‘Although Instant Death were to be the Penalty…’

By: Mark Herrmann, Staff Spotlight

Practicing law in Virginia, in the course of mundane legal research, one occasionally runs across a historical gem. Reprinted below, from the 1855 case of Commonwealth v. Cronin (2 Va. Cir. 488), is the statement read into the court record by a Richmond priest, Fr. John Theeling, explaining his refusal to testify about matters disclosed to him in the confession of a dying woman:

Confessional“It is due to this honorable Court to state briefly my reasons for not answering the question proposed by the Counsel for the defense and to hesitate to do so, would argue a contempt for the majesty of the law and the dignity of this Court, the dispenser of the law.  Were I asked any question which I could answer from knowledge obtained in my civil capacity or as a private individual and citizen, I should not for a moment hesitate, nay more, I would consider it my duty, to lay before this honorable Court all the evidence I was in possession of, being mindful of the precept of the apostle, ‘Let every soul be subject to higher powers, for there is no power but from God and those that are ordained of God; therefore he that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation,’ Rom. 13, chap. 1 and 2, v.  But if required to answer any question in the quality of a Catholic Minister of the sacrament of penance, when I believe God himself has imposed an inviolable and eternal secrecy, I am bound to be silent, although instant death were to be the penalty of my refusal.  The question proposed by the counsel for the defense affects me in the latter capacity and hence I must decline to answer it.  Whilst in so doing, I must respectfully disclaim any intention of contempt or disrespect directly or indirectly to this honorable Court.  Is a Catholic priest ever justified under any circumstances in revealing the secrets of the sacramental confession?  I answer, No. That no power on earth civil or ecclesiastical, spiritual or temporal can ever, under any circumstances, dispense with this perpetual obligation of secrecy, so that were pope Pius the IX in this Court, and if I can suppose for a moment, he should so far abuse his sacred authority and in the plenitude of that authority, as my first spiritual superior on earth, should request, admonish and command me to answer the question proposed, my answer would be to him what it was to the prisoner’s counsel.

“I can say nothing about the matter.  The law which prohibits me from revealing what I learn in the sacramental confession, Catholics believe to be divine and emanates from our Lord himself.  It is a tenet of the Catholic Church, that Christ instituted seven sacraments, neither more nor less. Con. Florent. in Decret’s ad Armenos. Con. Trident., Sess. 7, Can 1.

“It is also an article of Catholic faith that penance is one of those sacraments instituted by Christ for the remission of sins committed after baptism. Con. Trident., Sess. 14, Can. 1.

“And that sacramental confession forms an essential and component part of this sacrament.  Further, that the obligation of secrecy is especially connected with the divine institution of confession.  For if it would be lawful to a catholic priest in any case to reveal what was certified to him in confession, the divine precept of confession would become merely nugatory, and there is no person who would be willing to disclose to a priest an occult sin, which could be made public and blacken his fair name.  Such a revelation, if permitted, would be destructive of the divine precept of confession.

“But as we cannot suppose that Christ, the eternal Wisdom of the eternal Father, would pull down with one hand what he had erected with the other, and as we Catholics believe he instituted sacramental confession; and for the practice of confession, secrecy is absolutely necessary, we conclude that inviolable secrecy is commanded by our Lord in the obligation of confessing our sins.  If then, I were so forgetful of the solemn obligations not arising simply from ecclesiastical but from the divine law, not from man but directly from God – as to answer the question proposed, I should be forever degraded, rendered infamous in the eye of the Catholic church, shunned by every Catholic, and I believe by every honorable man; no matter how far his religious opinions and mine might differ.  Shunned and rendered infamous as a sacrilegious wretch, who had trampled on his most holy and solemn obligations and violated the sacred laws of nature, of his God and of man.  I would be forever deposed from the sacred ministry and where the Canon law forms part of the civil law, be condemned to perpetual imprisonment in a monastery, there to repent during my life the horrid crime I would have committed. 4 Con. Lateran., Can. 21.  But what is still more than all, I would violate the dictates of my conscience, that stubborn monitor whose voice would forever whisper to my soul black and dire sacrilege.  I might endeavor to smother its cry, but all my attempts would only add strength to its terrible reproaches and warnings.  You have committed sacrilege of the deepest dye – sacrilege to be punished forever, by the eternal vengeance of a just and offended Deity.  I have endeavored thus to state my reasons as clearly as I could for not answering the question proposed.  I thank this honorable Court for the kind and patient hearing which it has extended to me.  Whatever may be its decision, I shall receive it with respect.”

The judge in the case, the Hon. John A. Meredith, ruled that Father Theeling did not have to answer the question.

Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.

Mark Herrmann is the Chancellor and General Counsel of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.

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