Subsequent to my review of the new iPhone app to help with (not substitute for) sacramental confession and absolution of sins, I have received some questions about absolution over the internet and even some challenges proposing that it is valid.
No. In my considered opinion, it is not valid. You cannot be absolved of sins at such a distance that you are not present to the priest giving absolution.
By the way, note that I stress whether or not absolution is valid or not. I speak mostly about absolution in what follows. You can “confess” to anyone! It happens all the time in bars. Only a priest can absolve your sins.
Way back in the early 17th century a question was raised about absolution by writing. There is a not unknown decree of the Holy Office of 20 June 1602 which states that Clement VIII, of happy memory, condemned absolution in writing in very strong terms. Things were far less squishy then.
Denziger-Schoenmetzter 1088 (or DS 1994):
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.
A penitent must be physically or at least morally present for valid absolution.
Moral presence means within a reasonable distance, some meters or yards, at least within earshot. Think of the example of a priest absolving a man drowning in a river who cannot be reached, or who has fallen into a mine shaft, or on a battlefield where it is too dangerous to move. The one being absolved is not physically present next to the priest, but he is morally present insofar as they could communicate even by a shout without artificial amplification. An exception might be of a large body of men such as in an army about to charge and where hearing is difficult. This also concerns the absolution of a penitent who gets out of the confessional before absolution as is already at some distance and cannot be recalled to the box for absolution. That does happen, by the way.
In the past, moral theologians have been divided on this. I put on my unreconstructed ossified manualist cap today (coffee mugs to follow… no, really!) and looked in some trusty Latin manuals. Tanquerey is not just that great breakfast drink.
Some theologians thought that the telephone would make a person morally present, since you can recognize the voice of the other person. Others had the better opinion, saying that telephone does not make the person morally present. In 1884 there was a question put to the Sacra Paenitentieria Apostolica about the question, but they would not respond, relegating this to the Holy Office, as was proper.
What is perfectly clear is that it is illicit to absolve vocally from a distance over artificial means, and in the case of writing, certainly invalid. Moral theologians of yesteryear, however, wrote of the possibility of conditional absolution in cases of danger of impending death of a person who cannot be reached in time. But that was an opinion of the day which had to be clarified by the Holy Office.
I think there was a further clarification that it is not valid, but I am digging for it.
The iPhone app doesn’t even remotely approach the set of circumstances that would have given some of the aforementioned moral theologians pause about “conditional” absolution.
My opinion is this.
Telephone or radio produces an artificial sound of the voice, not the actual voice of the absolving priest. It is forbidden and invalid to convey absolution by writing, which is what electronic means do: a real voice is changed to digital code or analog waves and is reconstructed elsewhere to produce a likeness to the original. This is even more remote and impersonal than the use of a microphone for a large crowd of people who are actually there, though far enough that they couldn’t hear without amplification. Telephone, etc., is not amplification in that sense. Absolution using these means of long distant communication is merely absolution attempted by a more sophisticated method of writing. It is therefore invalid.
No matter how convincing the illusion of presence is, the other person is not present. I am away that people watching or listening to a broadcast of, say, the Urbi et Orbi blessing can gain the indulgence when not physically present. But this concerns the matter of sacramental absolving sins, not the absolution of temporal punishment due to sin. A different thing.
Furthermore, who knows where those signals go or who is tuned in.
There is no question of “confession” through an impersonal iPhone app. There is no question of the invalidity of absolution by email. Clement VIII took care of that once and for all.
A document of the Pont. Council for Social Communications tried to straddle the divide, it seems to me, talking in one moment how the tools of social communication are bringing people together in new ways and blurring distinctions, at the same time as it asserted that
“There are no sacraments on the Internet”.
I agree. Whatever it may be that happens using the internet, or telephone, it would not be sacramental absolution.
If the question arises, “Can I go to confession online?”, the answer is “Sure you can! You just can’t receive valid absolution.”