ASK FATHER: Absolution at jail through glass, phone in visitor’s room

From a priest…


I’m a priest who occasionally gets asked to hear confessions in a jail where the only way to speak to a person is through glass and a telephone headset. Without using the phone, one can barely hear the other talking through the glass. It got me thinking about the validity of the sacrament. Is this valid, given the situation, to hear confession through the phone, with the person right there in front of me behind the glass?

Yes, it is valid. You don’t know who may be listening in… but it’s valid.

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.

In your case, however, even though a telephone was used, you were face to face.  You were both physically and morally present.  The phone was only a means to amplify your voices to each other across the glass barrier.   You weren’t sending your voices across town.

The principle, however, is important: you cannot give or receive absolution via skype or internet chat or video phone calls, etc. That includes text messages.  INVALID.

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.

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, as in the case of the jail meeting.  Also, a priest could use a sound amplifier for a person who is present who is also hard of hearing.  That’s not a problem.  Many old confessionals had hearing/speaking devices like phones. 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, even by bullhorn.

However, it a penitent is both physically and morally completely separated from the confessor, artificial means cannot be used validly to impart absolution.

So, all things being equal, your absolution at the jail is valid.  You don’t know who may be listening in… but it’s valid.

For the rest of you out there, don’t wait until you are in jail… again…


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Yes, the situation Father describes is really no different to a priest hearing confession using a hearing aid. As for confession over a “short” distance – but with there still being a physical and moral presence – I recall a scene in the film about St Damien de Veuster (“Fr Damian of Molokai”) when Fr Damian confessed to a priest who was on a ship, whil Fr Damian was on land. If I recall correctly, the ship was delivering supplies to the island, but did not actually tie up at the wharf, because the sailors were scared of contracting leprosy. Or maybe the priest himself would not come ashore. Anyway, the saint shouted his confession, and the confessor, leaning over the side of the ship, called back the penance and absolution. Privacy was maintained because the bystanders did not know French.

    Perhaps one might add that although confession cannot be made validly by electronic means, one can receive the Apostolic Blessing – e.g. the Urbi et Orbi blessing, with its accompanying indulgence – by television and radio. And by internet? I suppose so, provided it is in “real time”. You can’t watch an Urbi et Orbi of Pope Pius XII on YouTube and expect to gain the plenary indulgence, I’m afraid, though of course you might gain much grace if you watch devoutly.

    [That’s right about the Urbi et Orbi blessing! It should be the live broadcast or feed.]

  2. acardnal says:

    This is curious because those conversations are probably recorded by the prison administration per regulations! Hopefully, special arrangements have been made to ensure privacy with a clergyman. I hope the priest in question has investigated this issue with the warden.

  3. Sportsfan says:

    “There is a possibility of contracting marriage long distance, or even via proxy”

    Makes me think of the Cecil B. Demille movie “The Crusades” when King Richard made Berengaria marry his sword.

  4. EC says:

    It might be wise to remind the penitent that in such a situation, there is no privacy at all… The phone system is used, in part, to record conversations. (Unless it is turned off for priests – which does not seem like something which would be done in the USA, at least.)

  5. Bthompson says:

    I’ve not had cause to hear a lot of confessions in jails, but when I do, I make sure to request the “lawyer booth” (most jails have them. They are closed rooms with a closed-circuit phone and often also a small slot to pass documents).

    The open visitation booths (especially the phones, which could potentially be monitored, except in the lawyer room due to the law surrounding attorney-client priviliege) make me nervous vis a vis the Seal.

  6. majuscule says:

    I once confessed to a priest who had lost his voice box so I was given absolution by him speaking with an electrolarynx. Obviously it was valid.

    I’m just mentioning this because this topic jogged my memory. We were face to face so I know it was a real priest and not a computer generated voice. So there is something to be said for face to face confession.

  7. LeeGilbert says:

    Although the confession is sacramentally valid, [Which was the point of the question.] the technology lends itself to grave abuse as Fr. Tim Mockaitis from the Archdiocese of Portland discovered too late in 1996.

    From the New York Times May 13, 1996 – When Tim Mockaitis, heard confession last month in a county prison in Eugene from a 20-year-old suspect linked to three killings, he assumed that the session would be private. But it was not. Lane County prison authorities surreptitiously taped every word of Father Mockaitis and the suspect, Conan Wayne Hale . . .

    Father Mockaitis went on to write a book length account of this event and its consequences in The Seal: A Priest’s Story. The blurb on Amazon describes it: “The Seal: A Priest’s Story’ recalls the true story of an outrageous violation of religious liberty which created an unprecedented rift between the powers of Church and State. It was the first time a violation of the seal of confession was alleged in a capital case in the United States, and the first time an attempt was made in court to define a violation of the seal of the confessional as a First Amendment violation.”

    Should not the presumption of priest and penitent be that someone is in fact listening in? It is practically inconceivable that they would not be. A tape of it may not be admissible evidence, but it may well lead to the discovery of admissible evidence whose discovery could plausibly be attributed to another source. It is hardly a situation conducive an important element of a good confession, namely full disclosure of one’s sins.

    Dos not the Church have an argument here for a lawsuit insisting on face to face confession without intervening technology or glass?

    [We have to be prudent about we hear confessions, for sure.]

  8. APX says:

    Another issue that I don’t know if many priests realize, but in jails (at least the ones in Canada), everything is recorded both via video and audio. I asked a priest about this, who never thought about it, but said such a pentitent would either not be obliged to confess his sins audibly, but rather write them down or not confess them at all if there was risk of the staff at the jail confiscating the offender’s written confession. Just something to think about…

  9. WmHesch says:

    I’d imagine the problem with confession by telegraph and telephone has to do with jurisdiction… Both the confession and absolution would literally be traveling thru places the Confessor might not have faculties.

    Why not via satellite today, so long as the communication went thru towers in places the priest has faculties?

    RE: the Urbi et Orbi… Pope has universal jurisdiction, so his blessings can go thru any channels on earth.

    [Yes, that surely does have something to do with it! Details! I addressed that in another post a long time ago, but it was not relevant to this situation.]

  10. Front Pew View says:

    Thank you for including the ellipsis between “jail” and “again” in your penultimate sentence!

  11. JustaSinner says:

    So no confessions from the astronauts on the ISS in low Earth orbit?

  12. Ultrarunner says:

    Except when it would violate attorney-client privilege, prison calls, even face to face on a visitor basis, are almost always monitored and recorded. In the 19th century, telegraph lines were likewise notorious for being tapped.

    Today, video court arraignments involving a person accused of a crime along with their attorney at one physical location routinely face a full criminal court presided over by a judge and his officers at a remote location that can be many miles distant. A defendant’s lawyer will never successfully make the argument that the sitting judge was not “physically and morally present” in the courtroom during an arraignment, that artificial means were used to conduct the hearing, or that the hearing took place over a long distance by way of a face to face video conference which rendered it invalid. Doctors are likewise are able to examine, diagnose and recommend treatments to patients even though the two may actually be located on completely different continents. Any number of similarly good examples can be given regarding technology-enabled communications between individuals that attest to the absolute validity of the encounter.

    Laudato Si makes a very compelling moral argument regarding the need to minimize the damage mankind does to the environment through his use of fossil fuels and the need to change the way we consume goods and services.

    “Indeed, humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” LS at 23.

    A very compelling argument can be made that the Catholic Church’s continued reliance on providing the sacrament of Confession to hundreds of millions of Catholics on a brick and mortar basis into an indefinite future, which involves billions of miles of driving in automobiles each and every year, perpetuates a reliance on fossil fuels that is very harmful to the environment. It is virtually impossible to argue that secure end to end encrypted conversations in separate private settings are not more environmentally friendly, by orders of magnitude, compared to long distance trips in automobiles to and from a physical church.

    Pope Francis has made an enormous and unambiguous call to make changes in the means of production and consumption in order to drastically reduce environmental impacts. Likewise, bishops from every continent have signed onto a global initiative to completely decarbonize the planet within the next 35 years. By every indication, the Chuch is fully vested, both morally and ethically, in the climate change paradigm. As a result, if the Church intends to practice what She preaches, it will require significant and meaningful actions in order to reduce Her own carbon footprint, and the days of face to face confession, therefore, appear to be numbered.

  13. fishonthehill says:

    In a previous parish I used to hear confessions in a “real” confessional that had a telephone receiver from the 1950s for the hearing impaired

  14. Fallibilissimo says:

    I don’t know if I’m falling prey to Poe’s law of the internet here. I’m fully appreciative of the need for society finding solutions to and fighting the effects of glabal warming but that the carbon foot print would be so important for a few thousand priests to fulfill their ministry sounds like a pretty over the top interpretation of LS; especially as new technologies are coming forward which should substantially reduce green house gas emissions in transport.

    Before that consideration, I’d be worried of so many other far more weighty issues that would render the global warming concern minimal, if only in regards to traveling priests.

    If the Church allows more “technological” confessions, if it’s at all possible, fine but otherwise…I mean c’mmon.

    I think the Church has been exemplary in setting an example in the fight for the environment. Pope Benedict has made strides forward in making the Vatican a carbon-neutral state using modern solar technology and planting forests to capture CO2 to offset any carbon imbalance. Actually, a pressing environmental problem isn’t CO2 emissions for the Vatican, but the garbage crisis in Rome where some argue the Vatican could do a better job. But that’s neither here nor there.

    Generally speaking, I imagine Church related functions make the Church probably one of the smaller culprits to be concerned about in this regard.

    But maybe your “do what you preach” exhortation could do some good to world leaders who spew so much…hum “hot air” to attend international conferences on the environment. Maybe some of that internet based, low CO2 emitting, conferences could do some good on that front and offset any carbon footprint to free up spiritual physicians to do their urgent and life saving work.

  15. cengime says:

    Why does face-to-face confession require anyone to drive? Just step outside and walk, or cycle, or ride a horse or horse-drawn vehicle to your parish church, just like everybody did in the days before modernism reared its ugly head.

  16. When I have had occasion to hear a confession through the glass, I cautioned the penitent about the uncertainty over his confession being overheard. I understand law enforcement personnel have a vital job to do, but the lack of consideration for the sacrament is sad.

  17. Blackfriar says:

    I should qualify my earlier remark: when I wrote “… no different to a priest hearing confession using a hearing aid” I was referring to the question of validity, which is what was originnally asked. Many of the posts raise the very important point that the confession would almost certainly be monitored, and that is of course different to the usual hearing aid situation. Fr Fox is right to say that the penitent should be warned of this. He is in a situation where it is morally impossible to confess, and so could make a general confession only.

  18. Ultrarunner says:

    Confession, any way you look at it, appears to be a dying sacrament or at least one on serious life support. Making it highly available and accessible by way of secure digital voice communication would very likely increase the use of the sacrament by the laity significantly. The sacrament could easily be made available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to all Catholics. Today, you’re lucky if priests are available for a couple of hours a week. Confessions could be heard in almost any language. It would allow immediate access to the sacrament by those who may be in imminent danger of death or seriously infirmed. Those in extraordinarily remote locations, or areas without resident priests, would always have access to a Confessor. A vast array of retired priests could serve very usefully in this area which could greatly revitalize their vocation. The environmental impact of Catholics driving to and from a church for confession, and there are over 360 million Catholics living in the developed world who heavily rely on fossil fuels to get around, would be vastly minimized.

    I greatly appreciate Father Z’s defense of traditional Catholic Teaching and love him for his insistence on maintaining norms developed over centuries which embrace true Catholic thought. This certainly includes his frequent calls to make good and regular confessions.

    The Catholic Church, however, is light years behind the technology curve. Taking that which is secular and transforming it to a Holy purpose is where the Church genuinely excels. Rather than summarily dismissing technology based on historical norms or the status quo, it can and should be embraced in such a way so that it can produce meaningful spiritual benefits to everyday Catholics. Over the past two thousand years, the sacrament of confession has evolved into its present form. That doesn’t mean it can’t continue to evolve as an essential element necessary for the salvation of souls in the present day. It will be interesting to see what happens in this context over the next few decades.

    Thank you, Father Z, for this public forum which allows the voice of the laity to be heard.

  19. New Sister says:

    Likening it to a hearing aid is what I first thought of, too… and recalled seeing these inside the confessionals at the St Elizabeth Ann Seaton Shrine, Emmitsburg, MD.

  20. New Sister says:

    Likening it to a hearing aid is what I first thought of, too… and recalled seeing these inside the confessionals at the St Elizabeth Ann Seaton Shrine, Emmetsburg, MD.

  21. The Masked Chicken says:

    This brings to mind so many thoughts :)

    1. Is confession by telepathy valid?

    2. Confessing across a prison glass reminds me, for some reason, of the Monty Python skit, “How Not to be Seen”:

    3. I could write a Confession Encryption App.

    4. There are these mysterious shortwave stations that do nothing but read numbers. I could imagine confession being like that: “7 2 3 1…”

    5. You’ve heard of the Navajo Code Talkers, well, we need to develop a Catholic Code talker. It might sound something like this (also, from Monty Python – there may be some raunchy language in here):

    Gavin Millarrrrrrrrrr: “Some people have made the mistake of seeing Shunt’s work as a load of rubbish about railway timetables, but clever people like me who talk loudly in restaurants see this as a deliberate ambiguity, a plea for understanding in a mechanized world. The points are frozen, the beast is dead. What is the difference? What indeed is the point? The point is frozen, the beast is late out of Paddington. The point is taken. If La Fontaine’s elk would spurn Tom Jones the engine must be our head, the dining car, our esophagus, the guards van, our left lung, the cattle truck, our shins, the first class compartment, the piece of skin at the nape of the neck, and the level crossing, an electric elk called Simon. The clarity is devastating. But where is the ambiguity? It’s over there in a box. Shunt is saying the 8:15 from Gillingham, when in reality he means the 8:13 from Gillingham. The train is the same, only the time is altered. Ecce homo, ergo elk. La Fontaine knew his sister and knew her bloody well. The point is taken, the beast is molting, the fluff gets up your nose. The illusion is complete, it is reality, the reality is illusion and the ambiguity is the only truth. But is the truth, as Hitchcock observes, in the box? No, there isn’t room, the ambiguity has put on weight. The point is taken, the elk is dead, the beast stops at Swindon, Chabrol stops at nothing, I’m having treatment and La Fontaine can get knotted.”

    Now, that would be a great way to make a confession if it is being tape recorded or monitored.

    The Chicken

  22. Ultrarunner:

    In my parish, confessions are heard 5-6 hours a week. More during Lent and Advent.

  23. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Ultrarunner, you are making a category mistake. Confession is not about communication. It is about the presence of Jesus, loosing sins through His priest’s flesh and blood, for a sinner of flesh and blood. They cannot be “virtually” present to each other.

    Nobody receives actual Communion by watching EWTN, unless they are present in the chapel there, live. Recorded music is not an acceptable offering for Mass, no matter how beautiful. And a remote Confession could never be anything more than spiritual counseling and a chat.

  24. Fallibilissimo says:

    Dear Ultrarunner,

    So that you don’t think I’m scoffing at the idea of embracing technology, if the Church were to allow this and implement such a scheme, I’d probably be the first one to use it and very frequently. The thought of using a phone or whatever else, to make a good confessions would be amazing. Not to mention, the obvious ease of access it would give the elderly and those who are physically challenged in many different ways. I could even imagine an order of priests dedicated to to such a ministry.
    I’m also fully seized of our need to act to combat man-made global warming. In some circles, saying such a statement doesn’t make me very popular. However, before setting foot in this area, I think the first order of business is establishing it’s possibility. And I’m honestly not sure it is, because we’re playing with the very issue of “validity” which speaks to something greater than just feasibility and practicality.

  25. The Masked Chicken says:

    I want to apologize for that Monty Python quote, above. It was indecent.

    The Chicken

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