Father Giorgio Giovanelli, a professor of canon law at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University, told Catholic News Service this week that he believes confession could take place over the phone, if Pope Francis would extend his permission.
"Some would object that the priest must be present. OK. That's the kind of thing people would say in the 1980s, but the development of technology has allowed us to have other kinds of presence," the priest told Catholic News Service.
"Am I less present by telephone? Virtual presence is real. Who could say that the celebrative dimension of the sacrament in these very particular, narrowly defined situations is lacking?" he asked.
But Bradley told CNA that innovative approaches to ministry have to be grounded in the Church's teaching. Underpinning canon law, he said, is the essential theology of the sacraments, often rooted in a necessary person-to-person encounter.
"The nature of confession, like all the sacraments, involves a personal and ecclesial encounter with Jesus Christ, who is the Word made Flesh. A virtual reality can never replace the reality of the incarnation. We can deepen our faith through watching a livestream of Mass, but we all know: it's not the same as being physically present."
The canon lawyer also noted secondary concerns which should be considered when discussing new or adapted forms of sacramental ministry.
"There are also practical issues that relate to the nature of the sacrament of confession. A telephone call or online meeting raises serious concerns about privacy, anonymity, and safeguarding," Bradley said.
Fr. Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, a member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission, told CNA that "physical presence is absolutely for the validity of the enactment of the sacrament."
"The reason I say that is because the sacrament is the action of Christ performed by the minister, and for that action to take place, the priest and the penitent must be in communion with one another, in a physical manner."
Weinandy said that all sacraments involve a physical dimension. In marriage, that dimension is expressed in the sexual union of husband and wife. In other sacraments, it is expressed in the rites and rituals themselves, he said.
"You can't baptize someone who's not actually present, you can't participate in the sacrifice of the Mass -- a priest can't confect the Eucharist- without being physically present," the theologian added.
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Weinandy told CNA that confession is an "interpersonal exchange." The physical presence of confessor and penitent point to the significance of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
"The sacraments flow from the Incarnation, and because of that, there has to be a bodily presence of the one who is enacting the sacrament, and the one who is receiving the sacrament. They're doing the sacrament together," Weinandy said.
"The Incarnation sets the framework for the sacramental order. Sacraments by their very nature, are incarnational signs that effect what they symbolize and symbolize what they effect, and one must be a part of that sign and reality to participate in the sacrament," he said.
"Even in the Old Testament, Moses had to be in front of the burning bush to know he was in the presence of God," Weinandy said.
In the 17th century, the Church declared that confession by letter would be invalid. More recently, in 2011, papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, responded to the proposition that sacramental confession might one day take place by iPhone app.
"It is essential to understand well that the sacrament of penance requires necessarily the rapport of personal dialogue between penitent and confessor and absolution by the present confessor," Lombardi said at the time.