Whether a priest can break the Seal of Confession, calling 911 instead of giving absolution

SWAT church

Site of terrorist scene at a North Carolina church.

Whether this question on the Confessional Seal is given out of curiosity or as bait for another Boston Globe attack on the Church, I don’t know. It’s a “teaching moment”, so, I thank the author, whatever the motivation. It’s from “Anonymous” who’s in The Boston global area. ;-)

Please, note that while I’m a bit aggressive in this answer, I don’t mean it if you are sincere and perhaps the unfortunate victim of an idiot priest who thinks he is judge and jury in a civil forum. That would be a truly hateful experience, and I express my regret to you on behalf of the entire Church and all other priests. The short answer for you is this: No, he cannot report you or break the Seal of Confession. If he does, he is automatically excommunicated. And if he’s open about saying that this was from a sacramental confession, he will be removed, perhaps permanently from active priesthood. Here’s the question:

“Father, I have a question about confession. Let’s say someone confesses they did something illegal. Can a priest say to the person that for your penance I want you to turn yourself into the police? And if the priest can say that, what if the person says I can’t turn myself in because I don’t want to go to jail or be fined, or whatever, so I won’t do that penance. Can the priest then say, well then I can’t give you absolution if you don’t accept the penance? And if that’s the case would that mean since a confession wasn’t completed with absolution the priest was now free to report the person to the police? I hope my question is not too confusing.”

Now, to be a bit aggressive:

First of all, the secular sense of what is legal or not is skewed by political correctness so that what is illegal is not necessarily an indicator of sin. For instance, I think there was s judge who said that a priest wearing a roman collar on the same street as an abortion clinic was illegal. We have some really ludicrous laws in the United States.

Secondly, confession is about the blood dripping from the hand of the Divine Son of God while he forgives a penitent filled with contrition, so that the penance is to be directed at strengthening that new-found friendship which God Himself acquired at great price, showing us a mercy that is founded on justice, that is, he taking on what we deserve for our sins to that even in view of His own justice He has the right to show mercy to us. What a terribly dumbing down it would be to turn the priest into a glorified meter maid. But maybe you are talking about my anti-mafiosi story: Year of Mercy Confession: worst case scenario. Part 1 – When to refuse an absolution. To put some emotion on it, let’s say it’s about a sexual offender. Here’s what happens at times when such people go to prison (this is Joseph Druce literally spreading the prison cell walls with the brains of an offender:

At any rate, it isn’t the purpose of confession to use Jesus’ offer of mercy as leverage to obtain what you think is worldly “justice.” This came up every year in the Confession Practicum I was teaching to the deacons about to be ordained priests at the Pontifical seminary in Columbus, Ohio. Sacrilege is not a good thing. Having said that, and all things being equal, the priest can encourage an offender to turn himself in. That he can do. But he can’t make any possible absolution contingent upon this. There may be any number of reasons why a priest might deny (or delay) an absolution (lack of repentance, mocking Christ during confession…), but the penitent not wanting to go to the police is not one of those reasons.

Think of the sheer illogicity of what you are saying. When is it that the priest will ever be able to give said penitent an absolution. After he’s in prison, after, say, six months in the hole? Maybe we should have public confessions right at the police department. Would you volunteer to be first in line if you ripped up a J-walking ticket? There is a terrible confusion between Church and State. One might know that in these United States with our glorious Constitution (there, I said it… what with the DOJ following these posts on confession and church and state very closely), it is the freedom to exercise religion, that is, free from interference of the State, that is guaranteed though now ignored. The Constitution is not there to “protect” squishy government officials from the fact that individuals may seek to exercise their religion freely.

Finally, as to whether it is the absolution which makes for the confessional seal, the answer is no. The confessional seal is absolute. It may take one or more visits to the confessional for some to be prepared to receive the grace of the sacrament fruitfully. And that’s O.K. Those penitents are always the most grateful to have gotten it right before God and man. How dare the priest betray them before this comes about!

While your question is carefully phrased, I’m guessing that you actually didn’t ask the question you wanted to ask, which means you’ll have a really hard time getting anything usable from my answer. I invite you to read my upcoming post that acts as Part II as to whether an absolution should not be given, or, in fact, should. Part I was here:

Year of Mercy Confession: worst case scenario. Part 1 – When to refuse an absolution Stay tuned for Part II.

Story time:

When I was permanent chaplain, as they are called, for some years in Lourdes (to get a nice break from libraries and degrees and teaching), there was a fad in France, now long over, of journalists heading into the Confessional with recorder in hand. They would confess some impossible case just to see what the priest would say, transcribe this, and publish this in their daily flushes. The other chaplains were all upset at this, and while I was offended at the sacrilege, I said that I would be happy for any good sense and advice I would have to give to be publicized to the entire world. I don’t think this practice lasted very long, because it is in such terribly bad taste, truly monstrous. Who in hell would mock mercy? Just a question. And if that is what the priest in the question above did, well… I’ll repeat my question: Who in hell would mock mercy?

BTW: I know it’s a bit of an aside, but, just to say, should anyone do this recording and transcribing and publishing with me, I would immediately investigate the possibilities of litigation. Whereas I am dirt poor, I would ask some friends who do pro bono work, nationally and internationally, to take up the case. The idea would be that any journalist doing such a thing (and getting paid for it, so that this is the work of a corporation) would be attacking the 1st amendment rights to free exercise of religion (and this is so very many ways) not only of an individual but that of an entire religion, and this, not only Catholic, but also those old Protestant denominations which have a kind of confession experience for their adherents. Again, I would despise the sacrilege of it on the one hand, but I would certainly welcome the international platform given to me because of such litigation to speak about the glories of the sacrament of confession, of mercy. While I still wouldn’t defend myself about anything I said in such a “confession” if the transcription were even grossly incorrect (and this as a good example to all priests), I think it would be evident that anyone who would do such a thing to ever so maliciously mock and interfere with the free exercise of religion would not hesitate to be untruthful with transcriptions, the manipulation of mp3 files, etc. Don’t worry, forensic studies of manipulation always manifest the manipulation. ;-)

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Filed under Confession, Missionaries of Mercy, Year of Mercy

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