ‘office of the keys.’ Originally referring to what was permitted or forbidden by the law and so an exercise of judging (as in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15), it has in the context of texts such as Matt. 16.19, 18.18, and also John 20.23, given rise to a practice of admitting to or excluding from the church. The office of the keys is part of the ministry of the church, exercised primarily through those ordained to the ministry of bishop and priest.

Originally exercised in a public form, the practice of making a confession of sins to a priest in private is one of the ways the ministry of binding and loosing has been received from Jesus Christ. The forgiveness and mercy which are proper to God is communicated through penitent and confessor. Although it became a party issue in the nineteenth century, it is worth repeating that it was not only Laudians or Anglo-Catholics who thought the practice should be more widely used. It is not the only way in which this takes place, and certainly not the most important one, but it is one of them. The seal is what enables it to happen securely.

When someone comes to confess their sins to a priest they are coming both to Christ and to his church, to a ‘place’ where in one sense they already are. For that to take place, the sinner needs to come with unqualified trust, or at least a trust which can become so. Otherwise, the freedom and honesty of the confession will be at risk and the priest’s response will be disabled.

This argument for the seal—namely that without it the sinner may feel inhibited from a true confession—is the argument made most commonly: nothing may get in the way of access to the ministry of reconciliation. This is all the more the case if you hold that this ministry is sacramental or, indeed, a sacrament. Many other arguments for the seal relate to this; I will briefly list them. Most are simply those which arise if the ministry is to be executed well. There are others which are theological, and I list these separately.

1) It is the common practice of other churches which retain the ministry of private confession to an ordained minister to afford an almost absolute measure of confidentiality to the penitent—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental and Lutheran among others. It is not a peculiarity of the Church of England, but expresses the wisdom of the Christian centuries, which it would foolish to ignore. It has been found by experience that for it to bear fruit, such confidentiality is needed.

2) The seal belongs to received teaching, as expressed by an Act of Convocation in the Convocation of York in 1959. Bishop Gerard Ellison, then Bishop of Chester, said that it is ‘an essential principle of Church doctrine that if any person confess his secret and hidden [sins] to a priest for the unburdening of his conscience and to receive spiritual consolation and absolution from him, such priest is strictly charged that he do not at any time reveal or make known to any person whatsoever any sin so committed to his trust and secrecy.’

3) Ordinary human intercourse suggests that we need to be able to trust each other with confidences. If someone trusts a priest to keep confidence, then that trust is impaired if that priest fails to do so. That person will be harmed and what is owed to them as person is not given.

4) Such a measure of confidentiality and the accompanying ability to disclose anything is something which arises out of the ministry of making a confession made in the hope of receiving the assurance of forgiveness.

5) It offers a place of complete security, and this allows complete disclosure. If such confidentiality is in question then so is this security. The penitent is less likely to be able to share without reserve the most painful wounds and the greatest pains. This goes for those who have done something criminously, for those traumatized by wrongdoing or those who have witnessed it to make the first steps towards disclosure.

6) It could be tempting to a penitent to withhold some of their sins if they could not trust the confidentiality of the confessor. This would reduce the usefulness of the practice significantly.

7) When one truly penitent comes to repent of all their sins, all sins are taken away. It is directly analogous to baptism. For this to be possible, nothing should be held back.

8) The ministry is administered in the interests of the penitent. This means that in terms of the ministry the integrity of the penitent as a person comes first. To break confidentiality after having pledged it impairs such integrity. It does not respect them as a person and respect is due whatever sins one has committed or incurred.

9) Observance of utter confidentiality has to be universal: if one priest reveals a secret, then the ministry in general will be made less trustworthy. The seal offers a trustworthy ministry, open to all comers, because it gives shape to the church’s mission to offer the forgiveness and mercy of God to sinners.

10) The seal enables the church to demonstrate the seriousness of sin: sinners must come under judgement in order to receive mercy, and the seal enables the confessor to hold a penitent accountable before God.

11) The seal allows the possibility of someone making a crucial step towards a fuller contrition. A comparison might be made using the metaphor of medicine, the sinful state of the penitent to a sick patient. In order to become hale again, a patient may have to face a number of treatments and it may be a painful incision which begins the healing.

12) In the Church of England, someone who has committed a grave sin which is also a serious crime and who comes to confession will, because it is not the ‘natural thing to do,’ be taking a major step. To begin such a journey to conversion from sin to Christ and his church is enabled by the seal. Confidentiality in the form of the ‘seal’ can play a vital role in the salvation of such a penitent. A similarly major step would be enabled by the seal for someone making known a serious crime.

13) The confidentiality of the seal is unusual by contemporary standards and is positive witness. It is a testimony to the difference of God’s mercy from the ways and morals of the society in which we live.

14) As far as the Church of England is concerned, little or no evidence has been discovered— much searching, many enquiries notwithstanding—that the seal has been the reason or occasion of the abuse of children or the vulnerable. Power has been abused in relation to the confession, but not the seal properly understood.

There are six more theological reasons which may be adduced in support of the measure of confidentiality which applies to the ministry of confession.

15) The basis for what is commonly called the ‘seal’ rests in the extraordinary mercy of God: ‘The vast allowances of God’s mercy,’ as Jeremy Taylor puts it. It is a mercy which is deeper than can be imagined, quo nihil maius cogitari potest, that which nothing greater can be thought. The church must never preach a mercy less than this. In maintaining the obligation to silence on the part of the priest, the church is seeking to ensure that the penitent has access to the same ‘vast allowances of mercy.’ This is one way, a small one, in which the mercy of God is made known and real, which, in some cases certainly, it might not have occurred.

16) The seal belongs to the the call of the church to reveal God’s mercy to the world. This mercy comes from reconcilition with God. The church is called to protect those who seek this mercy. To be sure, this is available to those are content to seek this directly, but the ministry is open to members of the church both for forgiveness of sins and for the assurance that they have been forgiven.

17) The matter of this ministry ultimately belongs neither to the priest nor the penitent but to God: the penitent brings to God their lack of a sense of the mercy along with their sins, looking to draw closer to God by the ministry of the church. Unlike confidentiality between persons in secular life, in the law or medicine say, the confidentiality of confession is not a contract between the priest and the penitent. The person who comes to this ministry has a just claim to confidentiality. It secures this, but it also secures the ability of the church to maintain the freedom of anyone, under any circumstances, to seek God’s mercy without fear. If the confidentiality of the confessional is qualified, for any reason, then something is put in the way of someone wanting to bare their soul.

18) This is one of those areas in which God is clearly working, doing what is proper to him: to forgive and to reconcile. It is where a member of the church confesses to another, but the confession is made to God. The minister acts in the name of God and the church. It is a commonplace which goes back to early Christian reflection that sins confessed to a minister be spoken of as being confessed to God alone, and that therefore the minister knows the sins ‘as God knows them.’ Both St Thomas Aquinas and Dr Luther teach this. As T.T. Carter puts it: ‘What he thus hears he knows only sacramentally, as within the veil of another world… the Priest knows them only in confession.’

19) The Church exists only because of the judgement and mercy of God, not because of any human institution; if she allows herself to be ruled by anything other than the reconciling work of God in Christ, then she ceases to be the Church. There is a question to be asked as to whether, in moderating the obligation to confidentiality, she is allowing herself to be ruled by something other than the work of Christ.

The ‘seal’ may be held to be measured by the mercy of God. It is one of the reason why priests have preferred death rather than betray a penitent. This is ultimately a matter of corresponding to the being of the church as the means of the mercy of Christ. Once the church breaks that correspondence—once she says to a penitent, however inadequate the penitence, that she cannot respect his attempts at contrition—the minister is doing something other than be a witness to the depth of the divine mercy.

In sum, the seal is a sign of the depths of the divine mercy, and is a small, if vital, sign of how deep those depths go. Is this something by which the church should stand? Yes!

Thomas Seville is a member of the Community of the Resurrection. He represents the Religious Communities on the General Synod.