March 27, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Catholic shepherds, among them a cardinal and a growing number of bishops, are banning the sacrament of confession as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the diocese of Newark stated in a March 25 directive that “the Sacrament of Reconciliation is suspended until further notice with the exception of an extreme emergency.”
Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ontario, Canada, stated in a March 17 directive that “all Confessions are cancelled, except in the case of danger of death.” He elaborated in a March 20 statement that “‘Drive-thru’ confessionals are simply not acceptable.”
Archbishop Charles Thompson of Indianapolis also stated in a March 24 directive that “individual confession should be postponed unless it is requested by one who is in imminent danger of death,” adding that “for all others, they are to be asked to rely on perfect contrition.”
Catholics hold that the priest has the power to forgive all sins, acting as God’s instrument of mercy. Confession is integral to Christian life since it cleanses one from deadly sins that would otherwise cut one off from God and the Kingdom of heaven.
For bishops to suspend confession on the presumption that Catholics in grave sin can achieve perfect contrition is to jeopardize the salvation of the souls under their care, says Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, a Catholic philosopher and author.
“It is obvious that the archbishop, however well-intentioned he may be, does not understand the Catholic theology of the sacrament of penance, or the solemn obligation of the priest to hear confessions of the faithful who are in mortal sin and therefore in danger of damnation,” he told LifeSiteNews, in reference to Thompson’s statement.
“Although we know that an act of perfect contrition is possible and we should strive to have such contrition, the Church also clearly teaches that the individual cannot know (and cannot presume to think) that he has made an act of perfect contrition sufficient for the forgiveness of his sins,” added Kwasniewski.
“In fact, this is the very reason the sacrament of penance was instituted: to give us the Lord's forgiveness — a ‘second plank after shipwreck’ — and the knowledge of that forgiveness, with certainty. Therefore any faithful who has the burden of grave sin on his conscience must confess his sins in kind and number, and every priest who has faculties for confession must hear such a confession.”
That was echoed by Dr. Joseph Shaw, chair of the U.K. Latin Mass Society, and Oxford professor of philosophy.
“The needs of the seriously ill clearly need to be prioritised, and the health of priests also needs to be protected as much as possible, otherwise they will not be able to continue to administer the sacraments to anyone,” Shaw told LifeSiteNews in an email.
“Nevertheless it must be kept in mind that acts of perfect contrition can only be a partial substitute for individual confession of sins. Most importantly sacramental confession and absolution will take away your sins even if your contrition is ‘imperfect’. This gives the penitent a much more complete confidence that his sins have been remitted,” he said.
“Furthermore, after an act of perfect contrition we retain an obligation to take mortal sins to Confession, so acts of perfect contrition are only a temporary solution,” added Shaw.
It is “of great importance that habits of making individual confession not be undermined,” he noted.
“It would be good to see dioceses such as this one develop and encourage creative ways of making the Sacrament of Penance available while observing all due precautions. The 'drive-thru' method which has been reported seems promising for example,” he said.
Bishops “should be at the forefront of thinking about such approaches, and not limit themselves to ordering greater and greater restrictions, even if these are necessary.”
Shaw observed that there is a “distinction between ‘danger of death’ (periculum mortis) and ‘articulum mortis’, which is ‘at the point of death’” and that the latter is “intended to be a much wider category.”
Therefore, such directives are “not necessarily limiting the hearing of confessions to people in their last hours,” he noted.
Last week, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas begged priests around the world to do what they can to administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation to repentant sinners.
“Catholic priests of the world…make yourselves available for Confession observing social distancing & all precautions,” the bishop wrote on Twitter.
“This MUST be done. It is tragic that many cannot receive Communion but hear their Confessions SOMEHOW & their souls will be ready to receive Him when possible.”
Meanwhile, the Vatican issued a document March 20 that discusses the circumstances under which a bishop could grant general absolution as a response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The document also noted that bishops are responsible for ensuring both priests and penitents observe prudent safeguards, such as holding the confessions in a ventilated place outside the confessional, “the adoption of fitting distance, the recourse to protective masks … while safeguarding the sacramental seal [of Confession] and the necessary discretion.”