He told CNA on Wednesday that “the pastoral needs of the faithful,” have to be met “especially in this extraordinary time,” and that pastors are seeking new approaches to deliver spiritual care, including the sacraments.
“Canon law is clear: the faithful have a right to the sacraments, and the Church’s ministers should do all they can to provide them.”
Bradley noted the importance of online resources for Catholics. But he cautioned that innovation in ministry must be coupled with an understanding and respect for the nature of the sacraments.
“Digital communications can and do assist people in deepening their faith, especially through catechesis and formation,” he said. “We see wonderful examples of the internet as a tool for evangelization. We can appreciate this all the more in the present crisis, with dioceses and parishes encouraging and supporting their people through online ministries.”
“At the same time, the nature of the sacraments is not simply juridical. The law governs the celebration of the sacraments, but it does so by reason of the nature of the sacraments themselves.”
“The Pontifical Council for Social Communications puts it clearly: ‘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.’”
Bradley told CNA that there are limits to what can be done online.
“Some laws regarding the sacraments are flexible, for instance the norm of hearing confessions in a church or oratory. Others are not, for instance that absolution requires a validly ordained priest,” he said.
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.
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“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.