Q: My question is regarding the Sacrament of Confession by phone. I have always taught that the Sacrament of Confession requires physical presence. I wanted to look up the specific requirement and how “physical presence” is described by the Church, but now I cannot find anything official on that point.
I was wondering if you had some explanation or could point me to something authoritative that would prevent the Sacrament of Confession from being conducted by phone or video conference software. –Father B.
A: Under the current circumstances, of course, this is a great question, since both good priests and the Catholic faithful around the world are struggling to find ways to celebrate the sacraments—while simultaneously dealing with unconstitutional civil restrictions on their freedom, and canonically illegal “cancellations” of their rights by many bishops. Quite a few courageous clergy have found clever, creative means of reaching the lay faithful to bring them Mass and the sacraments, as was acknowledged gratefully by Pope Francis himself in his March 15 Angelus address (see also “Pope Francis’ Letter to the Priests of Rome, on Ministry During the Pandemic”).
But at the same time, of course, it is vital that these clever and creative means do not result in invalid sacraments! It benefits no one if the ordinary rules for the administration of the sacraments are bent so far that their celebration has no spiritual effect.
With regard to the sacrament of Penance, this potential problem is directly relevant to Father B.’s question, which is why he asked it. If you can’t get to church, or (alternately) if the priest can’t get to you, is it possible to make your confession over the phone or the internet? In other words, is it necessary for the validity of the sacrament, that the priest and penitent be physically located together in the same place?
If you go flipping through the Code of Canon Law, looking for the answer, you’re going to be disappointed, because there are no canons in the section dealing with Penance (cc. 959-997) which specifically mention this subject. Similarly, the rite of Penance as it is found in the liturgical books says nothing directly about this, one way or the other. This shouldn’t be surprising; the video conference is a relatively new invention, and the current Code of Canon Law was promulgated all the way back in 1983. We shouldn’t expect the code to have resolved questions like this one, decades before they were even raised!
Nevertheless, there are some sound, immemorial theological principles that can be applied here—and as we’ll see, there are also a couple of Vatican documents providing some guidance on the new reality of our cyber-world, which are in complete accord. To begin with, let’s remind ourselves of what exactly a sacrament is.
American readers who are old enough to have learned their Catholic faith as children from the Baltimore Catechism may still remember its succinct definition of the term sacrament: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace” (q. 136). Of relevance here is the assertion that a sacrament is an “outward sign”—which means it has an external and physical component, and is not just an internal, spiritual movement. With regard to a sacrament like baptism, the external and physical nature of its administration is obvious to us all: the proper intention and the correct form of words are necessary but insufficient without the proper physical matter, because you simply can’t avoid the use of water and the washing of the person who is being baptized (see “Why is This Method of Baptizing Illicit?” and “Why is This Method of Baptizing Invalid?” for more on this). Similarly, a priest can’t consecrate the Eucharist if he doesn’t have unleavened bread and wine available (discussed in more detail in “The Eucharist and Sacramental Validity, Part I” and “Part II”).
This is presumably why, during the chaos of this virus pandemic, we don’t hear Catholics wondering if it’s possible to baptize children via the internet, or celebrate Mass by teleconference—with the forgettable exception of this bewildering theologian in Austria, who sort of raises the possibility that we can put bread and wine near the television or computer screen and effect a consecration through the priest’s words, uttered in another location. (Fortunately, this idea was promptly discarded by the rest of the Church, as well it should be.) It is sufficiently obvious to us that since sacraments like these involve tangible matter, there’s no way to celebrate them validly over the airwaves or the internet.
But when it comes to a sacrament like Penance, which doesn’t require water, or chrism, or bread and wine, the question generally strikes many of us as more murky. For validity, the priest “just” has to utter the correct words of absolution (addressed in “Is My Confession Valid If the Priest Changes the Words of Absolution?”) over a penitent who is truly sorry for his sins. So why couldn’t priest and penitent do this via Skype?
In 2002, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications issued a document called The Church and Internet, which gave a general overview of the benefits to the Church of using modern means of communication, while also observing their theological limitations. Among other things it says this:
[T]he virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel…. (I.5)
Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith. (I.9)
Along exactly the same lines, Father Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap., a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, recently explained that “physical presence is absolutely necessary for the validity of the enactment of the sacrament.” He added,
The reason I say that is because the sacrament is the action of Christ performed by the minister, and for that action to take place, the priest and the penitent must be in communion with one another, in a physical manner.
You can’t baptize someone who’s not actually present, you can’t participate in the sacrifice of the Mass—a priest can’t confect the Eucharist—without being physically present….
The sacraments flow from the Incarnation, and because of that, there has to be a bodily presence of the one who is enacting the sacrament, and the one who is receiving the sacrament. They’re doing the sacrament together.
The Incarnation sets the framework for the sacramental order. Sacraments by their very nature, are incarnational signs that effect what they symbolize and symbolize what they effect, and one must be a part of that sign and reality to participate in the sacrament.
If you’re wondering whether a contemporary theologian like Father Weinandy pulled that theological explanation out of nowhere, remember that the Church would have been faced with the same fundamental question in the late 1800’s, with the invention of the telephone. Think about it: we’ve had telephones for over a century now, and the Church has never, ever indicated that it’s okay to make one’s confession over the phone—and that despite the obvious difficulty involved in sending missionary-priests to remote regions of the world where the clergy are few and far between, but phone lines exist. One would reasonably expect that if the Church was theologically okay with the idea, it would have said so long ago. The fact is, the personal one-on-one between priest and penitent is an integral part of making one’s confession, even if theologians and canonists haven’t bothered to spell it out explicitly before.
And as a matter of fact, Father B. himself discovered an old (1906) publication intended for practical use by parish priests, which directly addressed this very issue. Over a century ago, the question of the validity of confessional absolution by telephone was raised by parish clergy, prompting the then-editors of The Homiletic Monthly (the precursor to Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a U.S.-based journal for Catholic clergy that is still published today) to research and present a theologically correct response. Among other things, their analysis stated that
This communication [by phone] does not take away the distance, nor does it render those present to each other who are, de facto, at a distance, for at most it is but an efficacious medium of communication between absent persons. This is no new doctrine, for if we ask the general opinion of prudent men on this matter we will receive the same verdict—that the telephone does not create presence, but is only a means of communicating with an absent person. From the mere fact, then, of two persons being in communication it does not follow that they are present to each other, as can easily be seen in the case of communication had through a messenger, or … by means of a letter…. The telephone does not supply moral presence.
What connection, then, does the Sacrament of Penance require between its matter and form? What presence is demanded to exist between the penitent supplying the matter and the confessor pronouncing the words of the form? … For an answer to this question we must betake ourselves to the theologians and the practice of the Church.
The theologians have always taught that the penitent should present himself before the confessor as does the criminal before the judge. They have always demanded, for the validity of the absolution, that the penitent be present to the confessor so that the words of the form, pronounced in the ordinary way, should fall upon the penitent in like manner. This the Church also has always demanded, and as we see from her practice, has always obtained. This, then, is the idea of Christ which demands this presence for the validity of the absolution. But this presence is certainly not had through the telephone, as all theologians admit, and no necessity, no matter how great, can supply it…. (The Casuist, A Collection Of Cases In Moral And Pastoral Theology: Volume 1, pp. 95-98).
So we have written indications that in generations past, the sacrament of Penance required for validity the priest and penitent to be physically present in the same place. Now fast-forward to just a few weeks ago, when the Apostolic Penitentiary here in Rome issued “Note on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Present Emergency of the Coronavirus.” This document specifically addresses the problem of reaching virus-infected Catholics, who might be convalescing in the contagion-wards of hospitals whose administrations are opposed to the idea of a priest entering to hear the patients’ confessions.
The Note discusses the possibility, under specific, carefully delineated conditions, of imparting general absolution—in those cases where a number of patients in the same ward might be gravely ill/dying all at once. (See “Confession and General Absolution” for more on this much-misunderstood topic.) Of relevance to us is the complete absence of any mention of Catholics confessing to a priest via phone or internet, indicating clearly that this is not an option.
It is worth pointing out that the Note makes mention of what a priest might do if he grants general absolution to multiple people in the hospital. He might stand,
…for example [at] the entrance to hospital wards where there are infected faithful who are in danger of death, using as much as possible and with the necessary precautions, means of vocal amplification so that the absolution may be heard.
Does “means of vocal amplification” equal a phone or internet connection? Not at all. Imagine a hospital ward with multiple beds, possibly in adjoining rooms, and a priest (who is not being permitted by hospital staff to get any closer than the outer doorway) wants to impart general absolution to every Catholic virus-patient there. He could, perhaps, use some sort of megaphone or microphone to enable everyone to hear him, even those in rooms that are farther away from where he is standing.
Note that in this scenario described by the Apostolic Penitentiary, the priest is physically present in the same location as the gravely ill penitents; it’s just that some of them might have difficulty hearing him. This is especially true of virus patients, since a huge percentage of them are elderly, and thus might be hearing impaired even in ordinary circumstances. We can see here that without specifically discussing it, the Penitentiary’s statement makes clear that physical presence is necessary for valid absolution—and phone lines or other high-tech means of communication cannot be used.
It’s unfortunate that Bishop Reinhold Nann, of the diocese of Caravelí, Peru, apparently didn’t check with theologians before declaring publicly on March 15, 2020, “I give priests permission to hear confessions over the telephone.” He evidently didn’t check with canonists in advance, either: as was discussed in “Who Decides What Constitutes a Valid Sacrament?” canon 841 tells us that is only for the supreme authority of the Church to approve or define the requirements for a sacrament’s validity. It should be clear that a diocesan bishop has absolutely no authority to “give permission” to change the administration of the sacrament of Penance so as to render it invalid. Once the Penitentiary’s Note was made public on March 19, Bishop Nann hastily issued a retraction the following day, saying, “The decree does not mention confession by telephone, so this possibility is annulled.” But one can only wonder how many clergy and faithful had already attempted to celebrate the sacrament of Penance by phone, and were confused by the bishop’s about-face, which should never have been necessary in the first place.
Technology can be a wonderful thing, enabling us to contact others living in distant locations more easily than ever. But as we’ve just seen, when it comes to celebrating the sacraments, physical proximity is a key component! In their various ways, the sacraments constitute a direct encounter with Christ, through the ministry of a Catholic cleric—and a phone line or internet connection just doesn’t cut it.