If you’ve ever been to confession, you know that it is a “safe space.” When you bear your soul, confessing sins committed, the priest is forbidden to tell anyone what you’ve said. This is the “inviolable” seal of confession.
What most people don’t know, however, is that this seal extends far beyond words and is completely free of exceptions. A priest may not act upon anything he hears in the confession, neither telling anyone else or changing the way he would normally act, no matter what is confessed. While a mandatory reporting for things like suicide in abuse in every other case, if such things are revealed within the confessional, he risks excommunication if shared with authorities.
Recently, this is come under great scrutiny by civil authorities, and some states have even made it illegal, forcing priests to break the seal under certain circumstances or risk being imprisoned. At the moment, California is considering this exact legislation.
And in one way, it makes sense, right? Why would we want to protect a potential murderer, child molester, or someone at risk of suicide? We should want to do everything we can to turn this person in, either to get them help or to punish them for their actions.
And yet, I have to argue that something quite essential would be lost within the sacrament if the inviolable seal were removed: with anonymity comes the freedom to return to God with one’s whole heart and take the first step towards retribution for one’s sins. Without the fear of civil punishment, the Church is able to engage with people who would have otherwise carried their sins alone until their death, never taking a step forward and never finding the peace necessary to make things right. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a firmly believe that the seal of the confession actually makes it more likely that people who have committed horrible sins will seek the help they need and reconciliation will be achieved by all involved.
As the Church continues to move forward with scandal, showing that it has been irresponsible to keep the safety of the public in mind, this case is going to be more and more difficult to make, but it is one that I think we must continue to hold. There is truly nothing like the opportunity that the sacrament allows, to step outside of our time and space, and to speak directly to God.