Can We Confess Over Zoom?

So I’ve been reading some stuff by the Catholics lately. Apparently the pandemic is making them debate whether or not they should do confession via Zoom – it’s a whole big thing that they’re arguing over, and I’m very late to finding out about it, and I’m fascinated. The theological arguments are extremely interesting. I should say at the outset here – I’m not Catholic, I’m a filthy Pentecostal – so I’m religious, but not part of this particular tradition. I also don’t think that much of theological arguments. That is, I don’t think that abstract theological reasoning is what tips the balance with this sort of thing – I lean much more towards sociological or cultural factors in explaining how and why religious developments happen. That is, if the Catholics do start doing Zoom confessions, it won’t be because one guy came out with some staggeringly brilliant piece of theological argumentation. It’ll be that enough people wanted it, and eventually it filtered up through the calcified hierarchy at the Vatican. The culture will change, and the arguments will fall in line.

Anyway, with those disclaimers about my terrible method and starting position, I want to look at two separate articles which discuss pandemic sacraments. Both of them deploy the same basic set of arguments, and both of them demonstrate quite a poor conceptual understanding of digital technology – which is kinda what first caught my eye. The first article is from Communio, a Catholic journal founded in ’72 by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger, who you might know better as the Emeritus Pope, Benedict XVI. In the Fall 2020 issue, ‘Love as a Form of Life’, one Jose Granados has an article titled ‘The Pandemic: A Sacramental Reading’ (the webpage only shows a preview, but you can read the whole article by downloading it as a PDF, if you’re interested).

I’ll open by saying that I’m not really big on sacramental theology. It’s not something I’m very familiar with – so with this first article, I appreciated the opportunity to learn. It has some really beautiful ideas – there’s one comment at the end about how the body is “the place of original dependence,” the location where we first experience our own limitations and boundaries. If you don’t breathe, you faint. If you break your leg, you can’t walk places. The body is where we first experience dependence – it’s where we realise that we can’t just do whatever we want. That’s something I’m going to take away with me. More broadly, the basic thrust of this article is that you need to have communion in person as part of its proper function. Christ in his Incarnation took on a physical body, and therefore the sacraments, which “mediate our contact with Jesus’ flesh,” must also be physical, tangible objects. “Indeed, the sacraments prolong the corporeal environment of Christ so that we may be incorporated in him. Participating in the sacraments, we partake of that environment that Jesus inaugurated in his body, where it is possible to live as he lived.” I actually kinda like this idea – it explains why, for instance, Catholicism has the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. It’s a physical connection between your physical body and the physical body of Christ – and so therefore obviously you can’t do communion over Zoom, because you miss out on that direct contact with the magic bread. I get that. I think it’s probably wrong, but I appreciate the system of thought.

I’m going to get a little nit-picky now – nothing that will overthrow the main thrust of the argument, but there are I think a few little issues in how some of these terms and ideas are conceptualised. There are two main problem areas in how this argument is put forward – the first in the boundary between ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’, and the second in the depiction of our senses. Both of these come up in the second part of the article, where Granados offers “an obvious difference between virtual and in-person communication.” In virtual communication, he says, you only use sight and hearing – but for in-person communication, you can use all five senses. Therefore in-person communication is superior, because you can exercise all your senses and really ground yourself in your physical body and open yourself up to the environment and the world and God. I would firstly defy Granados to taste someone as part of any in-person conversation – but more seriously, I would note that having a virtual conversation doesn’t make your nose suddenly switch off. The sensations communicated by a digital medium are not the sum total of the sensations you experience during that communication, and it’s weird to act like our consciousness of ourselves as humans is somehow limited to the sounds and sights that we send over the internet. Note the slippage in his argument – he starts by talking about how in-person conversations use more senses, and then he talks about how those extra senses are really important for grounding you in your body, as if you don’t use them at all when you’re talking online. If you’re on Zoom, you can still taste and smell and touch things in your vicinity. You just can’t taste the other person – which, again, was that ever really a core part of the relationship? Granados should be arguing that you can’t reach out over Zoom and take the communion wafer off the priest and eat it. That’s true and simple and fair. Instead, he’s clumsy on the distinction between how we communicate and how we experience our own nature as human beings. He argues that smelling reminds you that you have a body, that you can’t smell your friend via Zoom, and that therefore in-person conversations are better, because that’s where you can use your smell-sense.

Let’s turn now to the second article. From First Things, an American religious journal that I have never particularly heard of, the article is titled ‘Why We Can’t Confess Over Zoom’, by one Dominic M. Langevin. It shares the similar COVID context, and although it’s generally much less sophisticated than the Granados article, it equally stumbles around the definition of the senses and the boundary between the virtual and the real. The article takes a similar stance as the first in terms of its understanding of the sacraments: confession, like communion, needs to be done in person, because it’s a physical sacrament and it needs to be received in a physical, embodied way. Langevin therefore argues that you can’t confess over Zoom, because the virtual environment is not physical: “This salvific conversation cannot occur through electronic means because the sacrament of penance requires both joint physical presence and live, interpersonal action between the penitent and priest-confessor. The conditions for a full, natural, human conversation must exist.”

Let’s take a minute to think about these conditions a little more closely. Historically, live, interpersonal action would have been conditional on joint physical presence – if you sent a messenger or a letter, it wouldn’t be a live conversation between you and the priest. But it’s not the intermediaries in themselves that are the problem – it’s about the nature of the conversation. Langevin actually accepts that you can use those intermediaries in the context of an in-person conversation: if you’re in the booth, you’re allowed to talk to the priest through other people, such as translators, and you’re allowed to give the priest a written note. The technology or technique is less in question than the matter of a live, interpersonal conversation; things that would be banned from distance (like messengers and letters) are totally fine in the context of a live conversation.

From that perspective, then, I don’t see the problem with (for instance) a phone call, which does allow for live, interpersonal conversations. You aren’t in the same room, but does that really matter? Does that really impinge on our ability to have a so-called full, natural conversation? I mean, you can’t see someone over the phone – but if sight is required for full, natural conversation, doesn’t that imply that blind people can’t confess? Langevin responds that an electronic device “violates the principles of physical presence and joint action.” The phone’s loudspeaker is an “artificial tool of communication,” representing “a disconnect between the electrical production and the human agent.” But we’ve already established that other artificial tools, such as letters, are perfectly acceptable in the context of a live conversation – so this disconnect can’t be relevant. Nobody would complain if Stephen Hawking rolled into confession with his speech-generating device, his loudspeakers and all – so what’s the difference between that and a phone call?

Really, the only significant difference is this idea of joint physical presence. If you’re on the phone with someone across the world, it is different to being on the phone with someone in the same room (as might happen, for instance, in prison visits). But how crucial is that joint presence for confession? It’s hard to tell – historically, the available technology meant that joint physical presence has been a necessary condition for a live interpersonal conversation. But does that mean that joint presence is an intrinsic part of the sacrament of confession, or is it just an incidental condition that up till now has been needed to create live conversations? If joint presence is crucial, which Langevin claims is the case, we firstly need to know why that is, but we also need a more rigorous understanding of how technology can mediate our physical presence and facilitate genuine connection between people. We need to see smarter discourse about what it means to be human in the age of the cyborg.

For instance, Langevin accepts the use of a hearing aid, “which aids but does not replace natural communication.” But what does he mean by ‘natural’? Is a letter ‘natural’? Is a translator? It’s a weaselly idea, one that contrasts the artificial against the organic without fully considering the ways in which those things are becoming integrated. Similarly, he writes that “the natural organs and senses must be engaged in the sacramental signification” – but what if your natural organs have been replaced by artificial supports? Can someone with artificial eyes go to confession? Are they able to participate in a full, natural conversation, even if what they see is entirely mediated by artificial technology? And if they are, what’s the difference between that and a Zoom call? Further, as with Granados, we should note that the use of technology for communication doesn’t stop you from using your natural organs. You still look at your computer with your eyes, and listen to what’s being said with your ears. Langevin writes that a confession doesn’t have the appropriate physicality “if a penitent’s confession uses solely artificial means without any natural sign that manifests contrition” – but again, artificial means and natural signs aren’t mutually exclusive categories. Natural signs can be artificially mediated even while originating from a human body. If you say sorry down the phone, it’s received by the listener via artificial means, but you still said it. You still use your body to communicate over Zoom, which artificially mediates your physical presence and natural signs.

As with Granados, Langevin displays this weird fear that technology is all-consuming, that our nature and identity as human beings is reduced to the medium that we use to communicate – that our physicality is absorbed into and vanishes behind the computer. The attending belief is that the computer itself is somehow a non-physical object, that its electrical pulses and light signals are somehow non-corporeal or immaterial, like it’s fucking magic instead of physics. Neither writer appreciates the materiality of the digital form, or the embodied ways in which we use technology. The two thousand words that you’ve just read – I typed each of those out on my keyboard with my hands, while sitting on my ass in a nice plushy chair and looking at a couple of computer screens. The white background of this page has started giving me headaches recently (because the light from the screen goes in my eyeballs), so I keep the yellow light ‘night mode’ on. Computers are physical, and we engage and interface with them in embodied ways. These guys have overinvested in the hype and rhetoric about virtual reality. The key difference between them is that Granados can fall back on the importance of the physical communion objects. You can’t take the communion wafer from a priest over Zoom. Langevin, on the other hand, is dealing with a conversation – meaning the weakness of this shared approach is more obvious.

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