Unsealing the Seal of Confession

A particularly serious threat to the religious liberty of the Catholic Church in the United States has been posed by a recent decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court in a case involving the seal of confession. The court ruled that Fr. Jeff Bayhi, a priest of the Baton Rouge Diocese, could be compelled to testify in a civil lawsuit regarding matters Fr. Bayhi may have learned hearing the confession of a minor child. The parents of the child sued the Diocese of Baton Rouge and Fr. Bayhi, in addition to the alleged perpetrator of acts of sexual abuse, George J. Charlet, now deceased. The suit alleges that the child spoke to Fr. Bayhi in confession on three occasions and told him that Charlet was sexually abusing her.

The Diocese fought this effort to compel Fr. Bayhi to testify. In an official statement, it said:

A foundational doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church for thousands of years mandates that the seal of confession is absolute and inviolable. Pursuant to his oath to the Church, a priest is compelled never to break that seal. Neither is a priest allowed to admit that someone went to confession to him. If necessary, the priest would have to suffer a finding of contempt in a civil court and suffer imprisonment rather than violate his sacred duty and violate the seal of confession and his duty to the penitent.
That duty is absolute: he must remain silent about what he learns in confession. Canon 983 § 1 states: “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.”

Canon 1388 § 1 states the penalty for a violation of the seal: “A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.” Direct violation “occurs when the confessor deliberately discloses the identify of the penitent and the contents of a confession, either explicitly or implicitly; indirect violation occurs when the confessor negligently says or does or fails to do something which leads others to conclude or suspect the identity of the penitent and the content of the confession.” (Commentary on canon 1388 in The Canon Law, Letter & Spirit, London: 1995)

Few more serious obligations are imposed by the Church on priests and admits of no exceptions. Clergy should not even acknowledge having heard someone’s confession lest they commit an indirect violation of the seal. I recall a venerable old monsignor telling the story of answering the telephone at the rectory one Saturday. A caller inquired when the priest would be able to hear her daughter’s confession. He told her the times. Later that same day, the mother called again and asked, “Did my daughter tell you…”

The priest did the only thing he could – he hung up the phone without saying a word – an example of rudeness without sin.

Fr. Jeff Bayhi

      Priestly life involves many small sacrifices for the love of God and his Kingdom. But special heroism is demanded in crucial moments that place one both in the public eye, and front and center in the never-ending battle to safeguard the  freedom and autonomy of the Church. Such a moment has arrived for Fr. Bayhi.

The diocese elaborated: “This matter cuts to the core of the Catholic faith, and for a civil court to inquire as to whether or not a factual situation establishes the Sacrament of Confession is a clear and unfettered violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States. This matter is of serious consequence to all religions, not just the Catholic faith.”

Judges have no business hauling a priest into court to explain anything about a confession he may have heard. In this case, the plaintiff has already admitted that the communication with the priest was during a sacramental confession. What more need be established?

The Court’s decision is one more step in the ongoing effort to bring religion under the heel of the state. The Obama Administration’s attempts to coerce the Catholic Church into disregarding her teaching on abortion and contraception is the prime example of the elite’s attitude towards claims of religious freedom under the Constitution. It reminds me of the saying, “When we want your opinion, we will give it to you.” Think and do as we say, or we will make you pay dearly.

Religious liberty is a fundamental human right, recognized as such in our Constitution and laws. When the Supreme Court of Louisiana says that the state has a right to force a Catholic priest to reveal in any way what went on when someone entered into a confessional to receive the sacrament of penance, we have arrived at a new judicial imperialism.

Why is this happening? Americans, by and large, approve of religion and respect its claims, even when they do not accept the teachings of this or that religion. They see the wisdom of the Constitutional protection of religious liberty as an inviolable part of a free and just society. Alas, many influential people in the government, the academy, the media and other centers of power and influence do not share that appreciation. Disdain for religious freedom manifests itself in persistent attempts to restrain religious people from placing their faith above the civil authority or “enlightened” sentiment.

Fr. Bayhi is a silent witness to the primacy of faith over any earthly power, and his refusal to testify is a necessary rebuke to an overreaching court that undermines its own legitimacy by violating the Constitutional right of Fr. Bayhi to freely carry out his duties to God, and to the faithful who come to him for Divine pardon, secure in the knowledge that what they say will not – ever – be revealed.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.