ASK FATHER: Confession and absolution via text message? Phone? VOIP?

A question pops up once in a while and I have dealt with it before.  Can you be absolved over the phone or by internet?  NO.  That would be INVALID.

I was alerted to this post at the site of Fox San Antonio:

Mysterious ‘priest’ taking digital confessions

SAN ANTONIO – The religious sacrament of confessing your sins is about to enter the digital age… Well, sort of. [No… not like this!]

A press release sent to Fox San Antonio last week claims an ordained priest in the San Antonio area [Who knows what that means? Anyone can “claim” to be ordained.] will be the first to begin accepting confessions over the social media app ‘Snapchat.’ [Anyone can “accept” confessions, by the way.  However, only a properly ordained priest with faculties can give valid absolution.  Everyone else just shoots blanks.]

The release states the confessions will be accepted by @priestDavid from March 2nd through March 16th.

The priest’s true identity is a mystery. [This is probably a fraud.] The release only describes the priest as having been a “man of the cloth for 23 years” but his last name and church affiliation were not included out of privacy concerns. [Ditto.]

Deacon Pat Rodgers with the Archdiocese of San Antonio says the Church is not involved in any way with the Snapchat confessions. He says confessions must be done face-to-face [NO! It is NOT necessary that confessions be “face to face”.] and a digital confession goes against the Church’s teachings.

[…]

Were this person to be found to be Catholic, I would recommend a canonical case against her immediately.

This leads to the larger question.

Could a validly ordained priest with faculties absolve you through some electronic means?

NO.

Absolution long-distance via technology is invalid.  Many years ago there was a response given to a question about absolution communicated via telegraph (which shows how long ago it was).  Such an absolution would be invalid.  Some time later, I don’t have the reference, there was a question about telephone.  The answer was the same.  Invalid.

If such a question were submitted today, the answer would be the same.   You cannot receive absolution via skype or internet chat or video phone calls, etc. That includes text messages.  INVALID.

By the way, anyone can confess via phone or by megaphone or by microphone and amplifier with stratocaster accompaniment. You can confess by long-distance technology, but you cannot receive absolution via long-distance technology.  Similarly, you can confess to anyone you desire, but only priests with faculties can forgive your sins through sacramental absolution.

There is a possibility of contracting marriage long distance, or even via proxy, but not any other sacrament.  And that is another and more complicated question which we will not delve into here.

There are practical reasons: certainty about the person of the confessor, the penitent, issues of faculties across even continents, security of not being overheard, etc.

There are theological reasons: the penitent must accuse himself of sins in the presence of the minister of the Church acting in the person of Christ who is judge, there is the personal nature of the encounter with the Lord who is Mercy itself, etc.

No confession by long-distance.  It must be a real, and personal meeting of penitent and confessor.

Of course there are situations where people who are physically present to the confessor may have to use some artificial means to speak.  Also, a priest could use an sound amplifier for a person who is present who is also hard of hearing.  That’s not a problem.  It also could be that the person is not immediately close to the confessor, but is still within view or earshot.  In that case the person is still “morally” present and absolution is valid. However, it a penitent is both physically and morally completely separated from the confessor, artificial means cannot be used validly to impart absolution.

Bottom line:

GO TO CONFESSION.  You can’t “mail it in”.

 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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28 Responses to ASK FATHER: Confession and absolution via text message? Phone? VOIP?

  1. dans0622 says:

    Condemnation of Confession via letter/messenger goes back to Clement VIII: “His Holiness . . . condemned and forbade as false, rash, and scandalous the proposition, namely, “that it is lawful through letters or through a messenger to confess sins sacramentally to an absent confessor, and to receive absolution from that same absent confessor,” and orders in turn that that proposition thereafter not be taught in public or private gatherings, assemblies, and congresses; and that it never in any case be defended as probable, be given the stamp of approval, or be reduced in any way to practice.” (quote taken from Denzinger).
    It seems this is another version of Confession via messenger–it’s just more instant than the pony express.
    As for the phone–the Apostolic Penitentiary stated that it is invalid because this Sacrament (all the rest, too, for that matter) demands a “physical immediacy” of the Parties (from L’uso dei mezzi tecnologici, October 23, 2002, in Enchiridion Vaticanum 21, p. 930). That being said, Dr. Peters published an article on this topic a year or two ago (which I have only heard about, not read), and I think he suggested some other possibilities for using technical means in Confession.

  2. mburn16 says:

    “You can confess by long-distance technology, but you cannot receive absolution via long-distance technology”

    You have to wonder if this is what that group of Priests had in mind when they started advocating for the extended use of general absolution. Phone it in, then show up in the pew for the follow-up. Quite the circus.

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  4. Andreas says:

    All of this brings to mind the electronic confessionals from the wonderful film, THX1138 (1971). One enters as telephone booth-like structure, a portrait of Jesus is back lit by neon, a pre-recorded voice of kindness helps to elicit whatever confessions are to be made and in the end, absolution is granted. In George Lucas’ vision of the not-too-distant future, the notion of physical immediacy has become moot. The clip can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0YkPnwoYyE .

  5. Aquinas Gal says:

    Certainly there’s no question that such confessions are invalid. But I recall reading in Fr Walter Ciszek’s book “With God in Russia,” about how they sometimes did confessions. There were women prisoners who could not mix with the men; there was a fence or some barrier. The women (some were nuns) would write their sins on pieces of paper and somehow Fr Ciszek got them. But I don’t remember how he gave absolution; I think he said the words through the fence or something but I don’t have the book to look it up.

  6. Matt Robare says:

    Even if the person isn’t Catholic the Archdiocese might have a civil case against them, not to mentional the potential criminal use of material gathered through such a means.

  7. New Sister says:

    Deacon “must be face-to-face”… I hope not!!!

  8. WGS says:

    I’m reminded of Fr. Damien of the leper colony on Molokai. Occasionally a larger ship with a priest on board would moor off the island. Fr. Damien while in his sequestered situation would shout up his confession from a small boat to be heard by the priest on the larger ship.

  9. andia says:

    Thanks for this. I wondered what that type of “confession” would do to the seal.

  10. Phil_NL says:

    In the category “I wonder, but hope it will remain a hypothetical issue…” there’s also the matter of what to do if the penitent is in a recompression chamber, after a deep dive that went wrong somehow. By definition, he wouldn’t be able to exit the chamber, nor would be priest be able to enter, and technology would be required to communicate, as thick metal walls are needed to contain the difference in pressure.

    Likewise, and perhaps even more eerie, what to do with penitents being quaranteed for something as nasty as ebola. Despite protective gear, the priest would be ill advised to even enter the room, nor would the patient be likely to have the strength for more than whispers…

    Perhaps a certain gray area cannot be avoided, and perhaps that’s for the best. Though the original situation inthis thread is obviously the blackest black.

  11. LarryW2LJ says:

    This thread brought a question to mind. I guess because it’s quasi-related. How would a person confess who lost their ability to speak – say, the recovering victim of a stroke or some kind of brain injury? Would one make a private appointment with a priest and write a confession, and then receive absolution in a normal manner? Have any of the priests who frequent this blog ever had to deal with a situation like that? Just curious.

  12. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I wonder, but hope it will remain a hypothetical issue…” there’s also the matter of what to do if the penitent is in a recompression chamber, after a deep dive that went wrong somehow. By definition, he wouldn’t be able to exit the chamber, nor would be priest be able to enter…”

    Well, the priest could, probably, enter for a few seconds as they dial-down the pressure, but your point is well-taken. What would happen if the man were in a space suit floating away from the ship about to be lost in space?

    What about Mars? The first people on Mars will have no access to confession, unless, of course, any priests want to go to Mars :)

    Of course, in the far future, the Church will have to consider the validity of confessions made to priests from an alternate time-stream or universe or what happens if a future version of yourself goes to confession in the present? Are your sins forgiven in the present? After answering those questions, telephone confessions will seem quaint.

    The Chicken

  13. gracie says:

    Separate from everything else – who knows if it’s even a priest at the other end? It could be a scam artist – or even the government – trying to elicit information from you.

  14. Stephen Matthew says:

    Are not the blessings given at the end of papal masses thought to also carry somehow the the live audience listening and watching around the world? I thought there was some clarification the live broadcast counted but not a recording.

    While certainly since absolution relies in part on proper faculties, it is certainly correct to say that any hypothetical faculty for long distance absolution is presently withheld, but I am not sure that is it is an irreformable teaching that such an absolution is impossible inherently. In fact, as the Masked Chicken and others have pointed out, there will be hard cases whereby the salvation of souls will strongly indicate a certain pastoral creativity and trusting God to make do with the best we can manage in some exigent circumstance. I should say we should be very careful (as should theologians) to speculate on some future hypothetical, because the Holy Spirit should be trusted to guide the Church in addressing the real circumstances of people hoping to be saved, but there is no reason to think the Holy Spirit guides those engaging in idle speculation as a form of intellectual entertainment.

    I should also note that at certain places and times there was a custom that those dying without aid of a priest would entrust their last confession to a friend or relative to confess on their behalf. While that certainly doesn’t fit within the normal bounds of the sacrament, at the very least I think God will look upon that as a sign of contrition and a pius and humble act, and perhaps it falls under the category of Perfect Act of Contrition (though I suspect Perfect acts of any sort are about as rare as perfect people).

  15. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Someday, the Church will get out in front of technology, instead of running decades behind it. Literally. Well, no she won’t. But one can wish. Anyway…

    This article is, as Pater seems to think, likely a nutty make-news story about something that is probably fake at core. But—–the idea that technology might have a real role to play in confession and absolution is not as cut and dried (against) as many think. Again, very pressed for time, but do check out my “Video communications technology and the sacramental confessions of Deaf Catholics”, The Jurist 73 (2013) 513-537.

    I would hate to see a sound idea, with an orthodox pedigree (Cappello, anyone?), scuttled for another generation because some wackos played around with it sans the slightest clue as to what they were doing.

  16. Imrahil says:

    As to space ships, Mars settlement etc.,

    Michael O’Brien solved that issue quite logically.

    Obviously when there is such a mission, the Catholic Church should, in secret if need be, send a priest and a bishop along with it. If in secret, then the bishop keeps silent about his being a bishop even towards the other Catholics.

  17. The Cobbler says:

    How exactly did we get from radioconciliation to Quo peregrinatur grex?

  18. Christophorus says:

    @PriestDavid links to Fr. David Balmer of the Diocese of the South (Orthodox Church in America). But the Diocesan list has him in Atlanta ??

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  20. Michael_Thoma says:

    I see and hear confession daily — guests tell the world everything on Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Oprah, etc – you name it, I’ve heard it.

    I’ve never absolved anyone though…except there was that one guy who confessed to beating up his son’s abuser.. I don’t think he was culpable though.

  21. andia says:

    Fr David Balmer denies that he is the priest involved. I contacted him via twitter

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    “How exactly did we get from radioconciliation to Quo peregrinatur grex?”

    It was the idea of physical presence for a valid confession that motivates both. Of course, this implies other oddities, such as, can a priest’s brain kept alive in a glass container a la science fiction hear confessions?

    The Chicken

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    I know, my mere sight in a philosophy or theology class would strike fear in the hearts of the professors because I consider such things as fair questions. After all, if you can believe that an electron can tunnel through an infinitely high barrier (potential) or two electrons can be coupled and react at distances farther than light can travel in the same amount of time, then these questions are just another day at the office.

    The Chicken

  24. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If somebody in the other room had Ebola, being on the other side of a wall is no different than being on the other side of a grille or screen. In such a case, chatting thru a phone would be no different than phones for the hard of hearing. A lot different from being a block away.

    People can go down to decompression chambers. The slowness of the process and the loss of time would be the hard part.

  25. iamlucky13 says:

    Once again, the media is referring to a person as a priest without any evidence they are, in fact, a Catholic priest. It’s absurd enough when it’s an Episcopalian woman who at least has a name and face, but this time it’s a random person with internet access.

    On the off chance it really is a disobedient priest, however, I’m saying a quick prayer for them.

    On a related topic, several Catholics have flown into space, starting with Jim McDivitt (Gemini 4 and Apollo 9). In recent years, some of these trips have become quite long – a typical stay on the International Space Station is 6 months. In fact, icons of Our Lady that I happen to know are aboard the station suggest some of them take their faith seriously. 6 months is a long time to be without the opportunity of confession – a fact even more notable since they are at a higher risk of death than the general population, especially during critical mission phases like re-entry, where half of all the deaths on spaceflight missions have occurred.

    Whether a person in such a position could be granted absolution under a dispensation if they desired to make a confession remotely, or if the physical presence is fully necessary to the validity of the sacrament seems like a question worth formally addressing at some point. Maybe it has, and I’ve missed it, but this is clearly a different case than a “snapchat” confession, as there exists a serious reason why absolution in the presence of a priest is not possible – at least until they return to earth.

    In the meantime, it seems to me there is at least reason for such an astronaut to hope in God’s mercy given a genuine intention to confess.

  26. Ben Kenobi says:

    @TheMaskedChicken

    What about Mars? The first people on Mars will have no access to confession, unless, of course, any priests want to go to Mars :)

    I suggest you read ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ for the answer to this question. :)

  27. The Masked Chicken says:

    “I suggest you read ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ for the answer to this question. :)”

    Not sure I follow. [minor spoilers]

    Do you mean we will destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust or that after the recovery from the holocaust we will take to space?

    The Chicken