Coronavirus Clarity on Confession Suspension: A Primer for Pastors

COMMENTARY: The clarity around confessions has not matched the clarity about the Holy Mass.

Stained glass image of penitent on a Catholic church in Belgium.
Stained glass image of penitent on a Catholic church in Belgium. (photo: Shutterstock)

Many dioceses are “suspending” the sacrament of confession. As the permission of the bishop is required for the validity of absolution, it is necessary to clarify that even when “suspended” confessions remain valid.

Yet priests are still in need of pastoral guidance. And the guidance that the sacrament is to be entirely suspended creates some confusion for them and the faithful.

It is an issue of some urgency, as many priests report that — where confessions are available — there is an uptick in penitents, including those who have not confessed for many years. That is to be expected in spiritually intense times; the same happened after 9/11 and the death of St. John Paul II, the 15th anniversary of which was yesterday, April 2.

Several clarifications are in order to avoid confusion.


Cancelling Confessions

While some dioceses are permitting confessions to be heard if social distancing and privacy are ensured — both parties outdoors, through a window, “drive-through” — others are opting to cancel confessions altogether.

For example, in Los Angeles “priests may offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation only in danger of death or extremely extraordinary situations. … There are no confessions by telephone, electronic means, or by ‘driveup.’”

In Baltimore, “the archbishop has instructed priests not to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation in parishes and to only perform the sacraments in cases where the individual is in danger of dying.”

There are many similar directives elsewhere.


Clarity in Communications

The clarity around confessions has not matched the clarity about the Holy Mass. When bishops suspended the public participation at Mass, it was made universally clear that the worship and prayer of the Church would continue. Mass would still be said privately. As more Masses were live-streamed, guidelines further clarified that technicians, readers, servers and musicians could be present. Such Masses were thus public Masses, albeit with very small congregations.

Similarly, the sacrament of confession continues, though in reduced and altered circumstances. Like private Masses, it is to be assumed that priests who live or work with other priests are still going to confession; surely the bishop has not stopped seeing his own confessor, if safely available.

Thus the sacrament of mercy continues. It should be noted that Pope Francis, despite the pandemic lockdown in Italy, asked that his initiative “24 Hours for the Lord” — a Lenten period of adoration and confession, somehow continue, if only in a symbolic way.

Independent of Pope Francis, the highest law of the Church recognizes that confessions are never suspended. Upon the death or abdication of a pope, all heads of Vatican departments lose their positions. The sole exception is the Apostolic Penitentiary — the Church’s supervisor of confessions, as it were. He alone continues in office to ensure that the mercy of the confessional is not impeded.


Special Circumstances?

Still, the language of “suspension” or “cancellation” could create confusion among priests faced with quite ordinary situations. Consider three examples.

  • After live-streaming the Palm Sunday Mass, the camera operator, from a safe distance, tells the priest that she was deeply moved to hear of Peter’s tears of repentance in the Passion according to St. Matthew. It prompted her to remember the times she had denied that she was a Catholic to her colleagues, or even hid that she was going to Mass from her friends. She would thus like to go to confession. Given that they are alone in a big church, it is easy to hear that confession with proper distancing and privacy.
  • A pastor discovers the parish website is malfunctioning, making it impossible for parishioners to make their Sunday offerings online. The office is closed, so he calls a local IT company and it sends over a technician to fix the problem. When the technician arrives, he tells the priest — from a safe distance, properly sanitized — that last week his grandmother died from the coronavirus and there was no funeral. The event profoundly affected him, and he resolved that, after a 30-year absence, he should go back to confession — if only he could find a priest. And now Providence granted him this service call, where it is just him and the priest in an empty office.
  • A pastor gets a call at the rectory. It’s from a 72-year-old nurse, long retired. She has decided to go back to work to help out the overwhelmed local hospital. A faithful Catholic, she was greatly encouraged by the bishop’s letter praising health care workers and encouraging parishes to do whatever they could to support them. She would like to go to confession before she reports for work, in case she gets the virus and has to be quarantined. Could the pastor find a way to hear her confession safely, perhaps in the vacant parking lot if she stays in her car?

In all three cases, no bishop could possibly intend that that confession should not be heard. But the language of some directives might give that impression.


Perfect Act of Contrition

The availability of the sacrament is of utmost importance, perhaps even of more importance than Holy Communion for those in a state of mortal sin. Sacramental confession is the only way that such penitents can be confidently returned to a state of grace.

It is true that, if it is not possible to get to confession, a private act of “perfect contrition” is sufficient for the forgiveness of mortal (grave) sins, if it includes the intention to get to confession as soon as is possible.

However, it is difficult to make an act of “perfect contrition.”

Contrition itself if easy to have; it’s “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1451).

“Imperfect contrition” is what we have when we are sorry because we are repulsed by the “sin’s ugliness” or out of “the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner” (1453). Such imperfect contrition suffices for the forgiveness of venial sins.

“Perfect contrition” is motivated solely “from a love by which God is loved above all else” (1452). That means that contrition arises from love of God alone, and the sorrow of offending him, and not from fear of consequences, temporal or eternal.

If I am sorry for having gossiped and passed along damaging rumors because it damaged someone’s reputation —that is imperfect contrition. If I am principally sorry because it offends God, that is perfect contrition.

Perfect contrition does not replace confession, but is an emergency measure, difficult to obtain, until confession is available again. Given the difficulty of making an act of perfect contrition, pastoral charity desires to give those conscious of mortal sin some opportunity for sacramental confession.


Plenary Indulgences

During the pandemic, the Holy See has made available a special plenary indulgence for those suffering from the virus and others affected. Some dioceses have instructed pastors to make this known in the context of the restrictions on the sacrament on confession. For example, in Raleigh, North Carolina:

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is to be suspended except for those in danger of death. All other means of providing the Sacrament should cease. In particular, the practice being observed of “stational penance” via automobile “drive throughs,” etc., should be discontinued. In addition, it needs to be noted and communicated that an indulgence has been offered by the Holy See. Please educate your parishioners on this important measure provided to you and to them during this time.

Indulgences are important, but relate only to the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. When we sin we are guilty of the sin and the sin causes bad effects that have to be repaid in justice. The guilt of grave sin is forgiven in confession. The effects are repaid through “temporal punishment”: penance and suffering in this life, punishment in purgatory after death.

Indulgences do not forgive sins. Thus they do not address the question of forgiveness of sins and the sacrament of confession.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.