Question: Can a priest reveal what he has heard in Confession in order to get an innocent person out of jail? How about after the penitent has died?
Answer: First, let us quote the applicable canon law, (numbers in parentheses refer to the new 1983 Code) and then we will discuss the reasons for the law.
Penalties for directly violating the seal of confession include excommunication “most specially reserved to the Apostolic See, and even indirect violations are severely punished (oc. 2369, n.c. 1388).
The Church is adamant about protecting the seal of Confession because “the salvation of souls is the highest law,” and this Sacrament is the primary, God given, way of restoring sinners to sanctifying grace; reconciling them to God and His Church. Should people come to distrust the security of their sacramental communications with the priest, they will surely detest and avoid the Sacrament, and souls will most certainly be lost.
It may help to understand that the knowledge obtained by the priest in Confession is knowledge that he would not have otherwise had, other than in the performance of his priestly duty. He has the knowledge in question only because he is carrying out the divine command of forgiving or “retaining” (refusing to forgive) sins, while acting as judge “in persona Christi – in the person of Christ.” For many centuries Western civilization has recognized the privileged nature of this communication, in much the same way as it has come to recognize the privilege of communications between patients and physicians, and clients and attorneys. Protection against self-incrimination is a strong tradition among civilized people. The Church and civil society recognize that privileged communications are essential, for without them, both individuals, and society at large, will suffer serious damage.
If there were no seal of the Confessional, people would simply stop confessing the sins which they find most embarrassing or legally damaging. No greater number of criminals would be caught, nor would more innocent men be exonerated. The priest would have precisely as much information to divulge as he is able to divulge with the seal in place – exactly none! But, in exchange for exactly no benefit, individuals would be condemned to perdition, and society would lose all of the possibilities of rehabilitation and restitution that might arise if Confessions had been made. While he cannot “inform on” the penitent, the priest will refuse absolution to those who present themselves in Confession without the intent to redeem the damage their sins have done. Remember, the priest judges in persona Christi, and absolves only if he is satisfied that the penitent has appropriate motives of contrition and firm purpose of amendment. If these motives are not present, he will try to place them into the mind and will of the sinner. Some number of the Confessions that do get heard, only because the seal remains in place, contribute to the doing of justice and to restitution for those whose rights have been violated.
The shame of sin, and consequently the seal of Confession, remains even after death. There are sins a man might commit that would bring disgrace to his friends and family if they became known after his death. The effect of revealing the sins of the dead would be similar to that of revealing the sins of the living.
Perhaps the greatest argument against the seal of Confession is that it makes a priest unable to prevent a crime which he learns will be committed in the future. He certainly cannot reveal the penitent’s identity or the substance of his threat – he may not use the confessional information to the penitent’s detriment. Yet that doesn’t mean that the priest must cooperate. He is free to change his own plans if he is the threatened party, or to do something that will remove the threatened party from harm’s way – provided, of course, that his actions do not leave clues leading back to the penitent. But most of this is the stuff of “B”-novels. In virtually all cases, the only reason the priest has any knowledge at all is because of his unique role in dispensing the Sacraments.
Finally, let us not forget that the spiritual advisory function of the priest is not limited to sacramental Confession. For priests to remain effective in their ministry, they must always conduct themselves in such a way as to be above suspicion in all matters of honesty, integrity, and confidentiality.
[i] Quoted canons from 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, trans. Edward N. Peters (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001)