Uh… no, he couldn’t!

“Fr.” Zuhlsdorf:
“Pope could give a Priest Permission to ‘Break’ the Seal of Confession”

UPDATE 19-JUL-2014 18:48 GMT: Just as we were getting ready to publish this, we noticed that the Rev. Zuhlsdorf had already deleted his controversial post. Which is good — it is an admission that he was wrong — though it would have been better to leave the post up and retract it so that the people already affected by it can see the correction. But either way, it’s good the post is gone, and hopefully it won’t return. We all make mistakes. So please read what follows with this in mind, that “Fr. Z” has since deleted his remarks.

We recommend “Fr.” John Zuhlsdorf spend less time updating his blog and adding items to his Amazon wish list, and a little more time studying actual Catholic theology.

On July 18, 2014, in another “this-news-is-outrageous-so-why-don’t-you-purchase-something-from-my-store” post on the state of Louisiana’s alleged attack on the seal of confession, the full-time internet “priest” made a stunning claim: “Yes, the Pope could give a priest permission to “break” the Seal of Confession. I stretch my mind to imagine the circumstances when a Pope would do that, but, yes, a Pope can do that.”

The Rev. Zuhlsdorf said this as a “correction” to an article he was recommending by Aaron Taylor in the Novus Ordo First Things magazine. Mr. Taylor had written, quite correctly: “If subpoenaed to testify and asked about what he heard during confession, the court will effectively be asking Fr. Bayhi to choose between being sent to prison and committing what Catholics consider to be such a serious offense against the sacrament that not even the Pope himself can dispense from the law’s requirements in this area.”

On which “Fr. Z” commented as follows:

BTW… Mr. Taylor erred in his piece when he wrote: “…not even the Pope himself can dispense from the law’s requirements in this area [i.e., the Seal of Confession].”

Yes, the Pope could give a priest permission to “break” the Seal of Confession. I stretch my mind to imagine the circumstances when a Pope would do that, but, yes, a Pope can do that.

(Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, “Seal of Confession under Threat by the State: Follow-Up”, July 18, 2014)

Someone then added an entry in the combox and said: “The Pope cannot give a priest permission to break the Seal. At least Aquinas doesn’t think so, and I’ll go with him on that.” The commenter, named Cordelio, then provides a link to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, Supplement to the Third Part, Question 11, Article 1, Reply to Objection 2 (see also Article 4 on that, by the way), in which the Angelic Doctor teaches:

Reply to Objection 2. The precept concerning the secret of confession follows from the sacrament itself. Wherefore just as the obligation of making a sacramental confession is of Divine law, so that no human dispensation or command can absolve one therefrom, even so, no man can be forced or permitted by another man to divulge the secret of confession. Consequently if he be commanded under pain of excommunication to be incurred “ipso facto,” to say whether he knows anything about such and such a sin, he ought not to say it, because he should assume that the intention of the person in commanding him thus, was that he should say what he knew as man. And even if he were expressly interrogated about a confession, he ought to say nothing, nor would he incur the excommunication, for he is not subject to his superior, save as a man, and he knows this not as a man, but as God knows it.

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Suppl., q. 11, a. 1, ad 2)

That’s pretty clear and authoritative, coming from the theologian the Catholic Church recognizes as the “Universal Doctor.” (Anticipating what some might now say, please see “St. Thomas Aquinas’ Position on the Immaculate Conception”). While it is probable that the supplement to the third part of the Summa here quoted was actually compiled by Fr. Reginald of Piperno, the content is nevertheless based on St. Thomas’ Commentary on the ‘Sentences’ of Peter Lombard (source).

Because of Cordelio’s comment and evidence provided, Mr. Zuhlsdorf then added an update to his blog entry, which reads:


It may be that St. Thomas Aquinas argued that not even a Pope can permit the breaking of the Seal of Confession. Fine. I remind the readership that the Angelic Doctor, as great as he is, is not the equivalent of the Church’s Magisterium. (Neither is St. Augustine, and in the past Pope’s have had to remind people that he isn’t.)

I have the moderation queue switch ON. I may permit some comments if they contribute something new and interesting to this entry.

(Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, “Seal of Confession under Threat by the State: Follow-Up”, July 18, 2014)

In case the blog post is taken down or changed, you can view a screenshot of the relevant excerpt here (click image to enlarge):



Now, perhaps we missed it, but as far as we know, Zuhlsdorf did not provide a shred of magisterial evidence for his contention that the Pope can dispense a priest from the seal of confession, or can permit him to break it. Such an idea would mean that the seal is not of divine origin, bound up intimately with the sacrament as instituted by Christ, but rather is simply an ecclesiastical law, a convention the Church maintains and that she has full control over.

In fact, Mr. Z’s comment indicates that the Pope is not really subject to the seal of confession himself, and can dispense himself from it any time he pleases. Not that he would, but that he could. Not only would this mean that no one should want to confess to the Pope, it would also mean that people could no longer feel confident that their confessions will remain confidential with their own parish priests because, what if the Pope permits — or even orders — their priests to break the seal?

No, “Fr.” Zuhlsdorf: You are wrong; Aquinas is right. The Pope can do no such thing. The sacrament would be rendered odious and people would begin to avoid confessing their sins. It would be a complete slippery slope; it would be a genie that, once having left the bottle, could never be put back in.

But there is more evidence than just the foregoing that the Pope could not permit a priest to break the seal of confession. In his great 4-volume work Moral and Pastoral Theology, Fr. Henry Davis, S.J., confirms the position of St. Thomas, which is that of the Church:

The obligation of the seal is of the gravest, on the grounds both of justice and of religion. The obligation of justice is obvious, for violation of the seal is violation of an entrusted secret as also of a natural secret, if, as usually happens, the sin confessed was occult [i.e. not publicly known]. The obligation of religion arises from the fact that the Sacrament is to be treated with reverence, as an institution of Christ our Lord, and as a means of entering into relations with God. The obligation of the seal arises certainly from divine law, and most probably from divine Natural law, on the presupposition that the Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ, and that the secret confession of sins was enjoined by Him.

In other words, since Christ instituted the Sacrament and imposed on all the baptized the obligation of secret confession, He thereby instituted a secure means of seeking forgiveness of sin, safeguarded, that is, in the highest degree from every circumstance extrinsic to the tribunal that could possibly redound to the shame, inconvenience, or annoyance of a penitent. It is obvious, therefore, that the secret of the confessional differs in kind from every other secret, in that it may never be disclosed, not even to the penitent outside confession, and that it extends even to the smallest detail. There is no slight direct violation of sacramental secrecy.

(Fr. Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 3, 3rd ed. [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1938], pp. 316-317; underlining and paragraph break added.)

Maybe “Fr.” Zuhlsdorf should be adding Fr. Davis’ Moral and Pastoral Theology to his Amazon wishlist, instead of $1,200 radio transceivers and $700 solar panel chargers. Just a thought. But then, with all the blogging, facebooking, target shooting, appeals for money, traveling, dining, lecturing, TV watching, movie reviewing, Kindle reading, and combox moderation — who has time for Catholic theology?

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