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This is merely a hypothetical, and I realize how unlikely this is, but if a person who committed murder confessed it to a Catholic priest, is the priest then allowed to go report the crime to the police? Is there a code that the priest won't confess sins to others?

It seems to me that the greater sin would be to not report the crime and let justice fly out the door, not to break some code.


Related: Can a priest act on a confession of molestation?

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  • The question is about a conflict between religious laws and civil laws. The laws of Catholicism are defined by a supranational institution, but the latter are country-specific. Answers will probably differ depending on whether the priest practices in a country that has special rules for Catholic confessions and a country without such rules, e.g. a country with no provisions for freedom of religion.
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 24 at 13:12
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    Not only priests, but therapists don't report crimes either (though they may report if they believe there's an ongoing future risk).
    – Dan W
    Mar 24 at 22:19

3 Answers 3

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No, he cannot. That would be a violation of the seal of confession, which is that a priest cannot reveal anything that would betray the penitent.

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 [e.g., by signs] and for any reason.

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.

taken from this answer to the question "Does the Seal of Confession include saying whether or not a person confessed to them?"

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    @LukeHill Priests usually forget about what they've heard in confession anyways. Why does it "seems wrong" to you? Civil law in many places even protects priests regarding the seal of confession.
    – Geremia
    Mar 24 at 3:09
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    @Rajesh that’s not an argument against confession. That verse does not mean that the government should be submitted to at all times regardless of the commands.
    – Luke Hill
    Mar 24 at 3:20
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    @RBarryYoung - A priest can act in the case of a confession of a plan to harm someone, according to the Canon Law Made Easy web site, which says that “if a penitent has indicated that he fully intends to kill or harm ‘Person X’, a priest may be able to warn the police that Person X is in danger, but without fully explaining how he obtained this information”. Mar 24 at 12:36
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    Part of true repentance is transparency. If someone confesses to a murder and is not willing to take himself to the authorities, the repentance underlying the confession is suspect at best. Murder has affected many other people than the victim and the penitent should desire to make what recompense they can. A priest should press very hard for public confession in such a case. Mar 24 at 13:37
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    @Yksisarvinen "Absolution cannot be conditional on something you will do in the future." If the penitent refuses, that's a sign he's not really contrite. Absolution is given in the confessional, yes.
    – Geremia
    Mar 24 at 20:15
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Supplement to the answer of Geremia based on comment of Dan W:

For past crimes, it's not just Catholic priests (and probably other religious professionals in general). In general, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, mental health nurses and mental health professionals in general and doctors and health professionals in general and also lawyers/attorneys can't.

Usually, the exception for those secular professionals is to do with present or future crimes, e.g. the client is a fugitive or plans to commit some crime in the future.

This then is the relevant difference for Catholic priests (and I guess religious professionals in general) : In fact, Catholic priests have the same obligations for past crimes.

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  • Please add some citations backing up your assertions.
    – Geremia
    Jun 15 at 18:21
  • @Geremia It's a supplement to your own answer. What don't your citations do for my answer? I have only 2 assertions: 1 - past is the same 2 - future is different. the 2nd is already there. You're telling me I need to provide proof that there is confidentiality for the past? LOL. That should already be given. Are you the downvoter?
    – BCLC
    Jun 16 at 7:06
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Based on the prior cited: Can. 983 §1, Can. 984 §1. & §2., it is correct that the seal of confession cannot be broken on any circumstance including confession of murder.

However, there is an additional stipulation concerning murder, Can. 977:

Can. 977 The absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue [Thou Shall Not Kill] is invalid except in danger of death.

This essentially means that absolution cannot be given for murder, so while the confession seal is upheld no absolution is given meaning practically speaking the sin is unforgiven. With the exception of a deathbed confession.

So the more proper answer would be that yes the seal of confession cannot be broken under any circumstance, however the confession of murder is not considered licit and will not be absolved either.

I apologize I do have the proper citations for this in canon law for case precedent in doing this, but based on my own observation & hearing the accounts of multiple confessors. How this usually works out in practice is the confessor will inform the person that for their penance they must provide their confession to the lawful authority and face secular justice, and the serving of their time in prison or whatever the lawful punishment is is considered an act of their penance. Therefore satisfying the need for a just punishment while also absolving the penitent.

Unrelated to the question, but for those curious there are additional categories of sin where the priest is not permitted to grant absolution without dispensation from his bishop. One related example I'm aware of is abortion, where while normally this would be covered under the 6th, Francis has granted dispensation for priests to absolve this one. I'm uncertain if their is a canon law citation to provide, but just a recent event I'm aware of, happy to clarify further if needed.

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  • Then how as Paul absolved?
    – Joshua
    Mar 24 at 16:39
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    In the Catholic numbering, the sixth commandment is "Thou shalt not commit adultery", so this canon means that (for example) a priest can't absolve his mistress. Mar 24 at 16:48
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    That's not what "accomplice", "sixth commandment", nor "danger of death" means.
    – OrangeDog
    Mar 24 at 17:21
  • Exactly, accomplice means partner in crime, and the sixth commandment in the Western number is that against fornication (i.e. not only adultery), not murder (any unjust killing). Mar 24 at 19:07
  • " but based on my own observation & hearing the accounts of multiple confessors" hearsay at best -- other authorities are clear that absolution may not be contingent upon something after/outside the confessional.
    – eques
    Jun 8 at 13:46

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