But in the U.S., some bishops have announced policies that extend beyond the guidance of the Holy See, and have left canonical experts, and some clerics, wondering about their legality.
It is unclear when, and if, the Holy See will step in with additional guidance, or issue judgments about the canonical legitimacy of some diocesan policies.
In some U.S. dioceses, bishops have told priests they are barred from hearing confessions, or baptizing except in cases of “extreme emergency.”
On Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Newark circulated a memo to “all serving in the archdiocese” reiterating various policies already in force and issuing new directives. Among the new policies, vicar general Monsignor Thomas Nydegger announced that “the Sacrament of Reconciliation is suspended until further notice with the exception of an extreme emergency.”
On Thursday, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Newark told CNA that “an ‘extreme emergency’ is understood to be ‘danger of death,’ in pericolo mortis, in canonical legislation.”
“Danger of death” is a technical canonical term, referring to the proximate danger of death from a particular cause. In that technical sense, “danger of death” does not include a generalized fear of danger of death, even if well founded.
Restricting confession to “emergency cases,” especially if such cases are understood to refer only to "danger of death" in the technical sense, is effectively a blanket ban on access to the sacrament for most Catholics, most of the time - even while the right to the sacrament is enshrined in canon law.
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.”
Canon 988 §1 requires that “A member of the Christian faithful is obliged to confess in kind and in number all serious sins committed after baptism.” While the minimum requirement of the law is for all Catholics to confess at least once a year, the Church recommends the season of Lent as a special time for confession in preparation for Easter.
The website of the U.S. bishops’ conference explains that “it is necessary to confess one’s mortal sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance in order to receive forgiveness from God.”
Beyond the restriction of confession, other diocesan norms have raised questions about canonical legitimacy.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City last week conveyed to priests that cell phones can be used during sacramental confession, as long as both priest and penitent can see one another during the call. The archdiocese even suggested that priests use a Google Voice number in order to avoid distributing their cell phone numbers.
The archdiocese declined to comment to CNA about the suggestion, and especially about the privacy concerns that the use of the Google Voice platform or an unsecured cell phone might represent to a sacrament ordinarily offered in strict secrecy.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
But whether the archdiocesan policy is canonically permitted is, at the moment, ambiguous. A Peruvian bishop last week rescinded a permission he’d granted for confession-by-phone, because, he said, it was not clear to him that the Holy See would permit such a thing, even if it were sacramentally possible.
Clarity on the question, especially as more dioceses face “shelter in place” orders, seems likely to become immediate for many priests.
In at least one U.S. diocese, the Archdiocese of Chicago, priests have been told that during the pandemic, the emergency celebration of baptism requires permission of the bishop— despite canonical norms permitting anyone, even a layperson, to celebrate baptism in a true emergency, in which, presumably, an ordinary minister of baptism can not be quickly reached.
At the moment, it is unclear how much authority various diocesan restrictions- on both the ministers of the sacraments and their would-be recipients- actually carry. The policies seem to be, at the very least, praeter legem, beyond the law.
To be sure, some bishops would contend that these restrictions are regrettable but necessary to save lives and halt the spread of disease.
The threat of the pandemic to human life is so immediate, they would argue, that extraordinary measures are necessary - even to the point of denying the faithful their right to the sacrament of mercy.