The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

A Roman Catholic priest created an Ask Me Anything thread the other day on Reddit. One redditor asked the following question:

“If a man came to you in confessional and admitted to murdering someone and shares intent to do it again, do you go to the police or do you respect the rules of confession? If you read in the paper that he did it again the next day, how would you feel?I went to Catholic school for 12 years and this has been my favorite question to ask of priests since I was really young, because the answer actually varies.”

Surprisingly, this is how the priest answered:

” The seal of the confessional is inviolate, even if the person has murdered someone.”

This flabbergasted me. The immoral stupidity of such an absolutist rule can easily be demonstrated by performing a thought experiment and taking the logic of an “inviolate seal” to its logical extreme. Let’s say the confessor admits to the priest that he is planning to murder 1 billion people tomorrow with a doomsday device. If the Roman Catholic church still thinks it’s more important to keep the seal of the confessional inviolate than to prevent the death of 1 billion people, then I believe this is a reductio of the principle of the confession.

But, you might object, in order to make it a genuine confession, the confessor must genuinely repent, and you can’t really repent if you consciously plan on committing the sin you are repenting for tomorrow. So it wouldn’t be a real confession. But we need only tweak our thought experiment. Imagine the confessor has a Jekyll and Hyde personality (realistically, this could be done through hypnosis or dissociative identity disorder) and it is the good personality confessing what he thinks the bad personality is going to do. The confessor says, “I am genuinely sorry for this, but I know that I am still going to set off that doomsday device tomorrow because I can’t help it”. Would the seal of the confession still be inviolate? If so, then I think I have provided a reductio of the principle, since it seems obviously absurd to value the principle of the seal over the lives of 1 billion people (or 10 billion, it doesn’t matter for purposes of the thought experiment). Derek Parfit calls this the “Law of Large Numbers”. When you deal with extremely large numbers of lives, then “common sense” moral principles tend to wither under the pressure. If you really considered yourself a moral person, and you believed in a moral God, then surely you would reason that it’s more just to violate the seal and save 1 billion people. Upholding the rule for the sake of upholding the rule is immoral if you cannot give a justification that outweighs the prima facie reasonableness of saving 1 billion lives.

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3 Comments

Filed under Theology

3 responses to “The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

  1. I don’t agree.
    The goal of a confession is not to give information on a future event.
    Either someone has important information to give then will not give it during confession, or that person is trying to manipulate a priest then the priest should not take account of this information.
    I can’t think of a situation where a useful information would have to be given during confession and not outside. I think it is antinomic.

    • Gary Williams

      Even if the goal of a confession is not to give information on a future event, what happens if such information is nevertheless given in the confession? Perhaps the person accidentally let’s such information slip? Would the mere slip of giving such information make the confession less inviolate? Or would the priest be able to report such information to the priest? Either the confession is inviolate or it is not. My claim is that if it is absolutely inviolate, then it is immoral in principle if not in actual practice. And the question is not whether information would *have* to be given during confession, but whether, *if* it were given, what the priest would be required to do in order to keep the seal inviolate.

  2. Ok I think you’re right. My point was that maybe the information given during a confession cannot be of the kind that leads to a moral dilemma. However the ‘information slip’ argument is more convincing than the ‘Jekyll/Hide’ one (because if Jekyll was sincere, the priest could in principle convince him to make the information public).

    Meanwhile I had thought of another possibility: if ever two confessions from two different persons lead to the conclusion that something very harmful will happen.
    Then only the priest knows, but he cannot convince anyone to prevent the future event without revealing one piece of information or another.

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