Cardinal reasserts absolute confidentiality of confessional

On the afternoon of 17 November, General Synod of the Church of England is to debate a motion to “take note of” the draft Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, (GS 1970), which include the treatment of the ministry of absolution (i.e. confession) as outlined in GS Misc 1085. It is pertinent, therefore, to note that the Roman Catholic Apostolic Penitentiary[1] sponsored a conference at the Vatican, November 12-13, on “The Confessional Seal and Pastoral Privacy”, summaries of which are reported in L’Osservatore Romano and The Catholic Herald.

Conference on the seal of the confessional

In his opening address, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, major penitentiary, emphasized that it is necessary “to dispel any suspicion” that the Church’s commitment to the Confessional seal “is designed to cover intrigues, plots or mysteries as people sometimes naively believe or, more easily, are led to believe”. The purpose of the secrecy, both sacramental and extra sacrament, “is to protect the privacy of the person, that is, keep the presence of God within every man”.  It also protects a person’s reputation and right to privacy.

The secrets of the confessional have been subject to Church law since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and “the discipline of the church in this matter has remained substantially the same,” with the exception of additional protections: in 1988 the Church introduced legislation prohibiting, on penalty of excommunication,  the use of “new technological tools – such as a tape recorder, a microphone and an electronic device – to disseminate through the media what was said by the confessor and penitent”.

Mgr Krzysztof Nykiel, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, is quoted as saying [our emphasis]:

 “No confessor can be dispensed from [the secrecy of the confessional], even if he would want to reveal the contents of a confession in order to prevent a serious and imminent evil.”


“[The confessional seal] “is binding not only on the confessor, but also on the interpreter, if present, and anyone who in any way, even casually, comes to know of the sins confessed.”

He further indicated that the Church forbids, on the pain of excommunication, a priest from testifying in court about what he heard in the confessional, “even if the penitent requests” he testify. Not even the death of the penitent can absolve the confessor from the obligation to maintain the secret.


The decision in July this year of the Anglican Church in Australia to abandon the absolute secrecy of the confessional was seen as placing pressure on the Roman Catholic Church to follow suit. Unsurprisingly, this week’s Vatican Conference has reiterated the current legal position.  Whilst any legislative changes to the Church of England’s unrepealed  proviso to Canon 113 of the Code of 1603 will take some time to introduce[2], Monday afternoon’s debate will be closely followed by the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps more so than Synod’s deliberations on women in the episcopate.


[1] A Vatican court dealing with matters of conscience.

[2] Responsibility for approving any final version of the draft Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, (GS 1970), will rest with the Convocations following the ‘take note’ Synod debate.


Suggested citation: David Pocklington: ‘Cardinal reasserts absolute confidentiality of confessional’ (Law & Religion UK 14 November 2014) (available at

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