The sacrament of confession, according to Catholic teaching, involves a seal of confession for the priest involved. A priest who is hearing a confession cannot speak freely about, make reference to, insinuate to others, or by any means do anything whatsoever to disclose or reveal that which is confessed and, thereby, protected by the seal of confession. Dexter Morgan himself could confess to every murder he has ever committed, and acknowledge the probability that he will kill again, and the priest hearing his confession would be bound to absolute discretion.
Many people, particularly Utilitarians, have argued that lying or torturing a person can be morally permissible, if not morally obligatory, under certain rare conditions. For instance, if torturing a terrorist may help save the lives of millions upon millions of endangered civilians, or if lying to a Nazi saves the lives of the Jews and/or Gypsies and/or other so-called “useless eaters” hiding in the basement, then those are things which we are morally permitted to, and plausibly obligated to, do. So, at least, says the Utilitarian. Like all people who value human life I feel the intuitive appeal to such arguments, but I resist the temptation to compromise on the clear deontological principle that one can never, with any moral legitimacy, treat a human being as a means to an end instead of an end in himself/herself. To torture or lie to a human person is to do precisely that. Moreover, to directly violate the human rights of a terrorist or a Nazi is still to violate human rights, and therefore I feel compelled to affirm that the ends do not and cannot justify the means. I also believe that to take matters in one’s hand by torturing or violating the quintessential natural and inalienable human right of anybody, whoever they may be, in order to bring about some end, however good, is to, in a sense, play God. For one who believes in God, and believes that human dignity is worth more than the mere prolongation of this “nasty brutish and short” valley of tears man lives through, along with believing that justice will ultimately prevail in the end, it seems obvious that one ought to do everything one can to protect the rights of human persons short of violating the rights of human persons. I will not here regurgitate the arguments of Immanuel Kant, St. Augustine of Hippo or the host of Catholic theologians and philosophers who believe as I do, nor will I elucidate the caveat that, according to Catholic doctrine, one must always follow the dictates of one’s conscience, even if malformed. Instead, I want to address a certain audience: those who are both Catholic and also believe that we should torture the terrorist and/or lie to the Nazi.
Suppose a terrorist walks into the confessional, and this terrorist confesses to being part of an elaborate plot to smuggle nuclear weapons into the country (whatever country you live in or prefer to imagine). This terrorist is contrite, but explains that if he backs out now he knows that his family back home will be slowly tortured and killed. He also confesses that the bombs are set to go off in about twelve hours, that they could be stopped, and that he knows how to stop it, but that he simply cannot bring himself to stop it given what would happen to his family if these bombs did not go off. In this case scenario the priest is bound, de fide, to absolute secrecy about what has been confessed. The priest cannot by any means alert the authorities, or anyone else. It wouldn’t matter if the bombs were set to go off in Vatican City itself; the priest could absolutely not do anything about it. This is simply part of the Church’s teaching about the inviolable silence to which all priests are bound in the administration of the sacrament of confession. This thought experiment yields the following result:
- The Catholic faith teaches that Priest may, under some rare circumstances, be bound to allow untold numbers of human people to die instead of violate the protected rights of any penitent.
- The Catholic faith does not oblige anyone to be immoral or act contrary to one’s objective moral duties.
- Therefore there are some rare circumstances in which it is not contrary to one’s objective moral duties to allow untold numbers of human people to die.
One can also reverse the argument and make it into an argument against the truth of the Catholic faith (which, I hope, serves more as a defeater for the Utilitarian instinct than as a defeater for the Catholic faith):
- Treating a human person as a means to an end instead of an end in themselves is morally permitted (and obliged) just in case the good of the end in view greatly outweighs the good which any other line of action would, with reasonable certainty, be sure to bring about.
- A priest breaking the seal of confession for a penitent terrorist like the one imagined above would be treating a human person as a means to an end instead of an end in themselves in a case where the end in view greatly outweighs the good which any other line of action would, with reasonable certainty, be sure to bring about.
- If the Catholic faith is true, then all priests are always and everywhere morally bound to avoid breaking the seal of confession.
- But, from 1 & 2, not all priests are always and everywhere morally bound to avoid breaking the seal of confession.
- Therefore, the Catholic faith is not true.