Matters Arising: Secrets

Fr. Nicholas Mary, C.Ss.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary, C.Ss.R. answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

May one ever reveal the contents of a secret?

Fr. Connell, C.SS.R sums up the traditional Catholic teaching on the matter by situating the obligation to keep secrecy within the virtue of veracity or truthfulness (itself part of the cardinal virtue of justice, whereby we render to each that which is his due):

“Veracity is that virtue (potential part of justice) which inclines one to manifest the truth in word and in deed. It can be violated by excess, when one manifests a secret without sufficient reason, or by defect, when one tells a lie.

“A secret may be naturalpromised, or committed [also said to be entrusted]. A natural secret is one which is such by the very nature of things (e.g. the hidden faults of my neighbour). A promised secret is one which must be kept because a person promised to do so after he became aware of the secret. A committed secret is one which arises from a contract, either express or tacit, made before the manifestation of the secret. The most usual form of the committed secret is the professional secret (the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, etc. in reference to those matters coming within their professional scope), since everyone who practises a profession implicitly agrees to observe this manner of secrecy with respect to his clients.”1

With the different kinds of secrets thus distinguished, we can now consider what sin is committed by their violation, and then under what conditions we may lawfully divulge that which is secret.

Fathers McHugh and Callan, O.P. explain:

“The natural secret obliges per se under grave sin; for violation of it offends charity and justice by saddening and harming a neighbour. The sin may become venial on account of lightness of matter, as when little sadness or harm is caused.

“The promised secret obliges ordinarily under light sin only; for as a rule the promisor intends to obligate himself in virtue of fidelity alone, and the obligation of fidelity ... is not grave. But exceptionally the obligation may be grave, as when the promisor intended to bind himself in virtue of justice and under grave sin, or when the secret is natural as well as promised.

“The entrusted secret obliges per se under grave sin; for there is a duty of commutative and of legal justice to keep it, on account of the rights of contract and of the common good that are involved. The violator of an entrusted secret injures private good by disregard for contract, and he injures public good by weakening confidence in officials or professional persons to whom others must go for advice or assistance. Violation of a committed secret may be only a venial sin on account of the lightness of the matter.”2

Violations of secrecy

Fr. Healy, S.J. gives some examples of a natural secret being violated:

“A natural secret obliges its possessor, under pain of grave sin, to keep the matter hidden if it is of grave importance. Justice would be violated if the unlawful revelation of the secret would cause damage to the party concerned. E.g. 1. Mr. Thomson, knowing of a secret crime of Paul, reveals it without a justifying reason and as a result Paul is discharged from his position. 2. Susan discloses the secret fact that Widower Jones has committed adultery several times, and so Jones is deprived of his good name. Charity only is violated [though this would still be sinful] if the unlawful revelation of the secret merely causes sadness or embarrassment, e.g. without a justifying reason I reveal to Tom's mother the secret fact that Tom on one occasion became drunk, though not through his own fault.”3

Let us adapt the same cases to the promised secret. If, in the first two cases, Mr. Thomson and Susan have promised Paul and the Widower Jones respectively to keep the matter secret, then they would sin grievously not only against justice but also against fidelity. If I have promised Tom not to tell his mother of the incident of his involuntary drunkenness, then I would sin venially against fidelity as well as against charity. If, however, I were revealing an instance of the culpable drunkenness of Tom (i.e. a mortal sin) without a justifying reason, that of course would in turn be a mortal sin on my part.

And if in each case Mr. Thomson, Susan and I are privy to the knowledge of what Paul, Widower Jones and Tom have each done in virtue of our professional relationship with them, or through some other kind of contact whereby we enter into an implicit or explicit contract binding us to confidentiality, then there is the violation of an entrusted secret.4

When is secrecy no longer binding?

And now to answer the question when, if ever, secrets may be revealed. We let Fr. Healy continue:

“In general, the obligation of any type of secret is ended:

“1. If the guarded knowledge has already become public property. This holds good even though the manner in which the secret was disclosed was illicit, e.g. Sam, steaming open Jane's private letters, discovers that she committed an abortion and then openly publishes the matter [thus sinning grievously]. Maria, who knew about the crime under entrusted secrecy, may now talk about it freely.

“2. If one may justly presume the permission of the party concerned to reveal the secret, e.g. Tom's father has entrusted me with the plans of a secret invention of his which he intended to sell later. Tom is now in great need of money, but his father will not return home for several months. I can reasonably suppose that the father would consent to my selling the invention to help his son if money can be obtained in no other way. It is lawful to discuss the abovementioned secrets with anybody else who possesses the same secret knowledge. In case of a sacramental secret, however, this is not allowed. E.g. Lucius, a physician, knows under secrecy that Joseph has a hidden, disgraceful disease. He may discuss this fact with Joseph's uncle who has accidentally learned the secret.

“With regard to natural or promised secrets, the obligation ceases when keeping the knowledge hidden would involve grave inconvenience:

“1. To the one who owns the secret knowledge, e.g. I learn by chance that young James is nearly going out of his mind with secret worries, and I inform James's father about it so that he may help his son to get rid of these anxieties.

“2. To the one who shares the secret, e.g. Lawson, confined in the same cell in prison with Brown, discovers the secret fact that Brown has on two previous occasions, while imprisoned in a foreign country, killed his cellmates by administering to them a subtle poison. Lawson reveals this knowledge in order to save his life.

“3. To an innocent third party, e.g. Harold, the chum of Tony, learns that Tony is engaged to marry Beatrice, a wholesome Catholic girl. To protect Beatrice, Harold tells her about the hidden infectious disease with which Tony is afflicted.

“4. To the State, e.g. Horace learned by accident that Selstein intends to put poison in the soup at a banquet given for the nation's senators. He promised Selstein that he would not divulge the secret, but, on thinking it over, he decides to make known the plan to kill off these congressmen. If the guarding of a secret will not result in injury to a third person, and if I expressly promised to guard the secret, even at the cost of grave inconvenience to myself alone, I am then bound to do so.

“With regard to entrusted secrets, the obligation ceases when revealing the knowledge is necessary to avert grave harm:

“1. From the state or community. Here the common good takes precedence over the good of the individual. E.g. Mr. Marvin, examined by Dr. Slater, is found to be afflicted with a very contagious disease, though to the ordinary observer he appears to be in good health. Learning that Mr. Marvin intends to take passage on a large ocean liner sailing the next day and that he refuses to disclose his condition to the boat officials, Dr. Slater sends them word of the grave danger.

“2. From an innocent third party.

E.g. Lawyer Simms is consulted by Gangster Sam. Sam manifests his intention of killing Mr. Sweeney and wishes advice about arranging his alibis.

Mr. Simms may licitly inform Mr. Sweeney of the danger.

“3. From the one to whom the secret is entrusted or from the one whose secret it is. These secrets need not be maintained at such a price, for if the obligation continued even in such circumstances as these, then most persons, including doctors, lawyers, and other professional men, would refuse to accept such secrets and this attitude of theirs would redound to the detriment of the common welfare. E.g. Joseph, who has been entrusted with secret knowledge of John's act of murder, is falsely indicted for the same crime. If Joseph can escape punishment in no other way, he may reveal the fact that John is the real culprit.

“I may reveal an entrusted secret of importance to a prudent individual who will keep the matter hidden, provided I have a good reason. Such a reason would be real need of advice as to the course of action that should be pursued. When a secret is revealed to such a person, there is no danger that it will become public. If, however, I have no justifying reason for my action, I am guilty of venial sin.”5

The seal of secrecy

The highest kind of secrecy is that of the sacramental seal of confession, and the obligation to preserve it admits of no exceptions whatsoever. The secrecy of the confessional is a kind of professional, entrusted secrecy strengthened by the power of the Church's law:

“The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore a confessor will diligently take care that neither by word nor by sign nor in any other way or for any reason will he betray in the slightest anyone’s sin. Interpreters are likewise bound by the obligation of preserving the sacramental seal, as well as all those who in any way come into knowledge of the confession. Any use to the detriment of the penitent of knowledge acquired by confession is entirely prohibited to the confessor, even excluding all danger of revelation.”6

Though priests will have other kinds of natural, promised and entrusted secrets to guard in the course of their ministry, and though the obligation of preserving secrecy in each case will permit of exceptions, when it comes to the sacramental seal, no cause can ever justify its violation. Despite repeated advocacy by individuals and governments of measures to force the Catholic Church to disclose the contents of confession in certain circumstances, no exception can or will ever be made.7

Those who advocate such measures may intend to protect the vulnerable, but the end does not justify the means. Moreover the gain to the authorities in the prevention or solution of certain crimes would be fleeting, as of course the abolition of the seal of secrecy would simply lead to such crimes no longer being confessed, sinners becoming more hardened, and the detriment of the common good of society, which the Sacrament of Penance promotes secondarily by aiming at its primary good, the repentance and amendment of the sinner. †

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  • 1Fr. F.J. Connell, C.SS.R., Outlines of Moral Theology (Bruce, 1958), 2nd ed., p. 157. Emphases added.
  • 2Fr. J.A. McHugh, O.P, & Fr. C.J. Callan, O.P., Moral Theology (Wagner, 1958), rev. ed., no. 2414.
  • 3Fr. E.F. Healy, S.J., Moral Guidance, Chicago (Loyola U.P., 1942), pp. 257–8.
  • 4Cf. the Hippocratic Oath (c. 400 B.C.) taken by physicians for one such contract: “Whatever, in connection with my professional practice or not ... I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret.” Here in translation by Francis Adams (1849) as reproduced in the Encyclopedia Britannica online.
  • 5Op. cit. pp. 258–61.
  • 6Canons 889 and 890 in the 1917 code, which are substantially the same as canons 983 and 984 in the 1983 code. Translation of the 1917 code in: Dr. Edward N. Peters (ed.), The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: in English translation with extensive scholarly apparatus (Ignatius Press, 2001).
  • 7For example, see ‘End secrecy of confessionals “to protect Catholic children”’ (The Guardian, 
27 November 2017).