The Seal of Confession

Non ut homo, sed ut Deus — Not as a man, but as God

The Apostolic Penitentiary – the office of the Holy See that handles matters relating to the internal forum – recently issued a “note” on the Seal of Confession. This was ostensibly done because of recent grave decisions of courts and legislatures in various parts of the world, including right here in the United States (in California, but not only in recent years), to enact or attempt to impose laws that threaten the privileged status the Sacrament of Confession has always enjoyed even in civil jurisprudence.

Such new “laws” cannot alter the law of God or dispense anyone from it; therefore, it is necessary that the Church’s pastors remind and be reminded of this fact. The Seal of Confession is an absolute secret and no human power can change that.

The document was issued in Italian; presumably it will be translated into English and other languages, but who knows when that will happen. I do not have time to translate the whole thing, but I do wish to share today one brief passage that I think is very important concerning the Seal of Confession (my translation, leaving in some of the funny uses of quotation marks in the original, follows):

The priest indeed comes to know the sins of the penitent “non ut homo, sed ut Deus — not as a man, but as God”,* to such an extent that he simply “does not know” that which was said to him in the confessional, because he did not hear it as a man but, truly, in the name of God.  The confessor could therefore even “swear”, without any detriment to his own conscience, to “not knowing” that which he knows only as a minister of God. By its particular nature, the sacramental seal even goes so far as to bind the confessor “interiorly”, such that he is prohibited from recalling a confession voluntarily and he is bound to suppress all involuntary memories of the same.

* See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Suppl., 11, 1, ad 2.

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