Violating the Seal? Who could possibly have foreseen it?

Violating the Seal? Who could possibly have foreseen it? March 14, 2015

An Italian journalist goes into a confessional, lies about making a confession, and then records the priests’ responses. Jeepers. Who could have imagined that would ever happen?

A final point to consider: In addition to the dangers of soul law enforcement officials face, there is an even greater danger posed when private citizens internalize the ethos “Cops lie, so therefore I can too.” Witness the recent work of a “citizen journalist” who decided to lie her way into a crisis pregnancy center in order (allegedly) expose the evils of the prolife movement. This turnabout on the tactics of some in the prolife movement shows where this tactic will inevitably lead as the culture wars escalate. It will not be all that long before somebody shows up in, for instance, your confessional, Father, offering some outrageous false confession of some horrible crime in order to record your response on their cell phone, edit it who knows how, and then publish it to the internet with who knows what charge that you are (by observing the Seal of the Confessional) complicit in aiding and abetting some heinous crime. A little imagination shows that the potential for abuse and invasion of privacy by “citizen journalists” is almost infinite and will not be surprised if the day arrives when Churches will require metal detectors in confessionals in order reduce the chances that the Seal will be broken as “citizen journalists” either give false confessions or record the confessions of others for broadcast. Particularly troubling is the fact that, with the right technology somebody *else’s* cell phone can be turned into a recording device, even when it is off, allowing unscrupulous people to record the confessions of others.

In short, the growing culture of free lance “citizen journalists” lying to people and recording each other with no more editorial oversight than the Internet is a step toward creating, not a civilization of love and trust, but a civilization something more like an Orwellian police state in which citizens are encouraged to spy on and inform on one another: a civilization in which all bonds of love and friendship are replaced with relationships of suspicion, fear, and paranoia; a civilization where you simply never know whether the conversation you have with a neighbor or a priest about your struggles with the the bottle, or porn, or your marriage will wind up on Youtube for the delectation of millions.

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  • Artevelde

    Most chilling, those last three words of her editor: because it is interesting. Another fine episode in the continuing parade of the gagged consciences. Because we can. Because it’s not really fully human. Because we have no other choice. And now .. because it is interesting. At the end of this, in a curious perversion of saving the best wine for last, stands the prince of this world, and those whose conscience is watered down enough can finally drink the bitter wine, in agony and bondage. Then, at last, we will hear the truth. Because the devil commands us to.

  • Dave G.

    Yeah, that’s a frightening thought. Though I think the tendency to say ‘this is OK when I do it because I’m right, and it’s for the righteous cause’, is pretty common and applies to things more than lying. Which is part of the problem. But the whole ‘captured by hidden camera, let’s get them’ that is all the rage today makes me think of something someone said a few years ago: Big Brother doesn’t have to find a way into our homes, we’re inviting him in.

  • kenofken

    This is one of the things that sucks about the tech age, but I’m not sure what the Italian journalist did poses any real threat to the seal of confession. At least as I understand it, the seal is really something that is mostly binding on the priest to keep silent about the penitent and their sins – to keep confessions from becoming a weapon used against someone, discouraging use of the sacrament etc. The penitent is free to blab about their sins anywhere and everywhere outside of the booth, though they can only get official absolution from a priest.

    I’ve never seen any piece of Canon Law which specifically bars a penitent from revealing the details of their own confession session in its entirety (though there may well be such a prohibition). The priest has a reasonable right to expect privacy in confession, but I don’t imagine that much of what they say, if revealed, would be all that compromising. Other than their specific prescription of pennance, most of what they say is the same sort of pastoral advice they would give anyone for the same sin in a general conversation outside of the sacrament.

    On a journalistic basis, what the guy did was just unprofessional asshattery. Making up a sin? Why waste the guy’s time? The ethics of surreptitious recording aside, I could at least see a point if someone documented their own true heartfelt confession and journey through the sacrament etc.

    There is of course a deeper concern about a third party recording an actual sinner’s confession. That threat is mitigate somewhat by the fact that fairly few Catholics see the inside of a confessional anymore.

    • Cypressclimber

      I wonder about the danger to the journalist’s soul.

  • jroberts548

    The seal applies to the priest and to any third parties. It does not apply to the penitent, or even a fake penitent.

    • MarylandBill

      Yes, but you assume that the “journalist” would limit themselves to recording their own confessions. Mark is pointing out that this ethos of lying and other ethically questionable activities in the name of a good cause can be used to justify all sorts of activities up to and including placing hidden electronic recording devices in confessionals. That would violate the seal.

      • jroberts548

        If the journalist did that, you’d have a point.

        I’m in no way defending what this guy did. But I also don’t see the point in making up things or exaggerating beyond the facts.

  • Petey

    Should I mentioned that James OKeefe fellow?

  • antigon

    Of course, can’t trust the journalist, but if she was telling the truth about how the priests responded to her, & capo of the Italian Professional Order of Journalists knows the Faith, rather encouraging was the latter’s observation that –
    ‘What did she find? Priests who are faithful to the Church’s Magisterium and who approach the faithful with humility, in order to find with each person the best and most human way to face their problems.’

    • IRVCath

      Ironically, that gives me hope.

    • Michael

      Yes, I was perhaps too-cynically surprised at how solid the response was. Even better than outrage – nothing takes the sting out of BS gotcha “journalism” than finding absolutely nothing. The Maria Monk crowd would be gnashing their teeth, to be sure.

      • antigon

        Not to say Cardinal Kasp…oh, never mind; gratitude for all the priests who still hold the Faith, & who know that therein is true mercy found.

  • Matthew

    Two points not considered in what has been said below.
    First: if the penitent “blabs” the priest has no defense since he cannot violate the seal of the confessional to defend himself.
    Second: IIRC the broader tradition has always discouraged penitents from discussing the advice received in the confessional since it ONLY APPLIES TO THEIR CASE. Particular details of cases matter in applying the moral law. Therefore the penitent ought not to share advice received.

    • jroberts548

      Both your points are true. Neither transmutes this into a violation of the seal.

  • Alma Peregrina

    I’m no advocate of what Life Action did, but methinks that secular journalists would do this kind of thing regardless of pro-lifers lying or not.

  • The relevant part of the Code of Canon Law (CIC 983 & 984) applies the seal to confessors, interpreters and “all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession”.

    The estimable Dr. Edward Peters wrote a commentary in 2006 that is helpful here. In particular, that the seal applies in this circumstance despite this person not actually completing the sacrament or confessing things that are not really sins (in this case, because they weren’t really committed).

    So while it is clear that the seal applies to priests and interpreters, it is the ‘all others’ clause that adds a bit of confusion regarding the penitent. The information from a confession is the penitent’s and it seems (and is generally agreed) that the penitent is not constrained from sharing what is confessed.

    Don’t get me wrong – this stinks all sorts of ways, not the least because the sacrament is being abused. Additionally because the confessor has no defense without violating the seal, himself profaning the sacrament and betraying his priesthood.

    We should definitely pray for anyone who mis-uses confession. May they receive God’s mercy nonetheless.