Question: In today’s digital world, do we really need to be face-to-face with a priest to confess our sins? Would Facetime or Zoom ever be allowed?
Answer: The question of whether or not Catholics can celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation virtually (via social media, by phone, or in some other way) is a question that has actually been around for several years. The recent COVID-19 pandemic brought the question back in a new way, especially as many parishes were forced to introduce a sort of “social distanced” confession, with the sacrament being celebrated outdoors. In reflecting on this question, however, there are a couple points that we want to keep in mind.
First, as the Code of Canon Law observes in different places, the faithful have a right to the sacraments of the Church and the Church’s
ministers have a responsibility to make them accessible. At the same time, however, we always have to be sure that we respect the nature of the sacraments themselves. Although modern forms of technology and communication can help us in our work of evangelization catechesis, the Pontifical Council for Social Communication has reminded us that, “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” (The Church and the Internet, no. 9). Although our encounters with others on the internet and via social media can be considered “real” in one sense, in the sacraments we encounter Christ in a personal and ecclesial way. It is never just a private experience but is always grounded in the life of the Church and this means that it must truly be personal, including the contact between the confessor and the penitent. While the convenience or ease of online celebrations might be appealing for many reasons, at heart, we always want to keep in mind the fullness of the Church’s tradition and the meaning of the sacraments.