When is it right to reveal a confidence?
Actually, the text is not all that long.  Here it is:


i. A SECRET is some hidden matter concerning another which
cannot be made known without causing him injury or dis-
pleasure. Besides the secret of the seal of confession, which
is treated of elsewhere, divines distinguish three kinds of
secret : the natural secret, the promised secret, and the secret
which is communicated under an express or implied contract
of secrecy.

When we come to the knowledge of something concerning
another which cannot be made known without causing him
injury or displeasure we are under the obligation of a natural
secret not to make it known. This obligation arises from
charity and justice, inasmuch as these virtues forbid us to do
anything to the hurt or annoyance of our neighbour.

If we come to know something concerning our neighbour
and then give a promise not to reveal it to others, we are
bound by a promised secret. If the matter was of its nature
secret, there would be the obligation of a natural secret inde-
pendently of the promise. When the promise is given, a
special obligation arising therefrom binds the party to secrecy.
In case the matter was not of itself secret, the only obligation
would be that arising from the promise. It depends to some
extent on the intention of the promisor as to what obligation
he takes upon himself by his promise. He may intend to
bind himself to keep his word by the virtue of fidelity, because
it is the duty of an honest man to keep his promise. In this
case, as fidelity only binds under pain of venial sin, there will
only be this obligation to observe the promised secret. How-
ever, if the other party to whom secrecy was promised would
suffer serious loss from the violation of the secret, or if the
parties were bound by mutual promises, then justice would
require the secret to be kept, and the violation of the obligation
would of itself be gravely sinful. Apart even from these
circumstances, the promisor may intend to give the other a
right to secrecy in justice, and then he will be bound to observe
it under pain of mortal sin.

A secret which is confided to another under the condition
that secrecy is to be observed constitutes the matter of an
onerous contract and binds more strictly than either a natural
or a promised secret. Such are secrets of office which officials
of all sorts become aware of in the execution of the duties
entrusted to them; professional secrets of doctors, lawyers,
priests, and others, who are consulted as experts by people
in doubt or difficulty ; as well as all others which are entrusted
to any person under the express or implied condition of

2. The obligation to observe a natural secret will cease after
the secret has become public property. The party whose
secret it is may sometimes be reasonably presumed not to be
unwilling that the matter should be communicated to another,
as, for example, to somebody who can and who will be of
assistance to him. If the public good requires that the secret
should be made known in order to prevent public wrong,
the obligation of secrecy will cease, for the public welfare is
of greater importance than that of an individual. If serious
harm threatens one's self or some other innocent person, or
the party whose secret is in question, and the harm can only
be averted by making known the secret, this will be allowed
in the case of natural or promised secrets. The right of
defence from impending evil prevails over that of natural and
promised secrets.

Even the obligation of the third class of secrets will cease
when they cannot be observed without serious harm to the
public weal. The natural law, however, which requires that
people should be able to consult others in their difficulties in
all security, demands that this class of secret should be observed
in the case when even serious harm threatens some innocent
person, unless he whose secret is in question is the cause of
the impending evil. Thus, if I know as a professional secret
who is the real culprit in the case of a crime wrongly imputed
to an innocent person, I may disclose the real culprit if by
some special means he caused the false accusation of the
innocent person, otherwise I must keep the secret. It is a
disputed point among theologians whether I am bound to
observe a secret at the peril of my life when it was entrusted
to me under that express condition, some maintaining that
no one can pledge his life in that way, others more probably
holding the contrary. Whether or not I am bound at my own
serious loss to keep a secret entrusted to me under the con-
dition of secrecy depends to some extent on circumstances.
Sometimes I cannot be supposed under the circumstances to
have bound myself by so strict an obligation; but as a rule
professional secrets will continue to be binding even when
the observance of them entails serious loss.

3. We are bound to make known natural and promised
secrets at the command of lawful superiors. The obligation
of obedience to lawful authority prevails over that of secrecy
due to individuals in those cases. And so a witness in a court
of justice when lawfully questioned about what he knows
under the obligation of natural or promised secrecy must give
the evidence required. Similarly, secret impediments to
marriage must be declared according to the precept contained
in the proclamation of banns. Professional secrets, however,
and, in general, secrets which belong to the third class, are
privileged, and must not be declared, unless they have ceased
to be binding for some such reason as those mentioned above.
Secrecy in this case is demanded by the natural law, which
gives the fullest possible security to those who consult others
in their difficulties, and even the precept of one's superior
cannot avail against the natural law, as St Thomas teaches. 1

English law acknowledges the privilege of state secrets and
of the professional secrets of lawyers, but in the case of doctors
and clergymen it does not as yet go the full length of the
doctrine laid down above.

4. The doctrine with regard to secrets is applicable to the
opening and reading of letters, unless it is known that they
contain no secrets and the writer is not aggrieved. It is, how-
ever, a general rule of Religious Orders that letters written by
and to religious may be opened by the superior, except such
as contain matters of conscience, and communications between
higher superiors and their subjects.

1 Summa, 2-2, q. 70, a. i, ad 2.

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Re: When is it right to reveal a confidence? - by NOtard - 07-28-2011, 12:46 PM

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