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Secret (Lat. secernere, "to set apart"), in Moral Theology, something not commonly known, and which it is one's duty to keep concealed. Theologians are wont to enumerate three kinds: the natural secret, the secret by promise, and the secret of trust, There is also the self-accusation made in sacramental confession (see Law of the Seal of Confession). The natural secret is that upon which one happens and which cannot be divulged without inflicting hurt or causing sorrow to its owner. The secret by promise, as its name implies, is that whose obligation grows out of a promise made either of one's own accord after having accidentally become acquainted with the fact, or given in response to the request of him who has communicated the matter in question without any previous agreement as to secrecy. Lastly, the secret of trust is one which is confided to a person under an express or implied contract not to use the information so obtained without the consent and according to the good pleasure of the giver. The engagement is said to be explicit when the secret is plainly accepted on the condition laid down, or at any rate no protest is made. It is said to be tacit when the circumstances and the office of him in whom confidence is reposed make it clear that this has been done only with the rigorous understanding above indicated. This is pre-eminently true of things told to physicians, lawyers, priests, and others in their professional capacity.
The natural secret derives its binding force from the virtues of justice and charity, either or both of which may be infringed by its violation. Speaking generally, therefore, and apart from inadvertence in the act or the trivial nature of the thing involved, its betrayal without sufficient cause will be a serious misdeed. The occasions when it may lawfully be revealed are covered by the general rule governing the manifestation of secrets. Moralists say that this may justly be done whenever it is necessary to prevent serious harm either to oneself, or to a third party, or to the community. Sometimes a valid justification is found in the reasonably presumed consent of him whose secret it is. In any case, whenever it appears that only charity, and not justice, dictates its concealment, one will not be bound to undergo a great inconvenience in order to keep the secret. It is an acknowledged principle that charity does not ordinarily bind at such a cost. The secret by promise, if it be that only and not—as may often happen—a natural secret as well, does not for the most part oblige under pain of mortal sin. The failure to keep one's word, while reprehensible, does not involve the heinousness of a grievous offense. It would be otherwise if the promiser meant specifically to take upon himself an obligation of justice. The infraction of this virtue may more easily be a serious transgression. Of course, a promise, no matter how solemn, can never hold one to a line of action discerned to be wrong. Hence one is bound to reveal secrets, whether promised or natural, when ordered to do so by a superior acting within the legitimate exercise of his authority. Thus a witness in a court of law, being lawfully interrogated about such a secret, cannot take refuge in the confidential nature of his information, but must answer truthfully. Moralists are not at one as to whether a man who had promised to hold a secret at the cost of his life would be obliged to make good his promise when actually confronted with so distressing an alternative: the more probable teaching seems to be that he would have to stand by his pledge. When there has been no such special guarantee furnished, then the general principle applies that one cannot be constrained to keep faith at the expense of serious harm to himself. It ought to be noted that when the publishing of a promised secret carries with it damage of some consequence for the person to whom it belonged, than not merely fidelity, but justice has been grievously outraged. The same is to be said if the parties to the secret have bound themselves by mutual declarations.
The secret of trust outranks the others as to stringency of obligation. The exceptions in which it may lawfully be disclosed are much fewer. This is because its contractual nature as well as the demand of the natural law for the sanctity of confidences given for purposes of consultation requires an inviolability to be departed from only for reasons of the gravest import. Hence the guilt of surrendering a secret of trust would ordinarily be grievous. However, all are agreed that it may be given up if it threatens considerable evil to the commonwealth? Civil or ecclesiastical. Likewise it may be revealed if its keeping would seriously jeopardize some unoffending third party and if at the same time the owner of the secret is the cause of the impending mischief and refuses to desist. Lastly, it may be delivered up even when holding it sacred would result in notable harm to the one with whom it has been deposited. St. Alphonsus Liguori qualifies this last assertion by saying that it would not hold true if the breach of faith were to work grave injury to the common weal. The thing to put stress on is that this class of secrets is privileged. Even the precept of a superior commanding their manifestation avails nothing against the natural law which confers on them a peculiarly sacrosanct character.
Joseph F. Delany.