The Note of the Apostolic penitentiary on the importance of the internal forum and the inviolability of the sacramental seal seems to distinguish three basic levels of confidentiality: the seal of confession, the non-sacramental internal forum, and other secrets.
The seal of confession
- The seal of confession is so established by God together with the giving of the sacrament of confession, that not even the Church can make or allow an exception to it, much less any civil authority. The seal is bound up with the priest's acting in persona Christi when he gives absolution, in the very person of Christ the head, who alone can forgive sins. (Translation note: the English translation of this note currently available on the Vatican website and elsewhere omits an important "not" and gets a key sentence backwards: "[In n. 1467 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church] we read that the Church "establishes", by virtue of her own authority, rather than that she "declares" — that is, recognizes as an irreducible datum, which derives precisely from the sanctity of the sacrament instituted by Christ — "that every priest who hears confessions etc." — the Italian text, in fact, and more accurately, says the opposite: "We read not that the Church "establishes"… but rather that she "declares…"
- Fidelity to the seal of confession is consequently not merely a duty to the penitent, but testimony to Christ as the Savior of all.
- The sacramental seal extends to all sins admitted by the penitent, even if absolution is not given. (This is stated as such in canon law.)
- The confessor cannot use knowledge from the confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded (Stated in canon law — this stricture was not always understood to be included in canon law; St. Thomas Aquinas holds that a confessor can act based on knowledge gained in confession as long as there is no danger of thereby revealing the confession.)
- The sacramental seal binds the confessor also "interiorly", to the point that he is forbidden to remember voluntarily the confession and he is obliged to suppress any involuntary recollection of it. (For this claim, which raises some interesting questions, no source is given in the note.)
- Outside of confession, the sacramental seal binds the confessor in relation to the same penitent who confessed. Unless the penitent has given the priest permission to speak about the confession, the priest may not speak about it to that penitent outside of confession. (Here reference is made to Pope St. John Paul II, Address to the Apostolic Penitentiary, 12 March 1994).
- The penitent cannot, after the fact, release a priest from the obligation of the sacramental seal, because this obligation comes directly from God. (For this claim no reference is given) Self-revelation of a crime to civil authorities cannot be demanded by the confessor as a condition for absolution: "It is never permissible, as a condition for absolution, to place on the penitent the obligation to turn himself in to civil justice, by virtue of the natural principle, incorporated in every system, according to which "nemo tenetur se detegere"."
Non-sacramental internal forum
The confidentiality of the internal forum in which spiritual direction taken place is analogous to the sacramental seal. Because the one seeking spiritual direction confides in the spiritual director by reason of the spiritual director's special relationship with Christ (rooted in holiness of life and, in the class of a cleric, from sacred orders), the spiritual director effectively has this knowledge as a kind of representative of Christ. Consequently this confidentiality has a particular sacredness, beyond that of other secrets.
- Professional secrets binding on persons by reason of a special office are binding of virtue of natural law, and must be preserved except "in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very great harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth".
- The "pontifical secret" is said to be a special case. The exact intent of the text is hard to make out here, and the English translation unhelpful, but it seems to be suggesting that the pontifical secret, bearing upon the greatest matters, could not be subject to exceptions except by judgment of the Supreme Pontiff. "A special case of secrecy is that of the "pontifical secret", which is binding by virtue of the oath connected to the exercise of certain offices in the service of the Apostolic See. If the oath of secrecy always binds coram Deo the one who issued it, the oath connected to the "pontifical secret" has as its ultimate ratio the public good of the Church and the salus animarum. It presupposes that this good and the very requirement of the salus animarum, thus including the use of information that does not fall under the seal, can and must be correctly interpreted by the Apostolic See alone, in the person of the Roman Pontiff, whom Christ the Lord constituted and placed as the visible principle and foundation of the unity of faith and of the communion of the whole Church."