In time of Coronovirus a priest foolishly suggests confession by phone. FAIL!

UPDATE 28 March 2020:

The CDW instructed the USCCB that mobile phones should not be used to amplify vocal exchanges between confessor and penitent, when the penitent is at least a little distant from, but still with, the priest.  CNA has a story HERE.

The primary concern is integrity of the Seal and possible tapping of the phone conversation, etc.

I would, however, make a distinction: even if this method were to be used, the absolution would still be valid.  The concern is about privacy, not validity.

___ Originally Published on: Mar 18, 2020

I read an INCREDIBLY IRRESPONSIBLE comment from an Italian priest, unhappily now a prof at my “alma mater” the Pontifical Lateran University.

In a story at CNS, Fr. Giorgio Giovanelli, suggested that Francis could – and should – give permission for priests to receive sacramental confessions by phone.


This is also reported on an Italian site, Vita.  Sadly, the Italian site confuses the issue by also writing about making a perfect Act of Contrition to obtain forgiveness of sins.  That’s a different topic.

First, it is impudent to suggest this, because some people will take it wrongly, and that that this is possible or already permitted.   They will ask for this and be angry and disillusioned if they don’t get it.

Next, it is always possible to make a confession by phone, and, as a matter of fact, to anyone!   It is only possible to receive valid absolution from a priest with faculties.   You can confess to a bartender, even by phone, but he can’t absolve you.

You can confess to the imprudent Fr. Giovanelli by phone, but he can’t absolve you.  You are not present.

Giovanelli makes an absurd argument. If one person is standing in one corner of a large room, like a sacristy, and other person is in the far corner, then are they really more present to each other than they would be by telephone?

The short answer is: YES!  OBVIOUSLY YES.  They are in the same room.

Giovanelli seems happy that this idea is out in the world now.  He tweeted about the coverage.

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 1088 (or else 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.  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.  Don’t leave the confession before you are absolved!

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, written, 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 easily 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.

I wrote recently of confessionals that have electronic means for the hearing impaired and situations like jail visiting rooms with glass partitions and a phone for conversation.  Those are acceptable.  The person is right there, even though there is a barrier.  There should be barriers in confessionals anyway.

In 2002, the Pontifical Council for Social Communication explained in The Church and Internet something well (for a change).  This applies to telephone, as it does to uses of the internet.  My emphases:

[T]he virtual reality of cyberspace has some worrisome implications for religion as well as for other areas of life. Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.

In any event, this sort of thing should be responded to by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.   I suspect that they will not pronounce on it, which means that things will stay exactly as they are: NO CONFESSION by phone over long distances where the persons are not at least morally present to each other.  No internet.  No writing or messaging from a distance.

HOWEVER, as I wrote elsewhere, a middle way might be possible.   Say I, your confessor, is sitting in the doorway of the church, or anywhere else, for that matter, even by a window of the rectory.   You drive up or walk close enough so we can see each other, perhaps even raise our voices and converse.  So you are not shouting your sins to the neighbors, could you in this situation use your mobile phone?  YES.  But you are present.  This would be like using equipment in a confessional for the hearing impaired.

Perhaps priests could do something along these lines.   Perhaps advertise a time and place where people can drive up or walk to.  Put a sign up with the number to call (perhaps a parish number with “PRESS 9 for …” that forwards to Father’s phone.   The penitent and the priest are morally present to each other and the phone helps preserve secrecy of the content of the confession.  The priest can absolve, by raising his voice a little, if necessary.  VALID and in these circumstances licit.

And NOT imprudent and foolish and invalid.

Dear readers… if you have a chance….


Have I not been saying this all along?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    There is an article on CNA where priests are getting creative with solutions. One actually does use the phone, mostly as Fr. Z. suggests. In this case, it is a drive-up confession where the phone is used sort of as a hearing aid just to help maintain the 6′ distance and privacy.—but-from-6-feet-away-coronavirus-and-confession-60496

  2. Animadversor says:

    One would not—oddly unsurprisingly—be astonished to discover that those who promote such false, rash and scandalous propositions as you have animadverted upon are very rarely seen to be also promoters of frequent confession, a practice which the promotion that they do engage in would seem to suggest that they would favor. Please explain. Or ween they—very perversely—that God somehow needs a priest to forgive someone his or her sins, and therefore, of course, the sources upon which we rely when considering the doctrine of sacramental confession must be construed, no matter how shakily, so as to facilitate confession to a priest . Of course He doesn’t need a priest to forgive sins; did He, He wouldn’t be God. Could it be that He requires us to see a confessor if we can out of consideration for some human frailty against which the sacerdotal requirement is a counterirritant?

  3. Ellen says:

    I am so blessed to live near the Fathers of Mercy who stress confession and are always available. Yesterday, I thought I’d better take your advice and go to confession. So I texted Father and set up a time. They are hearing confessions outside which was a new experience for me, but I went and am glad I did. The bishop has suspended the Mass celebration until Palm Sunday (we have had one case of the corona virus in the whole diocese).

  4. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Dear Father,

    After correctly dismissing the absurdity of Prof (vero!) Giovanelli, you come to a very important distinction, about which I was speaking to a friend the other day. The mobile phone when physically present. To avoid contagion, it would be quick, simple and cheap to put a glass over the confessional grille, and for the penitent and priest to use their mobile phones – everyone has them now. The same as a microphone, but instantly installed and without the high cost to the church. This should be seriously considered, else how do people make their confession when they need it most? In most European countries the sacraments are now suspended.

  5. iPadre says:

    I’m doing two hours of Drive-thru Confessions on Saturday. And more later on.

  6. Andrea Mary says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z! I just sent this post to my pastor!

  7. The Egyptian says:

    sent an email to my local deanery, if churches are closed why not start having outdoor masses at the Shrine of the Holy Relics, near the middle of the deanery area, each priest doing a mass in rotation through out the day, no sermon, spiritual communion only, pamphlets available to explain such. set up outdoor confessionals and get to it, there is plenty of room under the porch and patio out back. There at least 18 priests in the deanery, instead of saying mass in an empty church, make a public display of devotion and worship of it, from early dawn to dusk at least one every hour or so. there are altars scattered all over the grounds (leftover from those pre v2 days) people could park and sit on the grass or stand, and the elderly could sit in their cars, plenty of fresh air and “social distance”. One or two priests might just wander off and walk the stations of the cross in the retreat house woods near by, ya never know
    (snark alert) So far crickets, I think the priests around here are acting like kids with an extended snow day vacation (snark off)

  8. mamajen says:


    Unfortunately in the world we live in, cell phones pose a huge security risk for something like confession. I should think even with a landline that has phone service, that would be a concern (though not the “closed” setups with just two phones linked for amplification purposes).

    [No place or means are completely secure. However, given your concern, perhaps an app like Signal could work. Far more secure.]

  9. OrangeBlossom says:

    Thank you much for all the reminders to go to confession. On Friday, I asked Father if he would hear confessions after Stations of the Cross. He, of course, said yes. Do our family of 9 all went and a dozen others too. Masses were canceled for that weekend and now all other gatherings too

  10. tho says:

    When the Spirit of Vatican II went into effect I was 34 years old. I remember when the Church was the pillar of moral strength, no matter the crisis
    Catholic chaplains behaved valiantly in all of our wars, and our parish priests were symbols of manliness. Our Bishops were the embodiment of spiritual strength, they spoke forcefully on any subject, that might compromise our immortal souls. A special sense of pride was reserved for our missionaries, who brought light to far off Christians, and pagans, at the risk of their own lives. Looking back, and reading, and seeing what is going on now, I can’t help but think that modernism, or liberal progressivism, is a death sentence.

  11. Ipse Dixit says:

    Given the revelations about project “Prism” which involves the recording of every call, email and text across the board, the use of a phone for confession is dubious for that reason too. In fact, the FSSP priests near me advise people to leave their mobile devices outside the confessional because of the known capability for phone microphones to be activated remotely, unknown to the owner.

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