Confession by phone?

I just read Christopher Buckley’s novel Wet Work & there is a scene where a man who is about to be murdered begs for a priest. The murderer calls a rectory so his victim can make his rather lengthy confession. The detective who catches the murder finds the priest who tells him about the phone call (not the contents, of course) and adds that of course it was invalid.

Is that true, and why? If the penitent made a full, sincere confession (apparently so) and the priest gave absolution (he did) how would the sacrament be invalid?

I know this is fiction, but I can imagine extraordinary real-life situations where someone might know they were about to die and have a cell phone. I am NOT suggesting that the Church should start confession hotlines.

I believe this wouldn’t be possible, as the personal contact between confessor and uh… poenitent??? is considered necessary for the sacrament.

If someon eis in the danger of dying and there is no priest available, it should do it if he repents from all his sins and trusts on the mery of the Lord.

Just as was said in the novel, it would be invalid. I believe a similar question was answered in the “Ask an Apologist” section of the forums, although I don’t remember the full reasoning.

In a bizarre situation like that, all one can do is make an act of Perfect Contrition (i.e. sorry primarily because he/she offended God, not just out of fear of Hell) and, if they do escape from danger, follow through by going to confession.

A Confession and absolution cannot be done by phone, internet, email etc. It MUST be done in person with a priest (face to face or behind the screen).

This question was asked soon after the invention of the telephone, and the Holy See stated that a telephoned confession is invalid. Similarly you can’t get married by exchanging marriage vows over the phone. All sacraments require the person administering the sacrament to be physically present with the person who is receiving it. By extension the same principle also prevents sacraments being administered via fax, email, etc.; and you can’t satisfy your Sunday Mass obligation by watching a Mass on TV.

It is what is called “proximity” in human presence in order for something to be truly sacramental in nature. Means which allow us to communicate but without this proximity don’t truly unite people in a personal manner quite the same. Now, that isn’t to say it is not so that God can do all things. Perhaps, in a crisis emergency situation, somehow this would still “take” by the grace of the Lord. But it is not something which we can count on ordinarily.

If I were about to die, I am hoping that the good Lord would see my “problem” and grant forgiveness.

Tractatus Canonico-Moralis de Sacramentis by Felix Cappello addresses the question of whether absolution given by telephone is valid (Vol 2. Fourth edition. De Poenitentia, p. 70).

It says (My translation):

The Sacred Penitentiary was asked “whether in case of extreme necessity, absolution can be given by telephone,” on 1 July, 1884 it responded: “No answer is given.”

The opinion, which holds that the absolution is invalid, seems to some certain or in any case very probable.

He then goes on to explain that it is an artificial mode of speaking with another and that thus it is not the human voice which is transmitted but that a new sound is produced on the other end by interpreting electronic signals. He also explains that it lacks the necessary presence since the person on the other end is not in fact present but absent.

Fr. Mitch Pacwa answers this question in his book Go in Peace (written with Sean Brown). He says the reason is that the telephone isn’t a secure medium and the seal of confession would be jeopardized. Someone could deliberately or accidentally tap into the call. The same is true of the Internet - email or im. Also it’s not possible to be certain the priest or the penitent is who they claim to be.

I find those reaons to be a bit specious. Someone could stand outside the confessional and “listen in” if they really wanted to. A priest behind a screen might not know the true identity of the one confessing.

And yet, “general absolution” whereby the penitent doesn’t even confess their sins IS valid, just because the penitent is in the presence of a priest? Or maybe parish priests have stopped that questionable practice that was so popular in the 70’s and 80’s (wow…you mean I can be absolved of sins without having to go to confession? sign me up!) I seem to recall one conservative priest giving a strong caveat that general absolution didn’t eliminate the need for a full in-person confession (in the confessional as he didn’t believe in “fireside chats”). I don’t think many people listened to him, though.


Doesn’t a general absolution require immediate danger of death, or something to that effect? I read somewhere on this site that there were 2 priests who gave a general absolution to those ppl trapped in the WTC. It seems that those priests had about as much proximity to their “penitents” as the fictional priest had to his, eh?

Yes it does require immediate danger of death, but there was something of a tendency a while back for certain priests to give General Absolution at other times as well (which was and is an abuse of the Sacrament).

And as for physical proximity - the priests were at least INSIDE the towers IIRC, in other words in the same building as the recepients.

Which is all you are when you are at Mass as well. If you ever see the size of St Peter’s or some of the other great Cathedrals, you’ll realise it’s not such a big stretch to thinking a priest on one level of the WTC can administer Absolution to people on another.

For the record on general absolution.

From The Code of Canon Law:

Can. 960 Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the only ordinary means by which a member of the faithful conscious of grave sin is reconciled with God and the Church. Only physical or moral impossibility excuses from confession of this type; in such a case reconciliation can be obtained by other means.
Can. 961 §1. Absolution cannot be imparted in a general manner to many penitents at once without previous individual confession unless:

1/ danger of death is imminent and there is insufficient time for the priest or priests to hear the confessions of the individual penitents;

2/ there is grave necessity, that is, when in view of the number of penitents, there are not enough confessors available to hear the confessions of individuals properly within a suitable period of time in such a way that the penitents are forced to be deprived for a long while of sacramental grace or holy communion through no fault of their own. Sufficient necessity is not considered to exist when confessors cannot be present due only to the large number of penitents such as can occur on some great feast or pilgrimage.

§2. It belongs to the diocesan bishop to judge whether the conditions required according to the norm of §1, n. 2 are present. He can determine the cases of such necessity, attentive to the criteria agreed upon with the other members of the conference of bishops.

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