Friday, March 5, 2010

The Phone in the Confessional

National Public Radio reported Wednesday that a French company has set up a telephone service for folks who want to confess their sins, but aren’t contrite enough to actually go to a church to speak with a priest. The French bishops are, understandably, not on board with the project.

To it’s credit, the service advises callers that anyone in a state of mortal sin needs to make a real confession

Stories like this one often remind me of the parish in Northern Virginia that we belonged to during my navy years. One of the confessionals had a telephone handset on the wall next to the screen. The telephone was to be used any time that Father Most, who was hard of hearing, was on the other side of the screen. The phone in the confessional led me many times to wonder whether one could, in fact, call-in a confession. The validity of the sacrament, after all, does not require any physical contact between the penitent and the confessor. Priests routinely bless television audiences, and some might argue that, if the priest offering the blessing intends it, the blessing could even extend to viewers of encore presentations. Could a viewer with a DVR then rewind the program and receive multiple blessings? There’s a hint of snark in the question, but the question remains, I think, legitimate.

And yet, a blessing is not a sacrament, and there is a lot of material that suggests that the sacraments do not have an infinite range (in the normal order of things – God, of course, is not rigidly bound by such rules, as the Centurion would surely attest). Viewing a televised mass from home does not fulfill the Sunday obligation, yet listening to a mass from an adjoining chamber (e.g., a crying room for parents of infants and toddlers) does. It is not, therefore, a line-of-sight phenomenon.

There are practical considerations in the matter of confession, as well. Privacy and the potential for eavesdropping is very real concern. There may be other concerns as well, on a pastoral level. There exists, as in all things, a potential for abuse. It is, I am convinced, a bad idea, and it is probably a violation of Canon Law [UPDATE: Yep, Canon 964], making it illicit. Whether or not it is licit could change over time. The question that I am asking is whether such a confession would be valid, and I think that the answer is that if the priest hears the confession in real time and says the words of absolution, the sins are absolved, subject to all of the usual disclaimers (nothing intentionally withheld, penance performed, etc.).

If I’m wrong, please let me know!

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