Earlier this week, Fr. James Bradley, an assistant professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, criticized the idea that confession could be offered through the telephone. “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,” Bradley told CNA.
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, also told CNA that “physical presence is absolutely needed 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 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.
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.
One cannot speak in any way of 'confession by iPhone,'” Lombardi added.
Priests in some parts of the world have devised creative ways to offer the sacrament of confession during the pandemic, among them “drive-up” confessionals and confession through a rectory window.
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ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish-language news partner, contributed to this report.