QUAERITUR: Long distance sacramental absolution of sins? No.

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.”

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. APX says:

    How would a deaf mute person confess and receiving absolution, if one is not permitted to give absolution in writing? The priest could say the words of absolution, but assuming the person is face to face with the priest and hands the priest the paper with their sins on in it (I checked this, and the Baltimore Catchism states it’s permitted for people who can’t speak), unless the person can read lips, they wouldn’t be certain absolution was given.

  2. SonofMonica says:


    My two-bit lay opinion: The question doesn’t involve whether the penitent understands or is certain whether absolution was given. It concerns whether the absolution itself may be given in writing. Absolution is given when the words are spoken by the priest with the requisite intent and, as far as I can tell, is not dependent upon the penitent’s subsequent understanding–although it is certainly valuable for the penitent to know that his sins have been absolved, for other important reasons. In the situation you described, it would seem that the priest would first give oral absolution, then provide assurances of the same in writing / via sign language / by whatever means necessary and prudent.

  3. Animadversor says:

    unreconstructed ossified manualist cap

    Quam diu, reverende domine, quam diu?

  4. Animadversor: Soon. Soon.

  5. Philangelus says:

    The science fiction writer in me looks to a time in the future when we’ll be able to be present in multiple places at the same time. I’ll be able to step into my projector booth and an image of me will be able to appear before you, at your hearth while you sit on your couch. I’ll be able to see, hear, and even smell the room around me. You will be able to see me and hear me, just not touch me because the me you’re seeing is a holograph.

    We will, to all intents and purposes, be present to one another. We could transact business. We could discuss your best friend’s baseball game, which we both attended by holo-projection last week. Maybe the holoprojection will even carry a little charge so that you’ll be able to extend your hand and get a sense of touch off the image.

    I don’t even want to think of the theological headaches that’s going to cause, when the majority of humans telecommute by holograph and are more used to traveling electronically than to being present physically.

  6. Supertradmum says:

    Many years ago, when I was much younger, I was talking to my spiritual director on the phone. When I asked if I could confess on the phone, he replied that Sacraments had to be done in person, as that was part of the theology of the Sacraments, and that Confessions and Absolution could not be done over the phone. This was in 1980. I learned later that the French bishops had addressed a problem regarding a Confession line and stated, together as a Bishops’ Conference, that Sacraments had to be in person. Of course, one can see that it would be essential to have the person to person contact. I think we get into a “magical” theory of the Sacraments, instead of the reality of the efficacy of the Sacraments relying on the matter and the form, as well as the intent.

  7. “Almost like being together, even though it’s only an illusion of the senses” is not the same as “being together”. Otherwise, legal contracts made in dreams would be enforceable in reality, and men who dreamed that supermodels were their wives would actually be married to them.

    (Actually, a few traditional cultures have certain ways they believe that dreams are reality, but I don’t think anybody goes this far.)

  8. amenamen says:

    Tanquerey was a theologian.

    Tang is a breakfast drink (reconstructed from powder).
    Tanqueray is gin. Is it also a breakfast drink?

  9. Animadversor says:

    Mulieres nonne venturis his pileis sese in templo tegere potuerint?

  10. tobiasmurphy says:

    I seem to recall a CDF response to a dubium on confession over the telephone with a firmly negative response, but I don’t know the first place to look for such a thing.

  11. Stephen Matthew says:

    Two points I don’t quite understand:

    Marriage by proxy is possible in some situations.

    General absolution can be given at some distance greater than that of immediate oral communications, such as large numbers on battlefields, crew of sinking ships, etc.

  12. Emilio III says:

    I remember reading of a priest (Fr. Rutler?) giving general absolution on 9/11/01 to groups of firemen going into the World Trade Center. And I understand that more than 300 of the roughly 350 firemen who died there were Catholic.

  13. mpolo says:

    There were some concentration camps where the women would write their sins on slips of papers with a “secret number”, slip them through the fence, and the priest would collect the slips and read them in private. Then, on the next day, when the priest was within sight, the women would hold up fingers to indicate which penitent they were, and the priest would then absolve them. They obviously didn’t hear the form, but could see the gestures and lip movements of the priest. I think that individual penance was commuted to bearing the sufferings of the camp, as there was no good chance for the priest to communicate directly with the women.

  14. ContraMundum says:

    Obviously the sound of voices can’t be the crucial issue, or a deaf man would never be able to be absolved — perhaps by a hard-of-hearing priest who had to use a hearing aid. But this situation involves presence.

  15. msafford says:

    I know that, in the cases of both a Deaf priest or a Deaf penitent, it is possible for an interpreter to be present for the sacrament of Confession. When in this position, the interpreter is subject to the same laws regarding the seal of the confessional as a priest.

  16. APX says:

    Emilio III says:
    I remember reading of a priest (Fr. Rutler?) giving general absolution on 9/11/01 to groups of firemen going into the World Trade Center. And I understand that more than 300 of the roughly 350 firemen who died there were Catholic.

    I also read another person witnessed a priest in the Queens-Brooklyn area get out of his car, drop to his knees and give general absolution. That makes me more curious how much of a range there actually is.

  17. Stephen Matthew says:

    Perhaps something like line of sight? Perhaps no one really knows for certain, and it is something that in an emergency is worth trying and trusting in God’s justice, mercy, love, and grace.

  18. PaterAugustinus says:

    In the Orthodox Church, many persons regularly receive absolution after confessing via phone or email – this is even true in the Russian Orthodox Church, generally the more traditional of the major jurisdictions. In fact, Archbishop Hilarion – the chair of the Russian dialogue with Catholicism – himself admits to frequent granting of absolution via phone/email. [That is very interesting!]

    In such cases, the priest must be in his cassock and don his stole (epitrachelion); he then reads the prayer of absolution, naming the man by name.

    The Sacraments of the Orthodox are recognized by Catholicism. While I understand that such a recognition would not guarantee the “validity” or “liceity” of all Orthodox Sacraments ever performed, it does raise a question: are large numbers of Orthodox confessions, conducted with the approval and blessing of the hierarchy, really to be considered illicit or invalid? And, why would such an illicit or invalid practice come to be accepted by so traditional and sober a Church?

  19. PaterAugustinus: Orthodox Church, many persons regularly receive absolution after confessing via phone or email While that may be recognized by some Orthodox authorities, I don’t believe absolution by phone or email would be recognized as valid by the Western, Catholic Church.

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