We have recently had a nice clear statement from Rome reaffirming what we all believe about the absolute nature of the seal of confession. Hurrah for that. You may have seen me on BBC1 on Sunday morning doing the same thing: I had a long interview on the subject, but only about three minutes made it into the programme, and can be seen here, starting at 47 minutes in. The studio discussion that followed, in which Caroline Farrow bravely batted for the Catholic side, showed us a predictable lack of understanding from those who are not Catholics on this matter.
The seal of confession is absolutely sacrosanct, and I, as well as every Catholic priest known to me, would be happy to go to jail rather than break it. Moreover, this is something that everyone should support, not just Catholics. Here are some reasons why.
First, there are certain things that are intrinsically private. Phone hacking is illegal in this country. Not many have any problem with that. If the contents of your phone are private, how much more so should be the contents of your confession.
Second, the state has the right to know many things, but it has no jurisdiction over matters of conscience. None whatever. Every Catholic has the right to approach his or her priest in absolute confidence, and discuss the state of their soul. And the state has no right whatever to enter this conversation. Yes, the rights of the state, in a non-totalitarian society, are limited.
Third, this question of crimes confessed that should be reported to the police is a huge red herring. If someone confesses a crime to their priest, the priest may well urge that person to give themselves up to the police, but the priest must leave the penitent free to do as he or she feels duty bound in conscience. The priest has no right to betray the trust, or to harass or coerce or otherwise persuade the penitent to ‘do the right thing’. The conscience is sovereign and absolute. The confessor is not an extension of the long arm of the law. Hard as it may seem, even criminals need to have a person to whom they can speak and whom they can trust absolutely. Every Catholic has the right, and so does every criminal Catholic. Even criminals have rights. And if you do not think that is the case, beware, because you one day may be branded a criminal or find yourself on the wrong side of the law.
Have there ever been cases where priests have been prosecuted by the state for not disclosing what they have heard in confession? Yes there have. At the time of the Gunpowder Plot Fr Henry Garnet was first tortured then executed for holding back information about the supposed plot that he had heard in confession. Father Garnet is not a canonised saint, though he was a martyr, perhaps a political martyr too, killed by a government that wished to blacken the reputation of the sacrament of confession.
The facts about the Gunpowder Plot remain murky, but it is clear that the government of the day saw the seal of confession as a threat to their control; and the same has also been the case under other totalitarian regimes.
The seal of confession also features in the famous case of the Road Hill House murder. This was the subject of the excellent book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale. Constance Kent confessed a murder to Fr Wagner, the famous Anglican vicar, who then gave evidence to the police. It is by no means clear that Wagner did in fact break Miss Kent’s confidence without her permission, but certainly the case did arouse comment about the seal. Moreover, it is now thought that Kent’s confession was false, designed to protect her brother.
Neither of these two cases get us any further forward in the question of what a priest should do when a person confesses to a crime. My guess is that Wagner was manipulated by Kent, and that Fr Garnet was an innocent victim of an anti-Catholic government. The Kent case established that confessions, even heard by Catholic priests, are not privileged in English law. So be it. There is a higher law than that of England, after all, and a greater Judge than any who sits on the English bench.
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