Q. I am an old-time Catholic. We were taught that, to be forgiven in Confession, we had to: 1) be truly sorry; 2) resolve firmly never to commit the sin again; and 3) make it right (e.g., give the money back, tell people that the gossip was a lie, etc.).

On television and in the movies, sometimes a murderer confesses to a priest who is unable then to break the seal of Confession. My question is this: Are murderers forgiven if they do not turn themselves into the police and serve prison time for the crime? Or is the sin forgiven with no strings attached?

A. With regard to the conditions for forgiveness, you learned your catechism well. In fact, the present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries)" (No. 1459).

You are right, too, about the seal of Confession; a priest is bound to absolute secrecy. The Church’s Code of Canon Law could not be more clear: "The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason" (Canon 983).

A later canon stipulates that a priest who would violate the seal is to be excommunicated (Canon 1388). (In 2017, when an Australian government commission recommended that Catholic priests become mandatory reporters on child sexual abuse, the Catholic Church strongly objected as applied to the Sacrament of Penance.)

As to your specific question, forgiveness in the sacrament is contingent on a person’s genuine sorrow and sincere resolve not to commit the sin again; those are the "strings attached." Beyond that, a priest has no power to condition absolution on the sinner’s turning himself in to the police.

The confessor can encourage, plead with, urge the penitent to do exactly that – he might even offer to accompany the penitent to the police station – but having judged the penitent to be truly sorry, the absolving priest has no authority to impose this further step as a prerequisite to absolution.

Q. Is Catholic Confession available online? This would be so convenient.

A. Certainly at this time, there is no provision in the Church’s sacramental practice for online Confession and absolution. Implicit in the Church’s Code of Canon Law (Canon 959 ff.) is the notion that the penitent is in the personal presence of the confessor.

In fact, in 2011, when the Vatican gave qualified support to a new app designed to help people examine their consciences, then-Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was careful to tell reporters, "It is essential to understand well the sacrament of penitence requires the personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and the absolution by the confessor."

"This cannot in any way be substituted by a technology application. One cannot talk in any way about ‘a Confession via iPhone,'" he said.

The sacrament of penance is designed to be, for the penitent, an encounter with Jesus Christ through the person of the priest. It is difficult for me to see how the Internet would permit that close personal contact with the Lord. The additional concern I would have is for the privacy that is so integral to the sacrament of penance, the danger that an Internet Confession could be recorded or hacked.

Having said this, I do not think that the physical presence of the absolving priest is necessarily by divine mandate; so online Confession could conceivably be permitted by the Church sometime in the distant future, provided that the privacy concerns could be addressed – but I wouldn’t wait for that to happen before confessing my sins!

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at [email protected] and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.