ASK FATHER: Cardinal says confession and absolution over the phone is okay

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I was shocked, as I heard, that the local bishop allowed phone confession and absolution over phone because of COVID-19.  A priest from my community says the Cardinal of says that he may use phone to absolve people. Father, so many people call him every day and think they are absolved from their sins! Is this sacrament simulation? I wrote two emails to the head of the religious community and I got a dumb answer, saying why it was OK for the Cardinal of Vienna to allow phone confessions and I should stop worrying. It’s just wrong! No dogmatic foundation. I am frustrated. I am praying. Do you know anyone on the Congregation in Rome? I mean, something should be done here. We’re living in chaotic times.

We have to make a distinction or two.

First, anyone can confess over the phone.  That’s not a problem.  However, sacramental absolution cannot be given VALIDLY by phone, unless the penitent also happens to be physically close by and the phone is just an amplifying device, like a hearing aid or a phone set up in a confessional or jail visiting room.

Absolution at a distance using the phone would be INVALID.

Since that is the case, attempting to absolve over the phone like that would be simulation of a sacrament, objectively a terrible sin.  Can. 1379 threatens “a just penalty” for the simulation of a sacrament.  However, it should first be determined whether or not the priest knew that what he was doing was wrong.   That would mitigate incurring a penalty.  It seems as if he is misinformed by a high authority, whom under normal circumstances he ought to be able to trust.  These are not, of course, normal circumstances.

You should immediately write with your concern to the Congregation for Divine Worship.  Send copies of your previous correspondence.  NB: They have a fax machine.

A Sua Em.za Rev.ma il Cardinale Robert SARAH
Prefetto della Congregazione per il Culto Divino
e la Disciplina dei Sacramenti
Palazzo delle Congregazioni
00120 Città del Vaticano

Fax: (+39) 06.69.88.34.99

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17 Responses to ASK FATHER: Cardinal says confession and absolution over the phone is okay

  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    Even cardinals nod.

  2. Pumpkin Eater says:

    If you would, somebody please cite the applicable canon or other authority that this prohibits this extraordinary remedy at this extraordinary time.

    [As far back as Clement VIII it was clarified that absolution could not be validly given absente confessore, through the medium of a written message or messenger. At the time theologians were forbidden even to suggest it. That was not for the protection of secrecy, but for validity. Paul V confirmed the same in 1605. The penitent and priest must be physically present to each other, at least in a moral sense, within some reasonable distance. It was also ruled that absolution via telegraph was invalid. The same applies, obviously, to the telephone outside of moral physical presence because the communication between confessor and penitent is inter simpliciter absentes. This doesn’t apply so much to the content confessed as to the form of absolution. There is no “te” there.]

  3. Pumpkin Eater says:

    The purported authority of Archbishop Cardinal Schönborn, if it is he is who granted this dispensation, would not go beyond his own Archdiocese, it would seem.

    [It wouldn’t even go to within the borders of the Archdiocese of Vienna. He has no authority to authorize such a thing.]

  4. mcferran says:

    At the best of times Satan loves fake news. He’s ecstatic at the moment. Two weeks ago there were news stories that Cardinal Cupich (Chicago) had decreed that emergency baptisms could only occur with his specific permission. When the actual March 13 statement from the Archdiocese was published on April 3, that claim was shown to be totally false (but there was silence from those who had spread the falsity). Is there any evidence that Cardinal Schonborn (Vienna) has allowed telephone confessions? Lacking any evidence, it is just plain evil to spread such a claim.

  5. richdel says:

    I wonder whether these same people who seem so eager about Confession over the phone will advocate as much for Confession under normal circumstances once the pandemic fades.

  6. Pumpkin Eater says:

    If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly, i. e., the best one can under the circumstances. Even if the priest, can’t perform his part as minister of the sacrament, seems that our esteemed host is saying that the at least penitent may be able do his part, naming his sins and expressing his sorrow, over the phone to a priest. Isn’t that better than nothing?

    [As I have constantly repeated whenever this topic comes up, in years past or in the present, you can talk about anything you want over the phone. You can make your confession over a phone. You can make your confession to a bartender (if bars were open). But for valid absolution you need a priest with faculties and you need the moral presence of the penitent and the priest.]

  7. jfr1900 says:

    The following explains things:
    https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/04/why-we-cant-confess-over-zoom

    [Precisely what I have been writing on this blog.]

  8. Simon_GNR says:

    I agree with Pumpkin Eater’s comments above: even though absolution cannot be given over the phone, confession, contrition and admonition/counselling can still happen, so as he/she says that’s better than nothing.

  9. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Several of the comments seem to be an exercise in obfuscation – and we know who the author of that is…

    God cannot be tricked. The fact is that Absolution from a priest who is not present DOES NOT WORK. That is to say, you soul is NOT cleansed of its sin. This isn’t some school prank to see if the headmaster notices or not. Your eternal life is at stake. You would not pay a garage to put faulty brakes into your car.

    I don’t understand why people are making heavy weather about this. Holy Mother Church has given us the answer. We may, if truly unable to get to a priest, make an Act of Perfect Contrition. By the means of this, all our sins are wiped away, as they would be in the Confessional. As soon as we can we need only to go to confession to a priest, and say this is what we have done (we don’t need to remember the sins we confessed privately, because to God they no longer exist.) [NO! NO! NO!] This can be done as often as we need. We can go to bed truly shriven every single night!

    This works; this is a foolproof path to Salvation. Why try to fly there on Icarus’ wings?

    [Even if you are reasonably sure that you made a PERFECT Act of Contrition, you must confess all your mortal sins since your last confession in both kind and number in regular auricular confession at the earliest opportunity.]

  10. OdeM says:

    When our diocese said that we could not do individual confessions, I inquired about hearing confessions in the lot with the priest in a car, and the penitent in another car next to him, using the phone as an amplification device. [I even suggested using the *67 to deactivate caller ID to preserve privacy.] I was told the following: “hearing confessions with the assistance of any device, like a cell phone, poses a risk that that confession can be recorded. For this reason, it is not allowed.”

    [And that is true. There is the risk of being recorded even by the NSA. However, that pertains to secrecy, not to validity of the absolution.]

  11. Pumpkin Eater says:

    Inimica bonorum perfectionem. Bartender?!

    [Ne feceris, amice. Nunc, qui vult, sumat!]

  12. TxLurker says:

    “We may, if truly unable to get to a priest, make an Act of Perfect Contrition. By the means of this, all our sins are wiped away, as they would be in the Confessional. As soon as we can we need only to go to confession to a priest, and say this is what we have done (we don’t need to remember the sins we confessed privately, because to God they no longer exist.)”

    I’m pretty sure this is incorrect. From what I remember learning we are obliged to confess all those sins which (we hope) were forgiven by an act of contrition the next time we are able to make a sacramental confession. We are obligated to confess them in number and kind, just like every other mortal sin.

  13. eulogossusan says:

    Jfr1900: Did you read the comments on that First Things article? Comment after comment with no understanding of the meaning of human presence. There seems to be a Matrix-like acceptance of virtual reality as a true reality and a corresponding diminishment of any understanding of the irreplaceable significance of physical presence. Perhaps analogies to human love and generation would help? Does anyone question that a genuine marriage can not take place over the phone? That a man and a woman who could never meet could never be married, even if they Skyped and What’s Apped all day long every day? Conception requires physical presence. Even in the technological nightmare of artificial insemination, something physical is required. One could virtually engender only a virtual baby, who is not an embodied soul, but something whose tenuous existence ceases if the electricity ceases to flow. Why would we who believe the Word made flesh not value physical presence and know it matters?

  14. robtbrown says:

    Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Several of the comments seem to be an exercise in obfuscation – and we know who the author of that is…

    God cannot be tricked. The fact is that Absolution from a priest who is not present DOES NOT WORK. That is to say, you soul is NOT cleansed of its sin. This isn’t some school prank to see if the headmaster notices or not. Your eternal life is at stake. You would not pay a garage to put faulty brakes into your car.

    What do you mean by “not present”? Is it a matter of distance? If a priest at the back of a 747 gives General Absolution just before the plane crashes, would it be invalid for those in the front of the plane (more than 200 ft away)? How about those in the upper level? Or: If a priest arriving too late for individual Confessions gives General Absolution to an Army Division, would it not be valid?

    I don’t understand why people are making heavy weather about this. Holy Mother Church has given us the answer. We may, if truly unable to get to a priest, make an Act of Perfect Contrition. By the means of this, all our sins are wiped away, as they would be in the Confessional. As soon as we can we need only to go to confession to a priest, and say this is what we have done (we don’t need to remember the sins we confessed privately, because to God they no longer exist.) This can be done as often as we need. We can go to bed truly shriven every single night!

    How can someone not in a state of grace make a perfect act of contrition?

  15. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear robtbrown,

    You wrote:

    “How can someone not in a state of grace make a perfect act of contrition?”

    This apparent contradiction has bothered me for some time. People in a state of grace don’t, technically, need to make a perfect act of contrition (venial sins can be forgiven by other, equivalent, means, such as reception of the Eucharist) and people not in a state of grace can’t make one, so, it would seem that a perfect act of contrition is not that necessary or possible, in some cases.

    It occurs to me, however, that there are three types of baptism: water, blood, and desire and two types of Holy Communion: sacramental and spiritual (i.e., desire).

    The virtual (desire) form of both sacraments do not assume, necessarily, a state of grace, since, otherwise, a person in mortal sin could never even think of obtaining a baptism of desire, but this has never been the teaching of the Church, especially since one of the purposes of baptism is to cleans from sin, even mortal sin, thus, allowing for the possibility that mortal sin exists in the individual before his baptism of desire. It is true that baptism of desire is not as certain a form of baptism a water or blood baptism, but it is a real possibility recognized by the Church.

    Now, consider the case of a man in mortal sin (let us say, for instance, the Prodigal Son), who comes to his senses and is desperate to return home. He runs to his Father’s house, but just before he gets to the gate (his Father can see him), a horse-drawn cart crashes into him and he is killed. Imagine a modern man going to sacramental confession who is struck by a car and killed while the man is walking to Church. Does this accident, then, imply that letting the man go to Hell is part of God’s permissive will, when, clearly, the man had desired otherwise?

    What I am saying is that, like baptism and Communion, it would make sense for the Church to recognize a virtual form of the sacrament of confession, motivated by the desire of the individual, in no way requiring the person be in a state of grace that any more than baptism of desire requires it. Granted, in all three sacraments, should the possibility of the real sacrament become available, it needs must replace the virtual one, which is always less certain than the real version (so one must confess the sins one sought to be forgiven in the virtual form), but I can see the possibility of virtual forms for all of the sacraments of initiation, which may be received even in mortal sin, because the desire is present to overcome the mortal sin.

    Granted, desire is not enough. There must be room for a mysterious operation of grace, virtual sanctifying grace, if you will, wherein God tips the scale of His will in favor of the will of the individual. It is as if, even though the Prodigal Son died outside of the gate, so to speak, the Father, nevertheless, allows his son to be buried on His property, realizing that this is what both He and his son would have wanted and He, who is Justice, has the right to make that concession by virtue of His absolute authority, without contradicting the circumstantial truth of His son’s death, but transcending it.

    So, I can see the possibility of a perfect Act of Contrition being made by someone not actually in a state of grace as long as the Act is a real statement of desire made in the presence of God, who knows the heart.

    To be sure, it is far less certain a reception of the sacrament than auricular confession to a priest, but, in my opinion, it is not nothing, and falls into the same category as the possible salvation of those who, through no fault of their own, have never heard of the Gospel. It involves the action of God outside of the normal channels, but we must allow both for that possibility and the possibility of a perfect Act of Contrition by a means known only to God.

    The Chicken

  16. robtbrown says:

    Pulle,

    It is important to remember that what the Sacraments give us is certitude of Grace. Christ is the Principal Minister of every Sacrament so that it is possible that forgiveness of mortal sins follows an Act of Contrition. In any such case it is not the Act of Contrition that is the cause. Forgiveness of Sin is an act of mercy and as such cannot be merited for someone not in a state of grace. The presence of those with sanctifying grace, however, is a different situation.

    More generally, it is possible that the effect of a Sacrament could exist without the celebration. In those situations, it is not the desire that is the cause but Christ Himself.

    One of St Thomas’ concepts of mortal sin is that it kills the ability to do certain things, e.g., prayer and penance, that produce forgiveness of sins. Nb: Sanctifying Grace not only heals but elevates. It is a certain participation in the Divine Nature, a supernatural component grafted on the soul. To put it another way, if there is no human perfection without sanctifying grace, how is it possible for someone not in a state of grace to make an perfect act of contrition. Unfortunately, many today tend to think of grace as psychological rather than ontological, which seems to me an encouragement toward Pelagianism. Acc to St Thomas grace is a Relation, a Real Relation.

  17. robtbrown says:

    I just noticed your last paragraph.

    To be sure, it is far less certain a reception of the sacrament than auricular confession to a priest, but, in my opinion, it is not nothing, and falls into the same category as the possible salvation of those who, through no fault of their own, have never heard of the Gospel. It involves the action of God outside of the normal channels, but we must allow both for that possibility and the possibility of a perfect Act of Contrition by a means known only to God.

    You’ve reduced God to a vending machine (Deus ex machina). Put in the exact change (not just an act of contrition but a perfect act of contrition) and the can of Coke arrives.

    That reminds me of an American I knew who was studying philosophy at the Angelicum. All the lectures are in Italian, which he did not know. He thought, however, that if he sat on the front row and paid perfect attention, concentrating very hard, he could understand what was being said. He never did understand.

    BTW, I prefer St Thomas’ distinction: Contrition (in a state of grace), Attrition (not in a state of grace).