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I recently spoke to one of my (catholic) highschool teachers who was then not a priest but is now a priest.

We were talking, and he mentioned he knew one of my professors during my graduate studies.

I asked him how he knew my professor, and he told me 'confession'.

Is that allowed? Well obviously the contents of the confessions are confidential, but is the fact that this person goes to confession with a certain priest not held in confidence?

I asked him if it was allowed, and he said yes.


Follow-up question:

Any idea what's the difference between talking to priests and talking to psychiatrists?

Afaik, psychiatrists don't disclose that a certain patient consults with them.

  1. On the one hand, seeing psychiatrists isn't as common among humans as confession is among Catholics so I guess there's no stigma in a Catholic seeing or having seen a priest or a particular priest and hence no reason to keep such confidential.

  2. On the other hand, priests seem to have stricter confidentiality laws than psychiatrists: They can't disclose death threats if it would break confidentiality right?

It seems weird to me that death threats cannot be disclosed if it would break confidentiality but that someone goes to a certain priest for confession is not confidential.

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    I suppose every parish member is expected to attend confession, so a priest acknowledging that someone attended confession isn't much of a secret. It's kind of like a teacher admitting that they've graded a a person's homework. One could naturally assume that the teacher knows someone who attends a school, and that they would have graded their work at some point, simply by knowing that the student lives in the proper school district. – Flimzy Jul 21 '16 at 13:45
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    Not enough factual evidence or support that I'd be comfortable with that as an answer. – Matt Gutting Jul 22 '16 at 0:32
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    @Flimzy, although all Catholics are required by law to go to confession at least once a year (if they are conscious of mortal sin), there is no “enforcement” of that law. Also, they can confess to any priest they wish, anywhere in the world. Thus, there is no particular reason for people to know when other parishioners have gone to confession. – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 22 '16 at 7:13
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    @MattGutting The penitent is, of course, free to reveal whether he has gone to confession and with whom. The question asked whether the priest could do so. – AthanasiusOfAlex Dec 24 '16 at 13:40
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    @MattGutting Hm. No matter, how I read it, I can't manage to interpret it that way. The title is “Can Catholic priests disclose....,” and then the person talked about in the body is a priest, who mentions a different professor who he has known in “confession.” Putting the two together, I have to infer that the other professor was once the priest’s penitent. – AthanasiusOfAlex Dec 24 '16 at 15:21
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+50

Can Catholic priests disclose the fact that someone has seen him for confession?

The short answer is possibly, but it is certainly not looked on in a well conceived mannered way.

In the absence of a clear Catholic source from Canon Law stating that it is or is not allowed, it is to be considered as being allowed.

AthanasiusOfAlex is right on specs here and is correct.

While revealing that someone has been to confession does not violate the seal, common sense says that it is best not to provide information that could inadvertently reveal a person’s sins—and revealing whether a person has been to confession or not could potentially do this in one way or another.

I will give a little anecdote here.

One day, many years ago, when I was in a lineup to go to confession there was a person known to many as not practicing his faith, somewhat in front of me. He went in and eventually come out of the confessional.

After Mass, a rather imprudent person asked the priest in question if so and so had been to confession to him. His response, I will always remember: Possibly, but that is not your concern!

The question was never brought up again!

For the rest, I will let Canon Law answer this question:

Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.

Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

§2. A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.

Can. 985 The director of novices and his associate and the rector of a seminary or other institute of education are not to hear the sacramental confessions of their students residing in the same house unless the students freely request it in particular cases.

Can. 986 §1. All to whom the care of souls has been entrusted in virtue of some function are obliged to make provision so that the confessions of the faithful entrusted to them are heard when they reasonably seek to be heard and that they have the opportunity to approach individual confession on days and at times established for their convenience.

§2. In urgent necessity, any confessor is obliged to hear the confessions of the Christian faithful, and in danger of death, any priest is so obliged.

Admitting that someone has been to confession is not the same thing as revealing what sins may or may not have been confessed. Logic is clear on this!

If ever answered this question would be of interest here!

Proof of sacramental absolution required for marriage in France during the French Revolution?

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  • I like your answer best. I'm concerned that David's answer seems to suggest priests ought to lie if asked such a question. Your answer shows there are other options, including rebuking the asker. – fгedsbend Mar 2 at 16:32
  • However, I did ask the others this as well: Isn't the observance of sacraments a cause for celebration? They are holy acts. – fгedsbend Mar 2 at 16:33
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    A little note: Sorry I can not give an immediate source for the following information but at one time in France it was required that practicing Catholics during the the French Revolution needed a proof of being to confession in order to get married in the Catholic Church. Thus if a written statement from a confessor was need, it only stands to reason that a priest is allowed to mention that so and so went to confession to him. I will add this to my question, if I am able to find a source. – Ken Graham Mar 3 at 23:49
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Church law does not explicitly prohibit revealing that a given person has been to confession or not. Here are the relevant canons from the Code of Canon Law:

Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy [though not technically the seal; i.e., they would not fall under the latae sententiae excommunication of Can. 1388].

Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

§2. A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.

Here, some observations should be made: the confessor may never break the seal of confession. To “break the seal” means to make a third party understand that a given penitent has committed a certain sin.

Hence, while revealing that someone has been to confession generally does not violate the seal, common sense says that it is best not to provide information that could inadvertently reveal a person’s sins—and revealing whether a person has been to confession or not could potentially do this.

(For example, suppose that there is someone whom a lot of people suspect has committed a grave sin—say, adultery or something like that. If I reveal that he has gone to confession, many people will likely conclude, rightly or wrongly, that this person has, in fact, committed the sin. That is the sort of thing that needs to be avoided.)

If I were asked point blank whether someone has gone to confession or not, I would simply reply the way witnesses are trained to do: “I don’t recall.”

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  • 'many people will likely conclude, rightly or wrongly, that this person has, in fact, committed the sin. That is the sort of thing that needs to be avoided' --> therefore priests should not inform just like psychiatrists and lawyers? – BCLC Jul 22 '16 at 16:53
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    If I were asked point blank whether someone has gone to confession or not, I would simply reply the way witnesses are trained to do: “I don’t recall.” --> Okay so what if you were asked how you know someone when the informative truthful answer is 'confession' ? – BCLC Jul 22 '16 at 16:53
  • @BCLC That’s right. (About not informing, like doctors and lawyers.) – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 22 '16 at 16:53
  • @BCLC About saying that I met someone in confession ... I don’t think it is a good idea to reveal that, even though in that particular case the danger of breaking the seal is much less. I would answer in the same way: “I don’t recall where I met him.” I don’t think the priest you mention meant any harm; I just don’t think it is a good idea. – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 22 '16 at 16:56
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    @BCLC Well, yes, if there is a better way to answer the question without revealing anything, then that is fine. – AthanasiusOfAlex Jul 22 '16 at 17:46
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Let me first point out that I think the the answer by AthanasiusOfAlex is correct by the letter. I would like to give a broader interpretation by Bishop Barron in one of his videos on this topic.

He speaks about Can. 983 §1 which he cites from memory as

The canon law of the church stipulates that one may never consciously violate the seal of confession. It's an absolute law within the church's structure. (1:56)

He the continues to explain this law by an anecdote:

Maybe some Non-Catholics, maybe Catholics themselves, but certainly Non-Catholics, might not grasp why this is so important to us, why confession has this very sacred quality.

Let me put it in context by telling a story from my own seminary formation: We took a course in our fourth year at the seminary in confession. And our teacher said this to us and it's been kind of burned in my mind all the years I've been a priest.

He said, if someone asks you: "Father, can you hear my confession?" The answer is always: "Yes!" If it's inconvenient, the answer is always: "Yes!" Even, if it puts your life in danger, the answer is always: "Yes!"

Then he added, and if someone ever says to you: "Hey, what was said to you in that confession?" The answer is always: "It never happened." If saying or acting as though if it never happened is inconvenient: "It never happened." If acting as though it never happened puts you in danger of your life, the attitude is still: "It never happened."

That's how sacred we consider the so called "seal of confession". (3:42)

The bishop then proceeds to explain why this is so important in the context of the sacramental nature of confession:

We hold that confession is not so much an encounter with the priest, it's an encounter with Christ through the sacramental mediation of the priest. In the confessional, a penitent approaches the Lord, and confesses sin to Christ, and receives---through the sacramental mediation of the priest---the healing and forgiving grace of Christ.

Because that encounter is so sacred, we don't want anything to stand in the way of it: If someone would feel "oh-oh, if I say something in the confessional, the priest is likely to repeat it", he or she will not approach that fond of grace. We don't want anything to stand in the way of ones access to the source of salvation. Which is why we take the seal of confession, the privacy of confession with such extraordinary seriousness. (5:04)

So to answer your question: The letter of the law does not directly forbid to disclose the fact that someone was seeing him, the priest, for confession. But Bishop Barron advises the priest to act as if this confession had never happened - even under difficult circumstances. This he sees as an important part of not violating the seal of confession.

To give a personal interpretation: As 3961 notes in the comments, this might be understood to require the priest to lie when asked if someone confessed to him. This might seem ad odds with the eighth commandment, but the Church teaches that the severity of the sin has to be judged with the sinners intention in mind. See for example the wikipedia site (Ten Commandments in Catholic theology) on the eighth commandment for the differences the intention could make.

However, [the eighth commandment] does not require a person to reveal a truth to someone who does not have a right to know, and teaches respect for a right to privacy. (Wikipedia: Ten Commandments in Catholic theology)

An this is (in my opinion) exactly the "attitude" the bishop talks about: Act as if it didn't happen. If someone asks, try not to lie to him. If that person persists and puts the priest in a situation where he either has to lie or would break the seal of confession---then do under no circumstances break that seal. That is because, in this situation the priest is obliged to protect the higher good: By breaking the seal of confession he would do great harm in (prospectively) hindering people to the forgiving grace of God. By lying, he only refuses to answer a question that should not have been asked in the first place.

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  • Isn't the observance of sacraments a cause for celebration? They are holy acts. I just asked Alex the same thing. This bishop's anecdote seems to recommend lying to keep the mere observance of confession secret. That's extreme, and if I were catholic I'd be hesitate to lie over that. – fгedsbend Mar 2 at 16:28
  • @KorvinStarmast I added that part in. – David Woitkowski Mar 3 at 7:56
  • @3961 Thank you for your concern. I put in a personal note on that. In my reading of the Church's teaching the eighth commandment does not require the priest to tell anyone. – David Woitkowski Mar 3 at 7:58
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    @3961 On how a good confession is a cause for celebration: Please do us all the favor and make that a question on its own, I (and probably some of the other folks around) have a great answer waiting to be written down. – David Woitkowski Mar 3 at 8:04
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    @BCLC could you please do us a favor and discuss this elsewhere? Everytime your comment starts with "New question ..." I would encourage you to post this as a new question. – David Woitkowski Mar 5 at 19:04

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