So, you did something you ought not to do. You did it willingly, and you did it with an understanding of just how bad it was. After a little consideration, you decide that it was a mistake, and you need to tell somebody — you need to “get it off your chest.” You consider who might be an appropriate person to listen, maybe to offer a few words of counsel. You settle on the idea that the most fitting confessor is a priest.

You’ve been around long enough; you know a few priests. One in particular fits the bill, so you call him. Next day, you drive by the rectory and strike up a friendly chat before diving into the stupid thing you did. Your priest friend hears you out, and he shares some sound advice. You walk away happier, feeling that the weight has been lifted and you can move on easily. But as soon as you get in you car to leave, you wonder: Father is a good guy, but what’s to stop him from mentioning my error to anyone else? Then you assure you assure yourself, He’s bound by the seal of confession. Unfortunately, that’s not correct.

Searching for the Seal

Hopefully, it’s obvious why the seal of confession would not apply in the given scenario — there was no sacrament. The confession made was made to a priest, in a church building even, but it did not constitute the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For a valid sacramental confession, in addition to the already mentioned priest and penitent, there must be the actual confession of sin with contrition — which too was present in the above — and, finally, the words of absolution. The confession itself constitutes the matter, while the words of absolution are the form properly understood.

Technically, provided that the parties intend to celebrate the sacrament, Reconciliation can be celebrated in any place, at any time, with any degree of formality. It could happen over a cup of coffee at a diner full of people. Now, of course, there are plenty of reasons why such circumstances are not fitting, but that’s beside the point.

This, naturally, begs the question, When does the sacrament begin, and when does it end? Before answering that, let’s consider another hypothetical. A passionate man — we’ll call him Joe — is upset about the abuse scandal and decides to stir up some trouble with a local Catholic priest to make a point. See, Joe thinks that the seal of confession is nonsense and an impediment to justice in this case. Well, Joe has been baptized, which makes him a valid candidate for Reconciliation. So, after each Sunday Mass, he decides to “go to confession” right at the church exit where the priest is greeting people. It’s Joe’s intention to make a valid confession — he is not mocking the sacrament — but also to eventually catch the priest breaking the seal.

Is the priest bound by the seal from the moment that he hears Joe begins his very public confession? Assuming the priest knows Joe’s intentions, especially his actual desire to make a valid confession, is the priest required to grant absolution, to speak the words which are necessary for a valid sacrament? After all, priests are to withhold absolution only when they have good reason to doubt the contrition of the one confessing. The real crux of it is this: Is a priest bound by the seal if he does not grant absolution?

When the Seal is Uncertain

Again, the words of absolution provide the requisite “form” to the sacrament. Without valid matter and form, you only have the semblance of a sacrament. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask, Does the seal of confession protect the penitent’s words even when the sacrament has not actually been fully celebrated? Would a priest be technically correct in saying, “I can talk about that man’s confession. Since there was no absolution given, there was no sacrament. No sacrament means no seal.”

Now, a canon lawyer might present a clear cut argument that canon law binds the confessor by the seal even when absolution is withheld. However, that only tells us about canon law, and we want to know about the sacrament itself. See, there exists today some uncertainty about whether there is a theological basis for the seal of confession. Some argue that it is strictly a canon law, meaning that the Church is free to modify it. If it is theologically based, rather than merely juridiscial, then the Church could never create exceptions. On the other hand, as important and meaningful as it is, if the seal is merely juridiscial, then there is a place for an argument in favor of limited exceptions.

So, what arguments have you heard in favor of either view? Let us know in the comments section now.

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.