Why the Seal of Confession Can Never Be Broken

Recently on The Patrick Madrid Show, a listener named Cat called into the show to ask Patrick about the reasoning behind the seal of confession and why it exists. She explained that she has a hard time coming to terms with the fact that priests are not allowed to turn in people who commit heinous crimes.

“Hi, Patrick! Thank you for taking my call. I want to give you a little background. So, I was raised as a non-denominational Christian Protestant and I am married to a Catholic. We got married in the Catholic Church, we have a daughter who’s baptized in the Catholic Church, and my husband and I have a lot of conversations about theology and what we believe. And a lot of our beliefs are actually incredibly similar.

But one of my biggest struggles with becoming Catholic is the seal of confession and people potentially using that to confess terrible sins and then not have to face justice. Even though I understand that part of their penance could be something like, ‘You have to go turn yourself in to the police,’ I still struggle with how someone could potentially abuse the situation, and then how do I come to terms with that?”

Patrick sympathized with her point of view, pointing out that it’s understandable to want to see people like murderers, sexual abusers, drug dealers, and robbers brought to justice. But Patrick explained that there are several reasons the seal of confession was established, and he began by likening the spiritual healing of confession to the physical healing of a wound.

When someone arrives at a hospital with a serious ailment or injury, medical professionals need to find out what caused the affliction in order to accurately diagnose and treat it. However, people who are injured while doing something illegal are often afraid to go to hospitals because they believe that they will be turned in. But, under normal circumstances, medical professionals are not legally required to volunteer that information. They need people to feel safe enough to come get treated so that they don’t die.

Similar to that doctor-patient confidentiality, Catholics confessing their sins need to be sure that the seal of confession is secure. The very essence of reconciliation is to elicit a true confession out of sorrow for offending God, rather than out of fear of the punishment we might receive.

“I’m thinking of the example of the woman taken in adultery, and I’m sure you remember that story from the Gospels. What does Jesus do? He forgives her. He doesn’t say, ‘Now go tell your husband.’ He just says, ‘Go and sin no more.’ So it was sufficient for her to be sorry for her sins,” said Patrick.

Jesus did not tell her to report it, nor did He feel compelled to report it Himself to her husband. The confession of sins and the state of one’s soul is between the sinner and God. If the sinner is sorry, Jesus will forgive. Patrick continued, saying that there may be a moral obligation incumbent upon the sinner to carry out any reparations for the sins that he or she confessed, but that is not required to be forgiven by God.

On a more practical note, the seal of confession is necessary because, without it, priests would be permitted to divulge anybody’s sins, serious or not, to anybody else. He could tell not only the authorities but someone’s spouse, kids, siblings, or other family members. “That would be insanity on stilts,” said Patrick. “And nobody would go to confession.” That fear of having one’s mistakes spread throughout their community would paralyze anybody enough to refrain from receiving reconciliation.

That is why the seal of confession is so important, and priests are charged with abiding by their oath to never break that seal.

Tune in to The Patrick Madrid Show on weekdays 8am – 11am CT

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.