The inviolability of the secrecy of the confessional is one of the pillars of Catholic morality. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.” (n.1467)
The New Code of Canon Law, inflicts latae sententiae excommunication on the priest who violates the sacramental seal (Canon 1388 – §1). For the Church no reason whatsoever can justify the violability of the seal of the confessional, since, as St. Thomas explains “the priest has knowledge of those sins, not as a man, but as God knows them”. (Summa Theologiae, Suppl., 11,1ad2).
The Catholic States have always protected the secrecy of the confessional. Alexandre Dumas, in his historical novel, The Poisoner, recounts an episode from Tractatus de confessariis by the Archbishop of Lisbon, Rodrigo da Cunha y Silva (1577-1643): “A Catalonian born in the city of Barcelona, having been condemned to death for a murder committed and acknowledged by him, at the hour of confession, refused to confess. They tried many times to convince him, but he defended himself so strenuously as to engender in others the conviction that such a rebellion originated from the agitation in his soul caused by impending death. St. Thomas of Villanova (1488- 1555), Archbishop of Valencia was notified of the situation. The Hierarch then decided to make every effort to induce the criminal to go to confession, so that he wouldn’t lose his soul as well as his body. However, he was greatly surprised after having asked the reason for the criminal’s refusal to go to confession. The condemned man told him how he hated confessors, as he had been condemned for murder precisely as a result of a revelation made during that sacrament.
Nobody else had been aware of that murder, except, specifically, the priest he had made his confession to, and along with his contrition, also the place he had buried the body and other circumstances of the crime. The priest had afterwards referred to the authorities all the details and for this reason the murderer could not deny them. Only then did the guilty man realize that the priest was the victim’s brother and the desire for revenge had had leverage over every other priestly obligation. St. Thomas of Villanova judged this declaration much graver than the trial [itself] given that it concerned the prestige of religion. Its consequences were therefore more important. Thus he thought it opportune to make inquiries about the veracity of the declaration.
He summoned the priest and made him confess to the crime of disclosure, constrained the judges who had condemned the accused to revoke their judgment and then absolve him. This is how things went amid the admiration and the applause of the public. As regards the confessor, he was condemned to a very severe punishment, which St. Thomas mitigated, in consideration of the ready admission made by the priest and most of all for the satisfaction in seeing how the judges set great store by that sacrament.” (The Poisoner, Mursia,Milano 2018, pp.58-60).
The Western judicial tradition has always respected the seal of the confessional, but the process of secularization of recent decades, which according to some the Church would have benefitted, is nonetheless changing the situation. In a recent article in the Roman daily, Il Messaggero, the Vatican reporter, Franca Giansoldati, wrote that: “the abolition of the seal of the confessional is an idea which is being pushed forward implacably, in various countries, despite strong opposition from the Episcopates” (December 20th 2018).
Unfortunately the facts side with this prediction. In Australia, the region of Canberra passed a law which imposes priests to renege the seal of confession when they were aware of sexual abuse cases. In Belgium, on December 17th , Father Alexander Stroobandt was convicted by the Court of Bruges for not having notified the social services that an old man had manifested the intention of committing suicide. According to the Court, the secrecy of the confessional is not absolute, but can and must be violated in sexual abuse cases concerning minors and in the prevention of suicide. In Italy, the Court of Cassation, with sentence number 6912 of February 14th 2017, sanctioned that the religious summoned to testify in a trial for sexual abuse, could not refuse to do so for the sake of the seal of confession, otherwise they would incur the crime of false testimony.
Presumably, these issues will be discussed also at the meeting between the Pope and the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of the entire world, which will take place in Rome from February 21st to 24th 2019, to address “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” Yet Pope Francis and the ecclesiastical hierarchy seem to be bending to the requests of the world when they differentiate between sins that constitute a crime for the secular States, like pedophilia, and others instead which are protected by the modern States, like homosexuality. For the former, the men of the Church invoke “zero tolerance”; about the latter they remain silent. Consequently, it is predictable that the legislation by the modern States will impose on the Church the application of “zero tolerance” against pedophilia, by releasing priests, aware of these crimes, from the seal of the confessional. If not, the persecution against the sacramental seal, which has been a rarity in the history of the Church, will become the rule in the coming years. For this spiritual help is more than ever necessary for those who did not recoil, faced with death, in order to respect the Divine Law.
The martyrdom of St. John Nepomuceno is well-known (1330-1383), tortured and drowned in the River Moldava in Prague by King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, for refusing to reveal what the King’s wife had said in confession. Less well-known is the case of the Mexican priest, St. Matteo Correa Magallanes (1866-1927). During the Cristeros revolt against the Masonic government, General Eulogio Ortiz, known for having one of his soldiers shot because he was wearing a scapular, had Father Matteo arrested, and ordered him to hear the confessions in prison of the Cristeros “bandits” who would be shot the following day, and to report to him what he had heard from them in confession. The priest heard the prisoners’ confessions, but refused the request strenuously. On February 6th 1927, General Ortiz executed him with his very own sidearm, at the cemetery in Durango. Matteo Correa Magallaes was beatified on November 22nd 1992 and canonized on May 21st 2000, by Pope John Paul II.
Forgotten, instead, is the Peruvian martyr Father Marieluz Garcés (1780-1825). The religious from the Institute of the Camillians, took part in the wars for Peru’s independence as Chaplain to the Spanish Viceroy Don Josè de la Serna and his troops, commanded by Brigadier José Ramon Rodil y Campillo (1789-1853). After the defeat of the Monarchic army at the Battle of Ayacucho (1824), Rodil’s army was besieged at the Fort of Callao and Father Marieluz Garcés stayed with the soldiers to aid them spiritually. In September 1825, the demoralization of the troops gave rise to a conspiracy plot among some of the officers inside the fortress. The plot was discovered by General Rodil and thirteen suspected officers were arrested. They, however, denied the existence of a conspiracy. General Rodil gave orders to have them shot and called Father Marieluz to hear their confessions and prepare them for death. At nine in the evening they were all executed.
The General, however, was not sure that he had caught all of the conspirators and summoned the Chaplain, asking him, in the name of the King, to reveal what he had been told in confession about the conspiracy. Father Marieluz, refused vehemently, making appeal to the seal of confession. Rodil threatened him, accusing him of betraying his King, country and general. “I am faithful to the King, to the flag and my superiors, but nobody has the right to ask me to betray my God.
On this point I cannot obey you.” the priest replied resolutely. At this point, Rodil flung open the door and ordered a platoon of four soldiers to enter with their rifles ready to shoot. Then he made the priest kneel down and shouted at him: “In the name of the King, I ask you for the last time: speak up!”. “In the name of God, I cannot,” was Pedro Marieluz Garcés’ calm reply. A few seconds later he was shot dead, martyr to the confessional seal. Rodil, upon returning to his country, was bestowed the title of Marquis, became a member of parliament, a senator, Prime Minister and Grand Master of Freemasonry. Father Pedro Marieluz Garcés is awaiting beatification by the Church.