I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock movies. “The Birds” scared me to death as a kid. Still does. I love his casting choices and his camera angles. It’s great fun anticipating his cameo appearances on screen. I guess my favorites are “Rear Window and “The Man Who Knew Too Much’ with “Strangers on a Train” a close third. But there’s one that I’ll bet you’ve never seen and it’s a real gem. “I Confess” is the story of a priest (Montgomery Clift) who becomes the subject of a murder investigation. The real murderer has confessed his sin to the priest but because the good father is bound by the “seal of the confessional” he can’t tell the police and thereby clear his name. It’s suspense at its best.
It would have been so simple for the priest to go to the detective (Karl Malden) and tell him who the murderer was. No jail, no trial, no electric chair. But he couldn’t. He was bound to maintain the sacred seal of privacy. This seal means that no priest can ever, under any circumstance, reveal what he has heard in the sacrament of confession, at least in a way that would identify the penitent. He can’t discuss anyone’s confession in a manner that would reveal the person’s identity, even in seeking advice from another priest or even his bishop. This has been a practice of the Catholic Church for many hundreds of years and was made a part of Church law in 1215. So Montgomery Clift’s character does exactly what he’s supposed to do—he says nothing.
Why does the Church do this? So that no one should ever fear that their sins will be made known to anyone other than their priest-confessor and The Lord. You can go to confession and be completely honest with him because he’ll never reveal what you’ve told him. No sinner need ever avoid seeking God’s mercy because there is a sacred trust of confidentiality. There are certain situations where the priest must seek the counsel of his bishop. Even then, the penitent’s name is never revealed. If the priest breaks this seal he is automatically excommunicated and this can only be mitigated by the Pope himself.
This trust between penitent and priest has been generally respected by the courts in our country. Like other relationships requiring confidentiality, like an attorney and their client or a therapist or physician and their patient, most courts have allowed confessions to remain secret. Certainly if someone confesses a criminal act to a priest in confession, the priest may encourage them to surrender themselves to the authorities, but that’s all the priest can do.
Unfortunately a recent court case in Louisiana is challenging the absolute privacy of the confessional. A parish priest heard the confession of a young lady who told him she had been sexually-abused by a member of their parish (who is now deceased). Her family has sued the priest for not reporting the abuse to the police. Initial findings by the Louisiana Supreme Court are challenging the Church’s protection of the confessional. And while the final court decisions are still pending, this is another unsettling assault on the Church. The Diocese of Baton Rouge will continue to protect the responsibility of the priest to remain silent. This is crucial to Catholics, but it should be concerning to all Americans. The Establishment Clause of our Constitution protects churches from government intrusion. This is what is also being violated by the Affordable Care Act. Now in Louisiana, the Church is being challenged again. As Americans, we believe in the free exercise of our faith—and that our faith should be free from governmental regulation. Whether or not you’re Catholic, if you believe in our Constitution, this is serious.
“Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government.”
—Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Archbishop of New York