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The pontifical secret or pontifical secrecy or papal secrecy is the code of confidentiality that, in accordance with the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, applies in matters that requires greater than ordinary confidentiality:

"Business of the Roman Curia at the service of the universal Church is officially covered by ordinary secrecy, the moral obligation of which is to be gauged in accordance with the instructions given by a superior or the nature and importance of the question. But some matters of major importance require a particular secrecy, called 'pontifical secrecy', and must be observed as a grave obligation."[1]

Pontifical secrecy is the subject of the instruction Secreta continere of 4 February 1974 issued by the Secretariat of State . The text is published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1974, pages 89-92.[2]


Matters covered by pontifical secrecy

The instruction Secreta continere lists ten classes of matters covered by the pontifical secret:

  1. Preparation of papal documents, if pontifical secrecy is expressly demanded
  2. Information obtained officially by the Secretariat of State in connection with questions requiring pontifical secrecy
  3. Notifications sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about teachings and publications and the Congregation's examination of them.
  4. Extra-judicial denunciations of crimes against the faith and morals or against the sacrament of Penance, while safeguarding the right of the person denounced to be informed of the denunciation, if his defence against it makes this necessary. The name of the person making the denunciation may be made known to him only if it is judged necessary to have a face-to-face confrontation between denouncer and denounced.
  5. Reports by papal legates on matters covered by pontifical secrecy.
  6. Information obtained officially with regard to the naming of cardinals
  7. Information obtained officially with regard to the naming of bishops and papal legates and the relative inquiries.
  8. Information obtained officially with regard to the naming of the chief officers of the Roman Curia.
  9. All matters concerning cipher systems and enciphered messages.
  10. Any matter that the Pope, a Cardinal in charge of a department of the Roman Curia, or a papal legate considers to be of such importance that it requires the protection of papal secrecy.[3]

Sanctions for violation

While violation of pontifical secrecy, if deliberate, is a grave sin, and while an automatic excommunication may sometimes be imposed for violation of secrecy on particular matters, the general rule is only that, if the violation becomes known outside of Confession, a penalty proportionate to the wrong-doing and the damage caused is to be inflicted.[4]

An example of the imposition of automatic excommunication for violation of secrecy was found in the 1962 instruction Crimen sollicitationis (no longer in force), which imposed this penalty on members of a Church tribunal examining denunciations of a priest for allegedly making sexual advance to a penitent in connection with the sacrament of Penance, if they failed to observe secrecy about the matter.[5] A person to whom such advances were made was, on the contrary, subjected to excommunication if that person failed to denounce the priest within at most one month.[6]

Thus the procedures of the Church tribunal were covered by papal secrecy (called at that time secrecy of the Holy Office), but the crime of the priest was not: "These matters are confidential only to the procedures within the Church, but do not preclude in any way for these matters to be brought to civil authorities for proper legal adjudication. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of June, 2002, approved by the Vatican, requires that credible allegations of sexual abuse of children be reported to legal authorities."[7]


  1. ^ "Quod autem ad Curiam Romanum attinet, negotia, quae ab ea in universalis Ecclesiae servitium tractantur, communi secreto ex officio obteguntur, cuius moralis obligatio vel ex superioris praescripto vel ex rei natura et momento dimetienda est. At in quibusdam rebus gravioris momenti peculiare urgetur secretum, quod Ā«pontificiumĀ» nuncupatur et gravi semper obligatione servandum est" (Instruction Secreta continere of 4 February 1974, introduction)
  2. ^ The text can also be found, accompanied by an Italian translation in Enchiridion Vaticanum 5 (Centro Editoriale Dehoniano, Bologna, Italy 1979).
  3. ^ Instruction Secreta continere, article I
  4. ^ Instruction Secreta continere, article III
  5. ^ Instruction Crimen sollicitationis, article 11
  6. ^ Instruction Crimen sollicitationis, article 18
  7. ^ April 2005 statement by Joseph Fiorenza, then Archbishop of Galveston-Houston

See also



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