In this very publication last week Quentin de la Bédoyère made the jocular suggestion that in the future, as artificial intelligence progresses, Catholics could have an app on smartphones to assess the gravity of sins, indicate penances and, after the firm purpose of amendment box is ticked, give us absolution. Such a thing is impossible for more than one reason.
First, the process of Confession and absolution is deeply personal, in the sense that it involves persons. The person to whom you confess your sins is the Just Judge, Jesus our Saviour, in the person of the priest, who by the Sacrament of Orders is alter Christus, another Christ, who acts in persona Christi, in Christ’s person. No gizmo can replace that personal intermediary. Confession is personal.
Confession cannot be mediated by non-persons or instruments without the personal, real presence of the priest who absolves. For example, in 1602 Pope Clement VIII, of happy memory, condemned absolution in writing. In other words, Father cannot absolve you through a letter posted from afar. People who haven’t the use of their voices can write down their sins which the priest can then read. But Father must be there with you to absolve those sins. That means it is also impossible for a confessor to absolve you over artificial means such as the phone or through the internet. He can, however, use a microphone to amplify his voice if you are hard of hearing. That’s not the same as extending his voice by telephone or over the internet to another location altogether.
As a 2002 document from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications stated: “There are no sacraments on the internet.” The priest must be present, at least morally: he must be reasonably proximate. If you are drowning in the London sewers’ recently discovered “fatberg”, you can be validly absolved by Father, who might be shouting from some distance down the hole into which you plunged.
So, the next time someone asks, “Can I go to Confession online?”, the answer is “Sure you can! You just can’t receive valid absolution.” You can opt to use an app to help with your examination of conscience, but Confession must be present and personal.
Also, please consider occasionally turning your phone off. Leave “my preciousssss” at home or in your car, especially when you go to Mass or Confession.
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