“No sacraments on Internet”: Ghanaian Bishop on Confession amid COVID-19 Restrictions

The Sacrament of Penance (also commonly called the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession) is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.
Credit: Public Domain

As Catholics in many parts of the world keep away from gatherings including places of worship as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19, a Ghanaian Prelate has, in response to a question raised regarding Confession, explained why the Sacrament of Penance cannot be offered through electronic means.

“There are no sacraments on the internet. And even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith,” Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu stated in his response to a lay Catholic faithful who sought to find out whether electronic devices were an alternative to face to face interaction with a priest during confession.

The Ghanaian Bishop added, “Personal confession is thus the form most expressive of reconciliation with God and with the Church. It is important for the penitent to accuse himself of sins in the presence of the minister of the Church acting in the person of Christ who is judge. There is the personal nature of the encounter with the Lord who is Mercy itself.”

He was responding to the inquiry made by Christian Dugan on a Whatsapp group created by the Bishop to answer questions on spiritual matters. Christian had asked, “Does one have to go to confession face to face with a priest or can it be done remotely, say via the phone?”

According to the 72-year-old Prelate, “the sacrament of confession is a personal encounter with Jesus in which he personally addresses every sinner when He says, 'My son, your sins are forgiven'. He is the physician tending each one of the sick who need him to cure them.”

Virtual reality, the Ghanaian Prelate noted, is not a substitute for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist which he refers to as the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and “a shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community.”

Bishop Osei-Bonsu went on to make reference to the law of the Catholic Church to explain his response.

“The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that the proper place to hear sacramental confessions is a church or oratory. Moreover, according to Canon 964, confessions are not to be heard outside a confessional without a just cause,” Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu stated his response seen by ACI Africa.

He also made reference to a book he authored, “Catholicism Made Easy: Responses to 150 Questions on the Catholic Faith” where he answers questions related to proper confession.

He noted that the teaching of the Catholic Church indicates that long-distance absolution of sins, for instance, via technology is invalid.

Recounting a past scenario where technology-based absolution was invalidated, the former President of the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (GCBC) said, “Many years ago, there was a response given to a question about absolution communicated via telegraph, which the Church said that such an absolution would be invalid.”

He added, “Sometime later, there was a question about (the) telephone.  The answer was the same: Invalid.  If such a question were submitted today, the answer would be the same. You cannot receive absolution via Skype or Internet chat or video phone calls. That includes text messages.”

The Ghanaian Prelate who has written many books on Church teachings explained that another reason why confession cannot be held on phone was about maintaining secrecy which, he says was, unfortunately, not a guaranteed phenomenon on electronic media channels of communication.

“The Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him,” he said and added, “E-mail, the Internet, and telephones are never completely private.”

The Ghanaian Prelate noted that just as one cannot receive the other Sacraments over the Internet, the phone or through Skype, “you cannot go to confession over the phone, and not just because secrecy is not absolutely guaranteed, but because a sacrament is to be given and received personally.”

Reiterating the message of Pope Francis during Holy Mass on March 20, Bishop Osei-Bonsu urged Catholics in need of confession to repent their sins directly to God on occasions that they found it difficult to access a Priest physically.

“Many people today would tell me, Father, where can I find a priest, a confessor, because I can’t leave the house? And I want to make peace with the Lord, I want him to embrace me, I want the Father’s embrace,” Pope Francis said during the Mass that was streamed live from the Vatican. 

The Holy Father added, “Do what the Catechism (of the Catholic Church) says. It is very clear. If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart. Make an act of contrition and promise God, ‘I will go to confession afterwards, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God”.

According to Pope Francis, the period of COVID-19 is the right time, “the opportune moment” to engage in an act of contrition for all Christians.

The Holy Father underscored, “An act of contrition done well, and our souls will become white like the snow. Return to your father who is waiting for you. The God of tenderness will heal us; He will heal us of the many, many wounds of life and the many ugly things we have done. Each of us has our own.”


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]