John of Nepomuk is a name not often heard these days; Wenceslaus IV, even more so. John was a Bohemian priest of the 14th century. As the story goes, he was the confessor to the queen, Wenceslaus’s wife. When John refused to reveal information divulged to him during the sacrament of confession, the king had him drowned in the river Vltava. John considered his religious obligation — the seal of the confessional, an absolute duty of confidentiality between priest and penitent — inviolable, no matter the objections of the secular authority or the punishments threatened.
Nearly 600 years later, at the height of the Cristero War in Mexico — a Catholic uprising against a militant secularist state — another priest, Mateo Correa Magallanes, was arrested while delivering communion to a woman who was unable to travel to Mass. At his captors’ request, Father Magallanes heard the confessions of a number of other prisoners. When General Eulogio Ortiz, commander of the unit that was holding him, demanded that Magallanes reveal what had been told to him in confession, the priest refused. He was shot the next morning.
The seal of the confessional is an ancient tradition of the Catholic Church. Father Pius Pietrzyk, O.P., a lawyer of both U.S. and canon law, has outlined the nature of the seal and the importance of protecting it. It has been enshrined in the law of the Church at least since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and in practice is even older than that — as old, in fact, as the sacrament itself. For about as long as the sacrament and its seal have existed, there has been a history of secular authorities demanding its violation. To my knowledge, none has ever succeeded.
Nevertheless, they persist. Last week, the California senate passed S.B. 360, requiring priests to violate the seal of the confessional whenever the confession pertains to sexual abuse committed by another priest or employee of the Church. The motivation is understandable — the protection of children is of paramount concern, and an area where the Church has notoriously failed time and time again. But the proposal is, for one thing, unlikely to do any good to this end, even if priests comply; responding to the passage of similar laws in Australia, the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops observed that “perpetrators of this terrible sin very rarely seek out confession, and if mandatory reporting of confessions were required, they would certainly not confess.” This is not a practical solution to the very real problem at hand. It is a blatant attempt to assert the authority of the secular state over the Church, and a clear violation of the right to religious liberty.
History gives us a pretty good idea of where priests will fall if California forces them to choose between civil and religious obligations. The state, together with the Church, should absolutely pursue comprehensive reforms toward the elimination of abuse. But it needs to find paths that don’t demand that priests betray a sacred duty in deference to a power they will always view as lower. If California continues down this road, it will only make more martyrs of priests, and a villain of itself.