Q. What is the rule in Church law about hearing confessions? Can they be heard over the phone? Does it have to be in person? What about by Skype? Can these technologies be used?
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
Just as you cannot receive holy Communion, confirmation, baptism, anointing of the sick, etc., over the phone, the Internet, or Skype, you cannot go to confession over the phone, and not just because the NSA might be listening in, but because a sacrament is to be given and received personally.
While I cannot find a specific prohibition of going to confession over the phone or the Internet, the following citations can help in this regard.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “The proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or oratory. . . .
“Confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause” (Canon 964).
Additionally, in 2002, the Pontifical Council for Social Communication published the following statement in “The Church and the Internet”:
“Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith” (No. 9).
I applaud your desire to facilitate the practice of confession, but though there is a mobile app for the Pope (Pope App), I don’t think we’ll ever see a mobile app for confession. Rather, as Pope Francis is demonstrating by his own action, priests need to facilitate the Sacrament of Penance by being more available for the faithful, and not just one hour before Mass on Saturdays. For this reason, the Pope has asked cardinals and bishops working in the Vatican to go out to the local parishes to hear confessions for some hours every week, especially on weekdays at convenient times for the faithful. I think it’s wonderful that the Holy See recently clarified that confessions can be heard while Mass is going on. If a parish has two priests, one can celebrate the Sunday Mass while the other hears confessions. If you want to catch the fish, you have to go where the fish are. No better time to offer confession than when the parishioners are in the pews for Sunday Mass.