VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The seal of confession is so important and sacred that a priest would be automatically excommunicated under canon law for directly revealing the contents of a confession.
The sacramental seal is absolutely inviolable and “admits no exceptions” – even if the intention was to prevent an imminent evil or serious crime, said Msgr. Krzysztof Nykiel, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.
Not even the death of the penitent can release the confessor from the obligation to maintain the seal, he added.
The Catholic Church has always given special importance to the confidential nature of administering the sacrament of penance, the monsignor said. The penitentiary sponsored a conference at the Vatican the same year on “the confessional seal and pastoral privacy.”
Since the seal has its origin and foundation “in the truth and transcendence of God,” he wrote, “only God can open and reveal the secret that the seal encloses.” The “secret” nature of the sacrament of penance reflects and respects the intimate, personal encounter between God and the individual. Confession is to be a “holy place of this communication of love and friendship” where God can come and dwell, the monsignor wrote.
The priest who hears confession is present “exclusively in the name and place of God,” not of himself, he added.
“Opening his heart, the penitent confesses his sins, therefore, to God himself, and only God, through the ministry of the priest, absolves his sins,” Msgr. Nykiel wrote. That is why, as written in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1467), the confessor can make no use of what the penitent has said, which “remains ‘sealed’ by the sacrament.”