QUAERITUR: confession by phone, long-distance

ConfessionFrom a reader comes a question about long-distance confession, using telephone or other technology.

I am on the road at the moment and do not have good internet connection at the moment.  Same old story, I’m afraid: wifi settings are a mystery to those who use them and the person who set them up … just find him.   Anyway…

Absolution by long-distance 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.

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.  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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. raitchi2 says:

    From what I understand a priest has a radius of effect for confession (and mass I think) for the sacrament to work, the participants must be within that radius. I’ve always understood the radius to be about the distance a priest could shout and be heard by a penitent. So confession would work with an amplifying speaker for the hearing impaired. I think St. Damien of Hawaii once he got leprosy did his confession to a priest aboard a ship while he shouted from a raft below.

  2. Magpie says:

    lmao re: your comments raitchi2.

    I must say, I would love if one could confess and be absolved by telephone, but I accept it is not possible. It would be awfully convenient. Except if you get transferred to the Indian confession centre…

  3. catholicmidwest says:

    Wow! This gives “phoning it in” a whole new meaning.

  4. Father S. says:

    One has to admit that this is at least an interesting question. It is common that in confessionals there is a device for both speaking into and listening. We could easily imagine an elderly priest and an elderly penitent who would have no way of hearing each other save for such a device coupled with their hearing aids.

    The requirement for sacramental absolution is that a confession be integral (number and kind) and auricular (spoken and heard in proximity). It seems that when mediated communication is at issue the question much rest on proximity and not simply being spoken and heard.

    At the very least, there is sign value in proximity. What would the story of the prodigal son had been if it had occurred simply through a text message? The richness of the story is assisted by the son physically coming and presenting himself to the Father.

  5. Penta says:

    Okay, so there’s a radius of effect. I guess this leaves astronauts on Mars sacramentally stuck. Is it necessarily required to be non-mediated, however? I could see a problem if there are disabilities involved (for example, someone with ALS who “speaks” with a robotic voice), or, for example, control measures for contagion (is absolution from inside a biohazard suit valid? Not an off-the-wall question if you think of someone making their final confession after, say, exposure to a biological agent).

    Even pickier question: Is confession still possible if it’s known one is being observed and can’t avoid it for some reason? (Simple examples: A prisoner under suicide watch. Or a child in psychiatric observation.)

    As technology advances, too, it’s entirely possible to imagine, for example, implanted transmitters…And if you implant them in the right place, removal can be made very hard.

    Will we see people denied access to the Sacrament through no fault of their own?

  6. Rob Cartusciello says:

    The story may be apocryphal, but in the mid 90s, I read a story in a Jesuit newsletter describing the journey of several Jesuits on the Autostrada.

    As they drove north, the Carabineri stopped a car on the southbound lane driven by a fugitive member of the Camorra (Napolitan Mafia). A shootout ensued.

    As the Jesuits drove past, one of them saw the criminal being hit by a hail of bullets and uttered a quick prayer and the words of Absolution.

    When he arrived in Rome & recounted the tale at dinner, one of his confreres informed him that while he had an admirable intent, he wasn’t close enough for the Absolution to “count”.

  7. catholicmidwest says:

    “Will we see people denied access to the Sacrament through no fault of their own?”

    Oh my goodness, another deprived minority. Like the millions upon billions of 8 year old girls who supposedly needed abortions to prevent their deaths in 1973? Or the legions of miserably tortured ill who supposedly absolutely (in no other terms) needed the ministrations of Dr. Kevorkian? Shall I go on? Any kind of a literary concoction for the sake of change, huh?

    The fact is that if a person has been living as close as they could to how they should have been living when they get to the point of death, I think that God understands that, and will make the appropriate arrangements. On the other hand, if they’ve been running around putting it off and acting like a glorified monkey, then whose fault exactly is that???

    The scripture says, ” 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” It says that for a reason.

  8. teevor says:

    I recall recently reading an article about the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, where there was a problem with routine government wiretapping of confessions done over the phone, which was apparently a regular practice there.

    I just thought this interesting as the this particular Church seems to have deviated from valid norms for administering the sacrament.

  9. Microtouch says:

    How about if you are a miner and the mine collapsed, you cannot be rescued and you want to confess?? I’m not trying to be silly, it was just something I thought about during the Chilian miner rescue.

  10. PaterAugustinus says:

    I wonder what Catholicism’s attitude would be, vis-a-vis the Orthodox Churches, where confession at a distance is routinely practiced. While I know that many Roman Catholics develop a consistent relationship with a confessor, I also get the impression that many Roman Catholics may confess to whatever priest happens to be available, and perhaps the Latin confessional booth sometimes even obscures identities. But in the Orthodox Churches, it is very common for people to have a particular priest, to whom they always confess. This may not be the parish priest at all, but a trusted mentor at a monastery, somewhere.

    To be fair, one hears different opinions. Some insist that the confession should be in person, and St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite states that the laying-on of the priest’s stole is necessary for validity. Some people say that his attitude reflects “Latin influence,” but I don’t believe the Latin Rite has asked for the priest to lay his stole on the penitent for some time, now (and I’m always very skeptical of the tendentious claim of “Latin influence,” whenever some Sainted tower of the Church happens to agree with the West). One priest I know hears the confessions of his spiritual sons, but then sends them to the local priest for the absolution.

    My spiritual father, and many others (including the head of relations between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev), routinely hear confessions via email, phone, etc. , and then read the prayer of absolution for the penitent. They always go before an Icon of Christ, place their stole over their necks, and then read the prayer.

    Catholicism recognizes the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. I wonder if this question would fall under the competence of local Churches to establish norms for a Sacrament’s validity (within limits), or if the position is that long-distance administration of the Sacrament could NEVER be valid… in which case, it would seem that Catholicism recognizes Orthodoxy’s ability to offer a valid Sacrament of Confession, but that in practice it often does not.

    I can understand why questions about the identity of the priest and the penitent and the possibility of being overheard would want a Church to regulate such a practice as ILLICIT. But, provided an actual priest heard an actual penitent’s confession (and it is understood in the Orthodox Church that the faithful have the bishop’s blessing to confess to whomever they choose, unless the bishop directs otherwise), such a confession would surely be valid, even if illicit. And, a Confession’s being overheard would be a good reason to discourage insecure confessions, but it would not affect the validity at all.

    What do y’all think?

  11. Prof. Basto says:

    I think the question of one becoming Eastern Catholic is different from the original question, because there is no mandatory celibacy for priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches.

    The original question had to do with a (presumably Latin Rite) Catholic that becomes Anglican, then becomes an Anglican “priest”, then converts back to the Catholic Church (presumably re-entering the Latin Church). In that scenario, the person returning to the true Church wouldn’t be able to benefit from the norm in the Pastoral Provision that allows for Anglican “priests” converting to Catholicism to be ordained as Catholic Priests.

    The same rationale will probably apply to group conversions expected to take place under Anglicanorum coetibus.

    Priests of the “Anglican Use” that benefit from the Pastoral Provision are still Latin Church priests, bound by the Latin Code of Canon Law. In the Latin Church, there is an ancient, stable, laudable and vererable discipline of celibacy that developed over the centuries until its consolidation, that is praised by the magisterium of Popes and Councils (while the Eastern Catholics are allowed to retain their less demanding praxis). In the Latin Church, exceptions to the rule of celibacy (such as the exceptions made by the Pastoral Provision), are absolutely extraordinary and thus it is only right that strict conditions need to be imposed.

    Thus, anyone who before joining Anglicanism was already juridically incorporated into the Catholic Church (i.e., anyone that was at any point in the life baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it by proper Church authority), when he returns from Anglicanism to the Church (specifically returing to the communion of the Latin Church), cannot attempt to benefit from a norm that is totally exceptional and that is intended for Anglicans who, never before having been bound by the Church’s canon law in purely ecclesiastical matters (i.e., those not of divine law), join “for the first time”, so to speak, the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic who joins Anglicanism and then returns to the Church is not an Anglican joining the Church. He is a Catholic repenting from sin, from schism and from heresy and being restored to full communion. The Pastoral Provision, on the other hand, was intended to benefit people who were not Catholics until the point of leaving Anglicanism.

  12. Prof. Basto says:

    No need to say that the above post was intended to be posted regarding another blog entry. My mistake. Sorry.

  13. Marcin says:

    Except if you get transferred to the Indian confession centre…

    I would immediately ask for a manager though. (His name… Ranjith?)

  14. MattnSue says:

    Automated voice: “you have pressed 1 for “SINS AGAINST MAN.” If your “SIN AGAINST MAN” involves property, press one. If your “SIN AGAINST MAN” involves impurity, press 2. For Covetousness, press 3.

    Related side note: my wife was looking for a Catholic Bible Study group in our area, and google linked her to a “parish” claiming to be Catholic, but run by something called the The Order of Augustinians of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (which has nothing to do with the OSA order). The parish’s website was very good at not claiming to be Roman Catholic, but leading one who was not well versed in the faith to think that it was. Aside from the fact that they met at the local Unitarian Church Building, the site also had a link to email confessions, so I knew it had to be less than legit.

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