Devil’s on the net, Catholics warned

The Times (England), via The Courier-Mail (Australia), Jan. 11, 2003
By Richard Owen in Rome

The Vatican has warned Catholic bishops and priests not to use the internet to hear “online confessions” in case they are read by “ill-intentioned people such as hackers” for purposes such as blackmail.

The Holy See’s judicial arm said there was a risk criminals would misuse confidential information intended for the eyes of a confessor only.

It did not say if the warning had been prompted by an actual case of blackmail. No figures are released for the number of confessions heard online.

The Vatican has embraced the internet with enthusiasm, and since 1997 has had an efficient website powered by computers named after the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and run by nuns trained in computer technology.

The Pope, while warning of the “dark uses” to which the internet can be put, and the “temptations” it offers, has used it to send messages and prayers around the world.

But the Pope, who is said to hear confessions in St Peter’s Basilica occasionally, is against group confessions and collective absolutions.

Last April, in an apostolic letter entitled Misericordia Dei, he declared group confession had to be “a rare response to grave necessity”, not a routine form of the sacrament.

Vatican officials said that although collective absolution had become popular in parts of the Catholic world, it was an exceptional measure to be used when the celebration of the sacrament in its ordinary form is physically or morally impossible.

Some Catholic dioceses have set up their own computer networks to spread the faith and offer spiritual support and advice. In Canada, the Archdiocese of Winnipeg established a network two years ago so online visitors could talk to priests in chat rooms or seek “virtual prayer guidance” from nuns.

In Australia, the Catholic Church has offered to help believers buy computers and learn how to use them so they can access “daily prayers via email and open forums in Catholic chat rooms”.

The organisers of such networks have been cautious, however, about the use of the internet for confessions. Soon after the Vatican website was established, the popular Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana also warned readers to beware of “forming relationships” or “flirting” through chat rooms, declaring that it amounted to “online adultery” or “virtual infidelity”.

“For Christians, there is no moral difference between a virtual affair and a flesh-and-blood betrayal,” the magazine said. “The internet cannot wash your sins away.”

Priests running church websites said they were aware there was no guarantee of privacy on the internet. Father Franco Mastrolonardo, a pioneer of church chatlines in Italy, said: “The Devil is out there on the net.”

The Vatican’s problem is that the number of Catholics regularly going to confession has fallen. One Italian company is selling a high-tech booth with an electronic console to control lighting, air temperature and soundproofing.

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