Confession And Absolution By Telephone
Is Confession and Absolution By Telephone Valid?
Some authors of Moral Theology, for example Rev. HERIBERT JONE, say that in extreme necessity a penitent may be absolved conditionally by telephone, since there is a slight probability that such absolution is valid. However the same author says that absolution must be given to one personally present.
Other authors say that neither confession nor absolution by telephone is valid because there is no slight probability in such a case.
Common opinion of the majority of theologians is based on the canons of the Council of Trent, Pope Clement VIII’s condemnation of confession and absolution by letter, and St. Alphonsus’ formula "Praesentia pro absolutione majorem propinquitatem requirit quam pro audienda missa" which demands a local nearness of a penitent and a confessor by analogy with a local nearness of a faithful during hearing of the Holy Mass.
All theologians agree that a penitent must be present to a confessor morally. But they don’t say that a physical presence is not required or that a moral presence replaces a physical presence. In order to be present morally a penitent firstly must be present physically.
One may object that a penitent can be united with a priest morally at distance while he is absent physically. Yes, it’s true. Nevertheless, to be united with a priest morally at distance and to be personally present morally before a priest are not equal things.
For example, all members of the Catholic Church are united morally with each other. However not all are personally present in the same place; some are in Heaven, some in Purgatory and some on Earth.
Moral unity without a physical presence is justified only when a penitent in an extreme necessity makes an act of perfect contrition when it includes at least implicitly the will to confess his sins before a priest.
It is clear from the idea of the Sacrament of Penance instituted by Christ that a moral presence must be connected with a physical presence. Such connection constitutes personal presence in its fullness.
Someone may be present physically but be absent morally. This happens, for example, when a person, having no intention of confessing his sins in the Sacrament of Penance, comes to a priest to chat with him on different topics, for a mockery, or for any other purpose. It can be compared with passive attendance of Catholics at non-Catholic services which implies that no part is taken in praying, singing, etc. A servant may accompany his or her employers to a non-Catholic service if asked to do so. Soldiers or prisoners may attend such services if commanded to do so for the sake of order (but not if ordered in odium fidei). They are present physically, but they are absent morally.
That is why all theologians agree that a penitent must be present to the confessor morally.
We know from the Gospel that Our Lord sometimes healed people who were at a great distance from Him. However He absolved only those who were personally present before Him.
But someone may object that confessions mentioned in the Gospel were not secret.
It’s true that those confessions took place at the presence of others so that absolutions pronounced by Jesus Christ were certainly heard not only by penitents but by people standing nearby as well. However we can argue that the secrecy of confession was preserved; Our Lord Himself heard the confession while other people overheard only words of absolution. Those cases were admitted by Jesus Christ for the purpose - everyone should know that He has the power to forgive sins.
In the case of an adulteress whom the Pharisees brought to Jesus, He first removed those Pharisees so that no outsider would hear what Jesus was saying to that woman and what she answered to Him.
The Council of Trent puts under anathema anyone who says that the manner of secretly confessing to a priest alone is alien to the institution and the mandate of Christ.
The secrecy of the Sacrament of Penance must be strongly observed both by priests and faithful in the manner which the Catholic Church - having the example of Jesus Christ Himself - has always observed from the beginning.
Rev. HERIBERT JONE who says in Moral Theology that in extreme need a penitent may be absolved conditionally by telephone, clarifies in the same book that in danger of death priest may absolve a penitent when others will hear, and that such penitent may merely indicate by some sign his desire for confession. Fr. Jone also emphasizes: “Confession must be: Secret, i.e., one is never obliged to confess his sins when others can overhear him” (Moral Theology, p. 398). In other words Rev. HERIBERT JONE agrees that there is no obligation to confess sins when others can overhear them.
Therefore, since one is never obliged to confess his sins when others can overhear them, particularly by telephone, we can conclude that confession by telephone is not required even in extreme necessity. Telephone does not supply secrecy of confession, especially nowadays when telephone companies have access even to so-called secure communication.
It’s true that a penitent may wish to confess his sins when others overhear them, but a priest should follow the canon of the Council of Trent which obliges to preserve secrecy of confession and to confess to a priest alone.
“The form of absolution must be uttered by the priest himself in the presence of the person absolved. This follows as a necessary consequence from the nature of the Form of Absolution sanctioned by the perpetual tradition of the Church; for the very words, "I absolve thee" imply the presence of the penitent” (A CATHOLIC DICTIONARY)
The question then arises:
What can a penitent do when there is no possibility to confess his sins before a priest?
To make an act of perfect contrition.
Contrition is sorrow of the soul and aversion for past sins with the resolution not to sin again. Contrition is the first of the acts of the penitent which constitute the matter of the Sacrament of Penance. It is a matter of Divine precept which must be fulfilled at least when the sinner is in danger of death, since then it becomes of supreme necessity. Also it must be fulfilled when any action has to be performed which for its due performance requires a person to be in the state of grace.
Contrition must be perfect because imperfect contrition suffices to remit mortal sins only together with confession. “Perfect contrition is had when the motive of our sorrow is the love of God as the highest Good and for His Own sake.”
Perfect contrition justifies a sinner before the actual reception of the Sacrament of Penance when it includes, at least implicitly, the will to confess. A sinner must sincerely regret his sins. Mere recital of the act of contrition is not enough.
Here the quotations follow:
Conc. TRIDENTINUM 1545-1563. Oecumenicum XIX.
(Sess. XIV) Canones de sacramento poenitentiae.
916. Can. 6. Si quis negaverit, confessionem sacramentalem vel institutam vel ad salutem necessariam esse iure divino; aut dixerit, modum secrete confitendi soli sacerdoti, quem Ecclesia catholica ab initio semner observavit et observat, alienum esse ab institutione et mandato Christi, et inventum esse humanum.
(ENCHIRIDION SYMBOLORUM, DEFINITIONUM ET DECLARATIONUM, DE REBUS FIDEI ET MORUM, AUCTORE HENRICO DENZINGER, EDITIO UNDECIMA, QUAM PARAVIT CLEMENS BANNWART S. J., FRIBURGI BRISGOVIAE, B. H E R D E R, TYPOGRAPHUS EDITOR PONTIFICIUS, MCMXI, ARGENTORATI, BEROLINI, CAROLSRUHAE, MONACHII, VINDOBONAE, LONDINI BRITANNIAE, S. LUDOVICI AMERICAE, Ern. Thill S. J., Praep. Prov. Germ., Exaten, die 11. mensis Decembris anno 1910, Imprimatur: Friburgi Brisgoviae, die 7 Februarii 1911, +Thomas, Archiepps, p. 305)
Denzinger THE SOURCES OF CATHOLIC DOGMA:
THE COUNCIL OF TRENT:
916. Can. 6. If anyone denies that sacramental confession was either instituted by divine law or is necessary for salvation; or says that the manner of secretly confessing to a priest alone, which the Catholic Church has always observed from the beginning and still observes, is alien to the institution and the mandate of Christ, and is a human invention: let him be anathema.
(Denzinger, THE SOURCES OF CATHOLIC DOGMA, Translated by Roy J. Deferrari from the Thirtieth Edition of Henry Denzinger's Enchiridion Symbolorum, This translation was made from the thirtieth edition of Enchiridion Symbolorum, by Henry Denzinger, revised by Karl Rahner, S.J., published in 1954 by Herder & Co., Freiburg, Nihil Obstat: Dominic Hughes, O.P. Censor Deputatus, Imprimatur: +Patrick A. O'Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, April 25, 1955, p. 283)
by Rev. HERIBERT JONE:
“554. – 2. Manner of giving Absolution. Absolution must be given:
Absolution in writing or by means of other signs is invalid.
b) To one personally present:
α) Absolution is certainly valid if the penitent is still near enough to enable the confessor to speak with him (even though he should have to raise his voice).
St. Alphonse thought a distance of less than twenty paces sufficient. – It is not necessary for the confessor to be able to see the penitent, or that the latter actually hear the former giving absolution. - Absolution is doubtfully valid if the priest and penitent are in different rooms between which there is no communication.
β) As long as the penitent can in some manner be perceived by the confessor, even though he may not actually be perceived because of some momentary obstacle absolution is probably valid.
Under such circumstances absolution must be given conditionally if there is a case of necessity. – In extreme need a penitent may even be absolved by telephone, since there is a slight probability that such absolution is valid.” p. 391
“I. 1. Contrition. Concept. Contrition is sorrow of the soul and aversion for past sins with the resolution not to sin again.
a) Perfect contrition is had when the motive of our sorrow is the love of God as the highest Good and for His Own sake.
b) Imperfect contrition is or attrition is that sorrow which does not proceed from the love of God, but from some other supernatural motive that refers to God (e.g., heinousness of sin, fear of eternal or temporal punishment that God inflicts upon sinners).
Together with confession it suffices to remit mortal sin.” p. 395
“564. II. Qualities. Confession must be:
Secret, i.e., one is never obliged to confess his sins when others can overhear him.
Should one, in danger of death, be able to confess only in a way that others will hear, the priest may absolve him even though he merely indicates by some sign his desire for confession.” p. 398
(Moral Theology, by Rev. HERIBERT JONE, O.F.M. CAP., J.C.D., by Rev. URBAN ADELMAN, O.F.M. CAP., J.C.D., THE MERCIER PRESS LIMITED, CORK, IRELAND, Nihil Obstat: PIUS KAELIN, O.F.M. CAP, Censor Deputatus, Imprimi Potest: VICTOR GREEN, O.F.M. CAP., Provincial, July 2, 1955, Nihil Obstat: RICHARD GINDER, S.T.I., Censor Librorum, Imprimatur: JOHN FRANCIS DEARDEN, D.D., Bishop of Pittsburg, August 15, 1955, Printed in the United states of America, pp. 391, 395, 398)
A manual of Moral Theology
by Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J.:
"CONTRITION is the first of the acts of the penitent which constitute the matter of the sacrament of Penance. It is defined by the Council of Trent to be a heartfelt sorrow and detestation of sin committed; with a purpose of not sinning again." p. 154
"Contrition or penitence or repentance is, as we have already seen, according to the teaching of the Council of Trent, a necessary condition for the forgiveness of sin by God. God will not forgive sin unless the sinner turn from his sin and approach Him by sorrow of heart. Contrition, then, is a necessary means of salvation for all who have fallen into grievous sin. It is also matter of divine precept which must be fulfilled at least when the sinner is in danger of death, for then it becomes of supreme necessity, and also sometimes during life. The Church has determined this divine precept by commanding all who have come to the use of reason and have fallen into sin to go to confession at least once a year. Moreover, repentance for sin becomes necessary when any action has to be performed which for its due performance requires the agent to be in the state of grace." p. 155
“…confession must be made by word of mouth according to the practice of the Church and the teaching of the Council of Florence. 2 (2 Decreto pro Armenis) However, oral confession is not absolutely necessary for the validity of the sacrament, for mutes or penitents who know no language known also to the confessor, or those who are dying and are unable to speak, may confess by signs. Moreover, for good reason, any one may write his confession, hand it to the priest to read, and accuse himself in general terms, such as "I confess all that is written there." Although mutes and other penitents may thus confess in writing, yet there is no obligation to do so, for sacramental confession should be secret and auricular, whereas writing makes it to some extent public, litera scripta manei.
Clement VIII, by a decree dated June 20, 1602, condemned the opinion that it is lawful to confess by letter to an absent priest or to receive absolution in the same way from an absent priest, and forbade the opinion ever to be put in practice; whence theologians conclude that such confession or absolution would be invalid by divine law, else the Pope could not have condemned it in such absolute terms. It seems to follow that confession by telephone would also be invalid, for confession would be made by one who is absent, not present with the priest at the time of receiving this sacrament, as is required by the conditions of its valid administration.” pp. 163-164
(A manual of Moral Theology for English-speaking countries, By Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J., VOLUME II, THIRD EDITION, NEW YORK, CINCINNATI, CHICAGO, BENZIGER BROTHERS, Permissu Superiorum, R. SYKES, S.J., Praep. Prov. Anglicae, Permissu Superiorum, R. J. MEYER, S.J., Praep. Prov. Missourianae, Nihil Obstat, REMY LAFORT, Censor Librorum, Imprimatur, +JOHN M. FARLEY, Archbishop of New York, New York, September 19, 1908, pp. 154, 155, 163-164)
A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology:
XXIV. CONFESSION BY TELEPHONE?
Case. A certain priest, by name Paul, had brought into play all manner of artifice that might secure him an entrance into the house of a Freemason, whose wife, Mary, lay grievously ill, but all in vain. He was on the point of despairing when he discovered that the house was equipped with a telephone. Through the assistance of a servant in the house, Paul was enabled to obtain communication with the sick woman, and, having heard her confession over the "phone" gave her conditional absolution.
Now the question arises: Did Paul act prudently? Our answer is in the negative, and for the reasons we will now set forth.
Solution. Before all else, the penitent must be truly present to the confessor, for an absent person can never be absolved. This we know, in the first place, from the condemnation made by Pope Clement VIII of the following proposition: "Licet per litteras seu internuntium confessario absenti peccata sacramentaliter confiteri et ab eodem absente absolutionem obtinere." And Pope Paul V, approving of Clement's action, declared the condemnation to extend to both members of the proposition, even separately considered. Secondly, we know this from the Council of Trent, where, speaking of the nature of the Sacrament of Penance, it is said: "Christum ita instituisse hoc sacramentum, ut poenitentes voluerit anto hoc tribunal tamquam reos sisti, et per sacerdotum sententiam a peccatis liberari." These words call for no more and no less than the presence of a criminal before a judge.
The penitent, then, must be present to the confessor. But how? Morally or physically? Theologians are our guides in this matter, and in this they are sure guides, seeing that they all agree in demanding a moral presence. What, then, we may inquire, is moral presence? These same theologians tell us, definitely or satisfactorily enough we do not say, that men are morally present to one another when they can speak with the ordinary voice (voce communi), though pitched in a higher key. Again we find some who extend this presence to twenty paces. The limit, however, is reached by those theologians who hold that the required moral presence is had if the confessor sees or by any one sense perceives the penitent, and this in the natural or human way. We now conclude that the presence required for valid absolution is had only when the confessor can perceive the penitent at least by one sense, and in the natural way, i. e., aided only by nature, e. g., the sun, air, etc.
Indefinite as this notion of moral presence may be, we will now apply it to the case in hand. At the very outset, we can say that if this presence is had, it is only by means of the telephone. Through no other medium can Mary, lying ill in her home, be said to be present, either physically or morally, to Paul, who is now in the telephone station. Our question, then, concerns itself only with this circumstance of communication. Assuredly, this communication does not take away the distance, nor does it render those present to each other who are, de facto, at a distance, for at most it is but an efficacious medium of communication between absent persons. This is no new doctrine, for if we ask the general opinion of prudent men on this matter we will receive the same verdict that the telephone does not create presence, but is only a means of communicating with an absent person. From the mere fact, then, of two persons being in communication it does not follow that they are present to each other, as can easily be seen in the case of communication had through a messenger, or again, by means of a letter.
For fear this notion of moral presence may be, as yet, too indefinite or abstract, we will now take a concrete example of it to be had, we think, in the case of hearing Mass. To fulfil our obligation of hearing Mass we must at least be morally present, so that we would be reckoned among the number of those assisting at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. Could this be had through the telephone? Is it likely that anyone would admit that a person could hear Mass over the "phone"? Assuredly not. And why? Because the telephone does not supply moral presence. Still St. Alphonsus says: "Praesentia pro absolutione majorem propinquitatem requirit quam pro audienda missa." With this saying before us we can reasonably hold that the moral presence, required by the theologians, demands, if we may be permitted the expression, a local nearness, and we likewise contend that one would change the meaning of the words in affirming that Paul and Mary were truly present to each other.
Our next endeavor will be to discover the mind of Jesus Christ anent this matter - the presence required for a valid absolution. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ instituted seven Means of Grace, called sacraments. These seven sacraments, we might do well to note here, are separate entities instituted, each and every one of them, for a different purpose. A sacrament is a sign - an efficacious sign of grace. A sign is made up of two elements - the thing to be signified or symbolized, i. e., the idea of Christ, and the symbol or rite, which in turn is composed of two elements one real or sensible, called matter, and the other verbal, called the form. Of the seven sacraments two were instituted in specie, i. e., Christ not only gave the Church the idea to be symbolized, but also the matter and form which constitute the symbol. The other five Christ instituted in genere, i. e., He gave the Church the idea to be symbolized, and left her free to choose apt instruments to signify the idea. The Sacrament of Penance was instituted in genere.
The Council of Trent tells us that the Church cannot change, in fact, can do nothing regarding the substance of the sacraments, i. e., the idea Christ had in instituting them. If, then, our notion of moral presence is included in the idea of Christ, which is the substance of the sacrament, the Church can not change it one jot or tittle. If, on the other hand, it is contained in the symbol, the Church can, at her discretion and according to the needs of the time, change it. But, de facto, she has, up to this, in no way modified it. What we must do, then, is to discover the mind of Christ - His idea in this matter.
We find nothing concerning it in the teaching of Christ, and, moreover, the Church, in her teaching, has not a word. We must go to the theologians and the practice of the Church for a solution. All theologians teach that Christ instituted penance for the remission of all sins committed after baptism that this was His idea. But what we are especially concerned about is the symbol or rite regarding the determination of which the Church, we admit, was allowed a certain amount of latitude an apt symbol, one that would clearly represent Christ's idea, made up of two elements, which theologians for convenience s sake have analogically called matter and form. As we have already stated, each of the sacraments has a symbol or rite in which these two elements may be distinguished. That same connection must be had between the matter and form of each symbol, all will admit, and that this connection may be different for different sacraments, is demanded by the fact that the sacraments, notwithstanding a certain more or less artificial uniformity, belong to disparate categories of things. What connection, then, does the Sacrament of Penance require between its matter and form? What presence is demanded to exist between the penitent supplying the matter and the confessor pronouncing the words of the form? In a word, according to the mind or idea of our Saviour, what presence must exist between Mary, confessing her sins, and Paul, giving her absolution? For an answer to this question we must betake ourselves to the theologians and the practice of the Church.
The theologians have always taught that the penitent should present himself before the confessor as does the criminal before the judge. They have always demanded, for the validity of the absolution, that the penitent be present to the confessor so that the words of the form, pronounced in the ordinary way, should fall upon the penitent in like manner. This the Church also has always demanded, and as we see from her practice, has always obtained. This, then, is the idea of Christ which demands this presence for the validity of the absolution. But this presence is certainly not had through the telephone, as all theologians admit, and no necessity, no matter how great, can supply it, though some theologians, by a queer process of reasoning, come to this conclusion.
The case of these latter theologians would not be altogether hopeless, but would have some probability in its favor, if the human voice was heard through the telephone, for, then, there would be a slight probability of the telephone creating moral presence. In this matter we must have recourse to science. What does she say? Her verdict is that we do not hear the human voice, but only a physical reproduction, or rather, a physical effect of the voice. After a long struggle we may get her to admit that perhaps the human voice is heard, but more than this is required to produce a slight probability of moral presence, for a slight probability is a true probability, and, consequently, demands one good, solid motive. A slight probability is so called not because it has for its foundation a slight motive, but because it is of a lower grade of a true probability. We hold, then, that a slight probability is not had in this case, and still a slight probability is necessary, even in a case of extreme necessity, for the licit administration of the sacraments.
Because of these reasons we conclude that the presence, necessary for the validity of the absolution, is not obtained through the means of communication called the telephone, and consequently that Paul, in this case, acted imprudently.
(THE CASUIST, A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology, New York, Joseph F. Wagner, 1906, Nihil Obstat: REMIGIUS LAFORT, S.T.L., Censor Librorum, Imprimatur: JOHN M. FARLEY, D.D., Archbishop of New York, NEW YORK, October 2, 1906, Volume I, pp. 94-99)
A CATHOLIC DICTIONARY
BY FR. WILLIAM E. ADDIS and THOMAS ARNOLD:
Lastly, the form of absolution must be uttered by the priest himself in the presence of the person absolved. This follows as a necessary consequence from the nature of the form of absolution sanctioned by the perpetual tradition of the Church; for the very words, "I absolve thee" imply the presence of the penitent.
(A CATHOLIC DICTIONARY CONTAINING SOME ACCOUNT OF THE DOCTRINE, DISCIPLINE, RITES, CEREMONIES, COUNCILS, AND RELIGIOUS ORDERS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, BY WILLIAM E. ADDIS SECULAR PRIEST: SOMETIME FELLOW OP THE ROYAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND, AND THOMAS ARNOLD, M.A. FELLOW OF THE SAME UNIVERSITY, SIXTH EDITION, WITH ADDITIONS, NEW YORK, THE CATHOLIC PUBLICATION SOCIETY CO., 9 BARCLAY STREET, 1887, NlHIL OBSTAT. EDUARDUS S. KEOGH, CONG. ORAT., CENSOR DEPUTATUS, IMPRIMATUR. HENRICUS EDUARDUS, CARD. ARCHIEP. WESTMONAST., Die 18 Dec., 1883, IMPRIMATUR. JOHN CARD. McCLOSKEY, ARCHBISHOP OF NEW YORK, Feb. 14, 1884, p. 6)
THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIC DICTIONARY
BY Donald Attwater:
The forms of absolution (q.v.) are various; the words must be pronounced in the presence of the person to be absolved: thus valid absolution cannot be given, e.g., by telephone.
(THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIC DICTIONARY, EDITED BY Donald Attwater, SECOND EDITION REVISED, CASSELL AND COMPANY, LTD. LONDON, TORONTO, MELBOURNE, SYDNEY, AND WELLINGTON, 1951, Nihil Obstat: Georgius D. Smith, S.T.D., PH.D., Censor deputatus., Imprimatur: E. Morrogh Bernard. Vic. gen., Westmonasterii, die 10 Maii, 1946, FIRST PUBLISHED, 1931, REPRINTED 1939, 1941. SECOND EDITION, REVISED, 1949, p. 3)
CASES OF CONSCIENCE
BY REV. THOMAS SLATER, S.J.:
On being asked whether it is lawful to give absolution by telephone in a case of extreme necessity, the Sacred Penitentiary answered, 1 July 1884: "Nihil est respondendum.”
(CASES OF CONSCIENCE FOR ENGLISH-SPEAKING COUNTRIES, BY REV. THOMAS SLATER, S.J., VOLUME II, NEW YORK, CINCINNATI, CHICAGO, BENZIGER BROTHERS, 1912, Permissu Superiorum: JOSEPH BROWNE, S.J., Praep. Prov. Anglicae, Nihil Obstat: REMY LAFORT, Censor Librorum, Imprimatur: +JOHN CARDINAL FARLEY, Archbishop of New York, NEW YORK, September 5, 1911, p. 185)