Catholic bishops’ leader to discuss confessional seal comments with France’s interior minister

Mgr_Eric_de_Moulins_Beaufort___photo_Michel_Jolyot_5 Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort. Credit: Diocèse de Reims.

The president of the French bishops’ conference has accepted a request to discuss his recent comments about the confessional seal with the country’s interior minister.

Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort will meet with Gérald Darmanin on Oct. 12 at the interior ministry’s headquarters in Paris, according to an Oct. 7 statement on the bishops’ conference website.

“Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort will be happy to discuss with the interior minister the meaning of the sacrament of confession for Catholics and the theological, spiritual, and canonical foundations of the seal of confession,” the statement said.

It explained that Darmanin, who is responsible for religious affairs, contacted the archbishop of Reims on Oct. 7, expressing his wish to arrange a meeting. Moulins-Beaufort accepted the request shortly after he received the message, it said.

Vatican News noted that the bishops’ conference statement described Darmanin’s request as an “invitation,” rather than a “summons,” as it has been widely described in media reports.

Darmanin was responding to comments that Moulins-Beaufort made in an Oct. 6 interview after the publication of a landmark report on abuse in the French Catholic Church.

In the interview with FranceInfo, the archbishop was pressed on whether the confessional seal took precedence over French laws.

“The seal of confession imposes itself on us and in this, it is stronger than the laws of the Republic,” he said.

France has a mandatory reporting law, with sanctions for failing to stop or report a crime.

French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Oct. 7: “Nothing takes precedence over the laws of the Republic in our country.”

The statement on the bishops’ conference website said that the meeting with Darmanin “will be an opportunity for [Moulins-Beaufort] to recall that today, the seal of confession, imposed on priests by canon law, is not contrary to French criminal law, as underlined by the Chancellery’s circular of Aug. 11, 2004.”

The 2004 “Circular on the professional secrecy of ministers of religion” was issued by the French ministry of justice.

The Vatican has strongly defended the confessional seal in response to mandatory reporting laws around the world.

In June 2019, the Apostolic Penitentiary, a dicastery of the Roman Curia, issued a note reaffirming the inviolability of the sacramental seal.

The note said that “there seems to be a certain disturbing ‘negative prejudice’ expressed against the Catholic Church whose existence on one hand is culturally presented and socially re-constituted in light of the tensions that can occur within the hierarchy itself and, on the other, emanates from the recent dreadful scandals of abuse perpetrated by some members of the clergy.”

It continued: “This prejudice, forgetful of the true nature of the Church, of her authentic history and of the real, beneficial presence that she has always had and has in human life, sometimes transforms into the unjustifiable ‘claim’ that the Church herself, in certain matters, should conform her own juridical system to the civil systems of the states in which she is present, as the only possible ‘guarantee of correctness and rectitude.’”

It added: “The inviolable secrecy of Confession comes directly from the revealed divine right and is rooted in the very nature of the Sacrament, to the point of not admitting any exception in the ecclesial sphere, nor, least of all, in the civil one.”

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As president of the French bishops’ conference, Moulins-Beaufort has spoken out on topics such as pandemic-related restrictions on public worship and changes to the country’s bioethics law.

Last December, he told CNA that “The Church in France is being jostled in many ways.”

On Tuesday, Moulins-Beaufort spoke at the launch of a report concluding that hundreds of thousands of children were abused in the Catholic Church in France over the past 70 years.

The final report of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) said that an estimated 216,000 children were abused by priests, deacons, monks, or nuns from 1950 to 2020.

Among the report’s 45 recommendations was a request for the Church to reconsider the seal of confession in relation to abuse.

It said: “Send a clear message from the Church authorities to penitents taking confession and to the faithful that the seal of confession may not derogate from the obligation provided for by the [French] Criminal Code -- which is, in the Commission’s opinion, compatible with the obligation of divine natural law to protect the life and the dignity of the person -- to report to the judicial and administrative authorities all cases of sexual violence inflicted on a child or a vulnerable person.”

The Oct. 7 statement on the French bishops’ conference website argued that confession offered a space in which abuse survivors could discuss their experiences.

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“Confession is also a moment during which a victim, for example, a child, can talk about what he or she has suffered, and be reassured of his or her innocence... because the certainty of secrecy allows him or her to share what is most difficult,” it said.

“This time can then be, with the encouragement of the priest who receives this confession, a first step in the liberation of the word, outside the sacrament.”

“The seal of confession has always been respected by the French Republic. It is the honor of the French Republic to respect the dignity of each person’s conscience.”

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