While businesses fight to keep commercially sensitive information from leaking across the Internet, the Catholic church is preparing to ban traffic in information of a more personal nature: Online confession will be off the menu for connected members of the congregation.
The Internet is an excellent instrument for evangelization and religious dialogue, but it cannot be turned into an online recycle bin for sins in place of traditional face-to-face confessions, a senior Vatican official said on Tuesday.
The red light to online confessions is contained in a document being prepared by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which broadly welcomes the Net as a powerful instrument for evangelization, the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera reported on Tuesday.
The sacrament of confession, by which the Roman Catholic faithful receive pardon and absolution for their sins, must always take place in "the sacramental context of a personal encounter," Archbishop John Foley, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told the Italian Catholic news service SIR on Monday.
"Internet offers the church the opportunity to make the saving message of Christ accessible throughout the world," Foley told the agency. "In societies that don't allow the presence of priests, nuns, religious or lay missionaries, Internet can offer people undertaking a spiritual quest, or even just the curious, a chance to obtain information or find an inspiration that would otherwise be impossible."
Internet, like all communications media, offers more opportunities for good than temptations for evil, Foley was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera. "It depends on how you use it," he said.
The American-born archbishop cited the spread of pornography, violations of privacy and forms of dependency among the young as some of the negative aspects of the Worldwide Web. Some young people, he said, "spend hours in front of their computer screen in search of endless diversion."
The Vatican document will discuss the problem of unequal access to the Web and warn against it becoming a resource reserved for the developed world's elite, the Corriere della Sera said. "Internet must not become an Intranet for the most developed countries," it quoted Foley as saying.
Foley's statement is simply an update of church regulations to keep pace with technological progress, said Father Paolo Floretta, a Franciscan friar who runs a Website allowing the Catholic faithful to send prayers to Saint Anthony of Padua from all around the world. "The sacrament of confession requires the physical presence of the priest and the penitent," he said in a telephone interview. "Privacy is absolutely not guaranteed on Internet, and there is no certainty as to the identity of the two parties to the communication. You can't have confession by e-mail, any more than you can have it by telephone or letter."
Father Floretta's site has received thousands of e-mail prayers since it began operating a year ago, he said. The prayers, which could contain appeals for help with health or other practical problems, are saved onto a floppy disk and delivered every day by the friars to the tomb of the saint -- Saint Anthony evidently doesn't need a PC to read them -- in Padua Cathedral, Floretta said.
The faithful have been seeking the intercession of the saint, whose speciality is the finding of lost objects, for hundreds of years, Floretta said. "People used to send their requests on parchment, then it was paper, and now it's floppy disks. The medium has changed, but the symbolic significance remains the same."
Floretta's Website is not the only one to put the faithful in contact with sanctuaries devoted to the Madonna and the most popular Christian saints, but the amount of Internet traffic generated by such sites is limited, Floretta said. "It's a niche initiative, but I wouldn't call it a market," he said. And with online confessions ruled out by the Vatican hierarchy, there is unlikely to be a significant boom in religious messaging.