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Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Sacred Seal of Confession

Fr. Z. has a post and commentary on a Zenit article about the Seal of the Confession on trial. What's so chilling about this is that one of the things we hold most sacred really IS being attacked, more and more, in our society.

In summary, the case in question is especially appalling, because it surrounds the violation of the Seal of Confession: The State recorded an inmate penitent's Sacramental Confession heard by Fr. Mockaitis. I remember reading about this some time ago, and recall that as soon as he learned of this, documents were filed to suppress the tape, and I believe suit was quickly filed to protect the Seal, demanding the destruction of that tape.

Ultimately the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that recording a Sacramental Confession WAS a violation of the First and Fourth Amendment, thus the recorded Sacramental Confession was illegal, and the tape was ordered to be destroyed. Now, ten years after the fact, the tape STILL exists.

Yeah. That's a problem. Are you angry yet? You SHOULD be, whether you are Catholic or not.

Many people don't understand the Sacrament of Confession and why we must go, the spiritual benefits, the graces, or the absolute necessity of it. They DO understand, however, the confidentiality of the practice, although maybe they don't realize that the Seal of Confession doesn't just extend to the Priest, but even further. ANYONE who overhears a confession must keep their trap shut..for life. The Seal applies to even the non-ordained. For example, if I was in line outside of the Confessional and a person with a little too much confidence in the sound-deadening properties of "the box" spoke so loudly that her confession could be clearly heard, well, anyone standing there is bound to the same Seal.

By the way, the example I true to life. Thankfully I didn't hear what the person said, but I'm quite certain everyone in the chapel thought I must really have a huge bullfrog in my throat giving the amount of time I spent clearing it and coughing a little just to ensure I COULDN'T hear what was being said, hopefully making sure no one else did, either. But if I HAD...let's just say if someone had asked me to repeat what I'd heard or die, well...I'd better be choosing death in that case.

The movie, "I Confess" by Alfred Hitchcock reveals very truthfully the importance of the Seal of Confession. In the movie, a murderer confesses his crime, and when the Priest himself is accused and goes on trial, he utters not a peep either to the man who was walking around free and often in his presence, and gives no indication to the authorities that he knows anything at all. He can't.

Throughout history, Priests have gone to their deaths rather than ever reveal what a penitent said to them in Confession.

Several years ago, when I was finding my way back into the Church, my biggest struggle being the Sacrament of Confession, this very topic happened to come up. My boyfriend at the time, a non-Catholic, non-religious person, said something to me about the government probably putting recording devices in Catholic Churches. He wasn't condoning the practice; in fact, he was only advancing a conspiracy theory that would not surprise him given how we were all watching our freedoms eroding away. I actually demanded that he shut up, in no uncertain terms. I didn't want to hear him even talk about it. I asked him if he realized how SACRED was the Confessional, how ABHORRENT it was to even THINK that this could be happening! I didn't know of Fr. Mockaitis's case.

As it was, at my boyfriend's very suggestion at this violation, I was so deeply offended, and even wounded, that, even to my surprise, I burst into tears. I had never before that point realized how FIRMLY I believed in the Seal, even as I questioned the Sacrament itself. I knew, without a doubt, that ANYTHING I told a Priest in Confession would go with him to the grave. Thus the very violation of that moment was, akin to me, Spiritual Rape.

This life or death bond of confidentiality transcends any mere law of man; it is the law of God, and it's one that is written upon our hearts, whether we are Catholic or not. Even non-Catholics understand very clearly the importance of the Seal, and what it means for ALL Faithful of any religion should the State interfere in this religious practice.

I shudder to think what would happen if the State had ruled other than it had. I shudder to think of how many people would refuse to go to Confession, to bring their sins to God and receive absolution...for fear of someone overhearing, intentionally, and using their most vulnerable moment against them.

For now, the Sacrament is safe, and we DO need to fight for our very lives here. Our lives, and more importantly....our souls.

You can read the article either at Fr. Z's blog (linked at the top of the post) or go straight to Zenit to read it without his commentary.

In any case, I encourage you to fully read the article, which is an interview with the priest in question, and he answers many common questions about the Seal, the court case, and why this is so important for us ALL.


Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I plan to post this soon...The attack is on...Let's die martyrs :)

Kris said...

Here is a further FYI for all cell phone users that is true. Hackers have developed a way to install software on your cell phone that allows someone to listen to whatever is spoken within range of the phone (as a microphone) whether it is on or OFF. It is imperative that you do not bring your phone in the building with you and that if you do bring it in, take your battery out of your phone prior to entering the confessional! Here is a homily that discusses this.

Austringer said...

Some priests take the Seal more seriously than others! When I had a conflict with my priest, he chose to denigrate me by telling others, whose good opinion of me he hoped to change, items that came from the confessional and from private conversations with him in the role as spiritual advisor.

Needless to say, I don't go to confession to him anymore.

Anita Moore said...

It is a disgusting case. The district attorney involved deserves to be hung up by his thumbs. It is a tactic in the best traditions of hell.

Adoro said...

Austringer ~ You have GOT to document that and write the bishop about it. That is an offense that has to be sent to Rome...the priest is excommunicated for breaking the Seal.

Anita ~ I totally agree. What can we do to bring that DA to proper justice... ;-)

Austringer said...


I did end up going to the bishop, as this conflict reached truly ludicrous levels as my priest sought to excuse his own poor behavior by making me his scapegoat. I did not, however, bring up these particular transgressions as it would have been simply my word against his -- and who would believe a layperson versus a priest? I had enough other material that I could bring to the bishop's attention to illustrate some problems in our parish, problems that my conflict was a symptom of. The bishop helped me as much as possible, and even met with me recently for about an hour. It appeared to me that he took my complaints seriously, so what more can I ask? This is something you and I can talk about in private sometime (by the way, I left you a phone message earlier about another matter, the women's AOTM gathering), as I don't think it is charitable or prudent to go into further detail in a public venue. My point was merely to illustrate that not all priests respect the Seal.

Terry Nelson said...

This is so weird - I posted on a similar topic today and had no idea you posted this. I saw the Z post as well.

But as a student of canon law and theology, what are your thoughts about the penitent's obligation to keep secret things said in confession? If you have the time I'd love it if you commented on it on my post on confidentiality. Thanks!

Adoro said...

Terry ~ I saw your post earlier today and wasn't able to comment at the time. I'll head over and do so now! :-)

I won't be commenting as a student of theology, but only through common sense in LIGHT of those thing! lol

Terry Nelson said...

Thanks Adoro for your very good commentary and common sense. It really does enlighten my post. You are terrific!