Letter to Minister Lloyd Axworthy concerning the sacred confidentiality of matters shared between a penitent and priest

Sunday, August 29 1999

The Honourable Lloyd Axworthy
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Lester B. Pearson Building
125 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0G2
Dear Mr. Axworthy:
According to disquieting reports that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has received this week from three different sources (consecutively, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the US-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, and the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations), the Canadian representative at the current United Nations meeting involving the preparatory commission of the International Criminal Court has proposed that the new international court not recognize the centuries-old legal tradition that respects the sacred confidentiality of matters shared between a penitent and priest during the confession of sins.
Although it fortunately appears that this Canadian proposal is not receiving support from the majority of delegates from other countries serving on the preparatory commission, we are disturbed that the Government of Canada would even propose such an undertaking.
The strict confidentiality of matters shared between a priest and penitent not only concerns the more than one billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the world who consider the confession of sins to be a sacrament, but members of all religions, given that the recognition of such confidentiality has been legitimately extended over time to include private religious counselling in all religious faiths.
In Catholic and Orthodox Churches, a priest is specifically prohibited from disclosing matters learned during confessions. The Code of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church considers any failure to preserve the confidentiality or “seal” of confession to be a canonical crime punishable by excommunication. According to Christian tradition and law, this serious obligation to preserve utter confidentiality is binding not only on the confessor but on anyone else who may be aware of what was said.
The Holy See and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are on record as in principle encouraging efforts to establish an international criminal court. However, proposals such as this one that fail to respect the legitimate legal and ethical traditions and values of the nations and cultures of the world can only tarnish the reputation of this international project and further deepen the suspicions and misgivings of those opposed to it.
Furthermore, the inevitable effects of the Canadian proposal would have meant interference with the right to personal privacy as well as erosion of freedom of conscience and religion (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 12 and 18). As you will recall, in a letter dated August 5, 1999, to the President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, you had rightly stated that religious freedom is a fragile right in many areas of the world. Such freedom would certainly not have been strengthened internationally by this recent Canadian proposal.
In signalling to you our grave concern about the Canadian proposition, we also respectfully request clarifications on this matter.
(Rev.) Émilius Goulet, p.s.s.
Secrétaire général
CC: The Honourable Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice