Due to coronavirus restrictions, the Vatican issued a dispensation temporarily dispensing with the need for meeting with a priest to confess sins.

A Vatican tribunal issued a notice last week stating that due to the pandemic, Catholics need not meet with a priest to be given absolution for their sins.

“This Apostolic Penitentiary holds that, especially in places most impacted by the pandemic contagion and until the phenomenon subsides, there are cases of grave necessity” meeting the criteria for general absolution, the notice about confession said.

The Apostolic Penitentiary, is chiefly a tribunal of mercy, responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church.

The decision of what constitutes ‘grave necessity’ will be left up to the local bishop. 

“Taking into account the supreme good of the salvation of souls” and the level of contagion in his diocese, the local bishop must determine “the cases of grave necessity in which it is licit to impart collective absolution: for example, at the entrance to hospital wards where faithful in danger of death are hospitalized, using — within the limits of what is possible and with appropriate precautions — means for amplifying the voice so that the absolution is heard” by the patients.

“If the unforeseen necessity arises to grant sacramental absolution to several faithful at the same time, the priest is obliged to forewarn the diocesan bishop as far as possible and, if it is not, to inform him as soon as possible afterward,” the decree said.

The decree also required bishops to inform parishioners and priests about the special measures that must be taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These measures include  the need for confession to take place in a well-aired space and not the normal confessional, the adoption of an appropriate distance between priest and penitent and the use of face masks. 

In an address at a Mass at the Vatican last week, the Pope advised that people unable to go to a priest due to pandemic restrictions should pray for forgiveness instead.

You do what the Catechism says,” he stated. “It is very clear: if you do not find a priest to hear your confession, speak to God, he is your father, and tell him the truth.”

Enumerate your sins, ask the Lord for forgiveness with all your heart, and make an act of contrition, the pope explained. “Promise him: ‘Later I will confess, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to the grace of God.”

It should be noted that the rejection of confession to a priest was a major reason for Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, to break with the Catholic Church and for his subsequent excommunication from the Catholic Church.

The founders of the Protestant Reformation accused the Roman Catholic Church of using the confessional as a means to control the masses. The Reformers contended that it is unnecessary to confess sin through a human intermediary in order to receive forgiveness from or have access to God.

Judaism, of course, has a concept of tshuva (repentance) that does not include confession but is centered around prayer and fixing what was harmed while not commiting the sin again.