Why can’t we receive sacraments remotely or virtually?
This question has bubbled to the surface gradually. With the technological revolution occurring in our midst – first slowly and then with greater and greater velocity – it was only a matter of time before we would have to contend with questions about sacramental participation and technology. Fortunately, we are not lost at sea here. Our answers lie in longstanding Church teachings.
To begin, let us be clear about what takes place when the sacraments are celebrated. We say of the sacraments that they are encounters with Christ and His Body, the Church. These encounters are personal in nature, and when we speak of personal encounters, we mean that presence is a requirement. I do not have an encounter with you unless we are in each other’s company. We may have contact by phone or by correspondence, but that kind of contact does not constitute an encounter.
Next, we must take into account the nature of our sacramental encounters. In every sacramental encounter, there is what theologians call a mediation. Someone is there in the sacraments to facilitate our encounter with God: a guarantor, if you will, to ensure that we have a genuine meeting with the Lord. We know from the New Testament that Jesus is the Mediator between God and the human race, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). In turn, this encounter with Jesus through the sacraments is also a mediated encounter. That is, there is someone there who brings about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, who absolves sinners and who anoints the sick and dying. That someone, of course, is a priest.
But how is it that we have the Eucharist, the sacrament of penance, the anointing of the sick in the first place? We have them only because the Son of God became incarnate. The Incarnation made possible personal, sacramental encounters. In the words of the distinguished American Catholic theologian Fr. Thomas Weinandy, “The Incarnation sets the framework for the sacramental order. Sacraments . . . are incarnational signs that affect what they symbolize and symbolize what they affect. One must be a part of that sign and reality to participate in the sacrament.”
Thus, when it comes to personal, sacramental encounters, physical presence is required – which means that you cannot have sacraments remotely or virtually. For all the very real spiritual comfort that can be had through indirect communication – from the old technology of a letter written on paper to the wonders of video calling – the sacraments can only be received in person.
Msgr. Robert J. Batule
Diocese of Rockville Centre
Faculty, St. Joseph’s Seminary
What is Catholic Doctrine regarding cremation?
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians buried the bodies of the dead in imitation of Jesus’ burial and as a sign of hope that we will share in his resurrection. To be human is to have both body and soul, and we believe that our bodies will be raised, glorified and reunited with our souls for all eternity. Our Lord himself invoked the imagery of nature to make this point: A grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies in order to rise up and bear fruit (John 12:24). The practice of burying the dead (inhumation) distinguished Christians from pagans, who burned their dead and did not believe in a bodily resurrection.
Since the early 1960s, the Catholic Church has permitted cremation, recognizing that factors such as transportation, space limitations and costs sometimes make bodily burial difficult or even impossible. It is important to keep in mind, however, that inhumation remains the strongly preferred norm. As the Code of Canon Law states, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”
In other words, the Church permits cremation, but hardly encourages it. Cremation remains forbidden if it is motivated by a contempt for the body or a disbelief in the resurrection. This is the risk against which the Church cautions us: When we see a body reduced to ashes, it can be more difficult to believe that “the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
To forestall such disbelief, cremated remains (cremains) must be treated with the same reverence and respect as an intact body and must be interred in a cemetery or mausoleum. We would not keep the body of a loved one on a mantelpiece, divide it among relatives or scatter it from a mountaintop – and we should not do so with their cremains, either. Rather, Christians must lovingly bury those remains, knowing that the Lord will raise up the body, though now reduced to ashes, at the last day (John 6:40).
Rev. Brian A. Graebe, S.T.D.
Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral