We have to look into the notion of private confession in order to answer this question. Confession in ancient times, i.e., in the early Church, wasn’t organized the way it is now. Confession in the times of the apostles was public, not private: a believer confessed his sins in the presence of the whole community. This practice was explained first of all by the perception of the community as a Eucharistic entity, the “Body of Christ”, where every member was a member of that Body. Everything an individual did had its impact not only on his or her personal life but also on the life of the entire community. Therefore, sin was perceived not as something related to a single person but as a matter of concern for the church community as a whole.
It is hard to pinpoint the exact time when private confession appeared in the Church. We read that Hieromartyr Methodius of Olympus (3rd century) advised his spiritual children to disclose their sins to priests as often as possible so as not to have to confess publicly. This may mean that Christians were already aware of the practice of private confession that existed in parallel with public confession. With reference to that, there is a well-known principle coined by Saint Augustine who lived in the 5th century: the sins committed in private are to be confessed privately; the sins committed publicly need to be confessed publicly. The latter include robbery, theft, etc.
As far as keeping the contents of a confession in secret is concerned, here is what we should say. All the way until the reign of Peter I, confessions had always been kept secret. Disclosing the secret led to serious punishment of the offending priest.
However, the Spiritual Regulation of 1721 stipulated that priests were to collaborate with the police. Thus, according to the Spiritual Regulation, a priest was to inform the police about anyone who had committed or was planning to commit a crime against the government, e.g., treason, mutiny, attempt to assassinate the emperor or his family. It must be pointed out, though, that priests didn’t like being police informants.
Currently, according to the Basis of Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (a foundational document that regulates inner and outer life of the Church), a priest is not allowed to disclose the contents of a confession even in order to help the law enforcement. There is only one exception: a priest may break the rule if the penitent shares information about a crime against humanity, such as a terrorist attack or obeying an unlawful order in wartime. With that said, a priest must try to talk that person out of committing the crime. If his attempt fails, he must warn those whose lives are in danger but not disclose the name of that individual. He is allowed to break the seal of confession altogether only in the case of an emergency.
Therefore, we see that a priest is not authorized to disclose the contents of a confession unless it may cause large-scale disasters, such as death of many people.
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds
Interesting. Now I understand the larger public crimes/sins, but there are some sins that are private but that are still just as devastating. For example, in this day and age of people who are child molestors, the priest should be allowed to report that to the police, or if a person has sexual contact with people knowing they have a communicable disease like AIDS. Hopefully there are provisions for such.
You are right, as I said below. There are always conditions or circumstances that allow clerics to revent someone for causing harm and evil. Orthodoxy is about Christ and love, it’s rather prudent. It’s not about strict laws and restrictions. Phariseeism was about law. And we all know what happened then.
Hello! Greetings! Regarding the final paragraph, I was wondering – what the threshold of people who would potentially die is, for a priest is required to disclose the ”penitent’s” intended actions to the authorities -100 people, 1000 people? I mean, what happens if someone comes to ”confess” that they are planning to murder one person, for example their spouse. Should the priest then not tell the authorities as this isn’t deemed to be mass murder? Seems somewhat of a strange regulation if you ask me.
In this case a priest is supposed to inform authorities about this. I believe there are certain conditions that allow them to claim about such people who come to confession to manifest their potential or committed crimes. Technically speaking, in this case it’s not even confession. Confession means repentance, or at least our desire to repent, to change ourselves. If someone comes and states he’s going to kill people, than what repentance can we talk here about?
By the way, once I’ve read a personal story (don’t remember when, perhaps that was on pravmir.com) about a priest who served in Russia during the heavy time of the 90s. That time was difficult and dangerous because of an extremely high level of criminality. So, once a man with a gun came for confession to him and said that he had killed a person. The priest risked his life and informed the police about that. It was obvious for him that that man could kill someone else, he didn’t repent for what he did.