The Seal of Confession is Worth Defending
By Bishop David J. Malloy
 In recent years, a frequent topic of homilies, columns like this one, and conversations among Catholic faithful has involved the freedom of religion.
Today, in the media, higher education and in other cultural leading institutions, there are those that seek to replace God with science and the exultation of the individual.
As a result, we have seen a decline in recognizing the reality of the spiritual element of our human nature. God and religion then become suspect and are considered to be simply a private choice, even a source of division. 
When the spiritual nature of our humanity is ignored and trampled upon, the family naturally feels the effects as well. And so we see the decline of marriage and of the commitment to having and raising children.
The diminishment of the role of religion and of the family leaves a void that still has to be filled. And so, we begin to entrust more and more responsibilities and decisions to government, granting various levels of officials and bureaucrats the authority to do what we should be deciding for ourselves. 
This results in an expansion of government and the acceptance of government deciding for us what is right and wrong and what is good and evil.
It is in this context that the Vatican’s Sacred Penitentiary has recently issued a very timely statement, a “Note on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the Sacramental Seal” approved by Pope Francis himself, explaining and defending the seal of confession. 
(To avoid confusion, we should note that the use of the name Penitentiary in this case does not mean, as it does in English, some sort of extra secure prison. It is rather, related to the term of “penance” and is the office acting under the authority of the Holy Father in relation to matters of the forgiveness of sins and other reserved issues of conscience, what we would call the “internal forum.”)
The statement reminds us that the heart of salvation for the world is the Son of God who took on our human nature and came among us to live and to die for us. 
As part of His mission, He chose to use human nature itself to continue His saving and forgiving work. For that reason, Jesus established the Church and the priesthood to administer His saving grace.
In confession, the priest acts not simply in Jesus’s name, but in the very person of Jesus. The sinner, through the priest, confesses sins to Jesus Himself. From the priest, the sinner receives Jesus’s forgiveness.
The confession of the sinner to Jesus is a matter of the deepest revealing of conscience, geared toward a return to the path to heaven itself. So sacred and intimate is that discussion that the confessor is bound never to reveal what the sinner told to Jesus through him. 
The Vatican statement reminds us that a priest is to defend the seal even, if necessary, to the shedding of his own blood and to the offering of martyrdom witnessing to the salvific action of Jesus in the Church.
This classic fundamental teaching of the Church has been challenged lately, especially by the expansive reach of government. 
Nearly 20 years ago, Canada and France sought, on a global scale, to have the United Nations remove the recognition of the penitential seal in matters relating to the then newly formed International Criminal Court. Since that time, other voices have been raised and proposals offered to allow the government to compel confessors to violate the seal of confession.
The Vatican statement gives us a clear reminder of the serious misunderstanding and even the evil of such proposals when it states, “Any political action or legislative initiative aimed at ‘forcing’ the inviolability of the sacramental seal would constitute an unacceptable offense against the libertas Ecclesiae (the freedom of the Church), which does not receive its legitimacy from individual states, but from God; it would also constitute a violation of religious freedom, legally fundamental to all other freedoms, including the freedom of conscience of individual citizens, both penitents and confessors.”
The spiritual reality is that even the most egregious of sinners has the right to try to amend his life and seek God’s forgiveness. In confession that is what is at stake. That is why as priests we may not violate the seal of confession.
Government has a legitimate role in protecting society. That role, however, does not allow it to forbid the Church to carry out the mission entrusted to it by Jesus Himself.
It is likely that the assaults against the seal of confession will continue as our society becomes increasingly distant from God. We need to pray about this and then, all of us, need to defend the seal of confession as an integral part of our faith.