The Church teaches that the "seal of confession" is inviolable and cannot be changed by human authority, because its origin is in divine revelation, Pietrzyk said. A priest who intentionally violates the seal commits a mortal sin and incurs an automatic excommunication.
"The Catholic Church holds that the information received by the priest in confession does not belong to him. It belongs to God alone," he explained. "For that reason, a priest is absolutely - meaning there are no exceptions - forbidden from revealing the sins of a penitent."
This belief is foundational to Catholic teaching, which existed for centuries before the United States was founded, the priest noted. And it has long been upheld by courts and civil authorities.
In 1813, Pietrzyk said, the New York Court of General Sessions stated, "To decide that the minister shall promulgate what he receives in confession, is to declare that there shall be no penance; and this important branch of the Roman Catholic religion would be thus annihilated."
In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged, "The priest-penitent privilege recognizes the human need to disclose to a spiritual counselor, in total and absolute confidence, what are believed to be flawed acts or thoughts and to receive priestly consolation and guidance in return."
Given the religious and historical context of the seal of confession, California's proposal should alarm all Americans, Pietrzyk said.
"To force individuals to choose between the most sacrosanct part of their religious beliefs and imprisonment is what the Bill of Rights was entirely meant to avoid."