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Confession by telephone?

Q. Can a person request confession from a priest by telephone — in a circumstance, for example, when someone lives in a remote village and seldom has access to a priest or when a penitent has fallen into sin but is stranded in a distant land? What is the church's teaching — can technology be applied positively in this regard? (Abuja, Nigeria)


A. No, a penitent cannot confess and receive absolution by telephone. The teaching of the church is that the sacrament requires the physical presence of a priest.


Among the practical reasons for this is that the seal of confession requires and guarantees absolute and strict confidentiality. Among the "philosophical" reasons is that confession brings the penitent into personal closeness with Christ in the person of the priest.


In 2011, an Indiana company developed an app that provided an examination of conscience, together with step-by-step instructions for what to do inside the confessional. At the time, asked by reporters to comment, then-Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said, "It is essential to understand well the sacrament of penance requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor, and the absolution by the confessor.


"This is something that cannot be replaced by any application," Father Lombardi said. He did suggest that it could be helpful, in preparation for confession, to "reflect on confession preparation using digital instruments as aids, as was done in the past with texts and questions written on paper."


This restriction against sacramental confession by phone or online seems to me to be a matter of church discipline rather than a divine mandate that could never be changed (provided the privacy of the sacrament could be guaranteed).


But I would add that the situation your question presents — the physical unavailability of a confessor — already has a solution: an act of perfect contrition until the opportunity arrives for the sacrament itself.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019