Jersey parish reverses vaccine mandate for confessions

Confessional Quisquilia/Shutterstock

A parish in the Diocese of Trenton will no longer restrict the sacrament of confession to those who have received a COVID vaccine, after a clarification from the diocese. 

On Sunday, the Church of the Precious Blood in Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, had posted on its website that confessions would once again be available - but only for those who had already received the coronavirus vaccination. 

“Only those vaccinated may come to the Sacrament of Penance in order to protect yourself, and more importantly, to protect others in case you are asymptomatic and contagious,” said the parish website on Sunday.

Then on Monday afternoon, the Trenton Diocese clarified that the parish would allow people not yet vaccinated to receive confession.

“The Diocese has contacted the pastor in question and the parish website has been updated to allow for all those seeking Confession, regardless of vaccination status,” said the Diocese of Trenton on Monday afternoon on Twitter. 

The parish’s confession policy was an update of a previous policy on its website dated from June 3, 2020. The announcement stated that “confessions at this time remain problematic,” due to the ongoing pandemic. The pastor of the parish, Fr. Michael Sullivan, had not yet decided on how to proceed with hearing confessions.

“With the presumption that anyone may be infected without knowing it, then the use of any screen, which allows anonymity, means that we must sanitize that side of the screen and any chair or kneeler used by the penitent between each penitent’s confession,” said the website in February. “I need more time to consider what to do. We may have to only allow face-to-face Confession in the meantime. 

A Feb. 7 capture of the parish website showed that announcement as the latest update on confessions. 

The Church’s Code of Canon Law states that confessions should not be refused, provided the proper conditions are met. 

Canon 843 §1 of the Code of Canon Law states that “The sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”

By Monday afternoon, the parish website had been updated to state that “Confessions Are Now Available” for all - but still separated those penitents who have been vaccinated from those who have not been vaccinated. 

“Now that Fr. Mike has been vaccinated, the Sacrament of Penance will be available in two ways,” said the website. “For those who have not been vaccinated, in the sanctuary of the church, face to face. For those who have been vaccinated, in the confessional where confession can take place anonymously.” 

Sullivan did not respond to CNA’s request for comment in time for publication. The parish office at Church of the Precious Blood was closed. 

The confession policies at the Church of the Precious Blood were more strict than those the Diocese of Trenton recommended in its pandemic directives from late 2020. 

Those directives stated that “as has been the case throughout the pandemic, confession continues to be available as needed,” although “confessionals should not be used.” The directives encouraged outdoor confessions as well indoor confessions in a well-ventilated, socially-distant setting. 

“All arrangements for confessions must safeguard the health of both priest and penitent, respecting the dignity and confidentiality of the Sacrament,” the directives stated. Kneelers and chairs were to be sanitized after each penitent.

While the parish now requires that non-vaccinated persons confess their sins face-to-face, both the Code of Canon Law and the sacramental norms of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) stipulate that confessional screens must be available in churches. 

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According to Can. 964 §1, bishops’ conferences must “take care, however, that there are always confessionals with a fixed grate between the penitent and the confessor in an open place so that the faithful who wish to can use them freely.”

The USCCB Latin Rite bishops’ complementary legislation for canon 964, §2 states that “[p]rovision must be made in each church or oratory for a sufficient number of places for sacramental confessions which are clearly visible, truly accessible, and which provide a fixed grille between the penitent and the confessor.” 

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Vatican has said that canonical norms remain in place for the sacrament of confession, although bishops themselves could determine how the sacrament could be administered safely while upholding the sacramental seal.

In March, 2020, the Vatican’s head of the Apostolic Penitentiary said in a formal note that “[i]n the present pandemic emergency, it is therefore up to the diocesan bishop to indicate to priests and penitents the prudent measures to be adopted in the individual celebration of sacramental reconciliation, such as the celebration in a ventilated place outside the confessional, the adoption of a convenient distance, the use of protective masks without prejudice to the absolute attention paid to safeguarding the sacramental seal and to the necessary discretion.”

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