In the process of formation in seminaries, for example, spiritual directors are prevented from voting on the suitability of candidates who are their directees.
“In these cases the canon law guarantees a special confidentiality to the spiritual conversation, which involves the most intimate and personal sphere of the faithful in order to listen and to discern the will of God,” Piacenza explained.
The concept of the pontifical secret was also addressed in the note, which reaffirmed the confidentiality of information related to the governance of the Holy See.
Piacenza said that it remained at the discretion of the Vatican - and not a person’s individual judgment - to determine which internal information was covered by the secret and which was not.
“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 a visible principle and foundation of the unity of faith and communion of the whole Church,” the document states.
The limits of the application of the pontifical secret have been the subject of some debate over the last year. Former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released a series of letters in 2018 related to the Vatican’s handling of accusations made against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Vigano has asserted that the pontifical secret cannot be invoked to prevent the disclosure of immoral actions or circumstances.
Since that time, other former or serving members of the Vatican’s diplomatic service have stated that the pontifical secret has been invoked to try to prevent subordinates reporting misconduct by their superiors.
During the pope’s recent summit on clerical sexual abuse, several prominent participants noted the potential for abuse of the pontiifcal secret, with Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Cardinal Blase Cupich both calling for clarification on the application of pontifical secret in the light of civil reporting requirements.
Cardinal Piacenza stressed that “the text of the Note cannot and will not be in any way a justification or a form of tolerance for the abominable cases of abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy.”
“No compromise is acceptable in promoting the protection of minors and vulnerable people and in preventing and combating all forms of abuse, in the spirit of what was constantly reiterated by Pope Francis and recently regulated by the Motu Proprio Vox estis lux mundi,” he said.
The cardinal quoted Pope Francis’ recent comments on the seal of confession in March 2019:
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“Reconciliation itself is a good that the wisdom of the Church has always safeguarded with all its moral and juridical strength with the sacramental seal. It, although not always understood by the modern mentality, is indispensable for the sanctity of the sacrament and for the penitent's freedom of conscience,” Francis said.
Piacenza explained that the pontifical secret “has as its ultimate purpose the public good of the Church and the salus animarum” and was a necessary protection for all concerned in some cases.
The Vatican document also cautioned against a media culture which can produce a “negative prejudice against the Catholic Church” and lead to an unjust approach to reporting.
“Even among believers, frequently, precious energies are employed in the search for ‘news’ - or real ‘scandals’ - suited to the sensitivity of certain public opinion, with aims and objectives that certainly do not belong to the theandric nature of the Church,” the penitentiary note states.
“Invoking the judgment of public opinion as the last tribunal, information of all kinds is made known too often, also concerning the most private and confidential spheres, which inevitably touch the life of the Church, induce - or at least favor - rash judgments unlawfully and irreparably damage the good reputation of others,” it continues.
Piacenza said there is a need to “relearn the power of speech” in an age where the irresponsible use of mass communication can cause real injustice to individuals.