Line to the Lord: to confess, press two

French bishops condemn premium-rate hotline and say confession requires priest
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A premium rate phone line in France is offering Catholics the chance to confess their sins, for 34c (31p) a minute plus connection charge. But French bishops are attempting to disconnect Le Fil du Seigneur – or Line to the Lord – which was launched at the beginning of Lent.

The softly spoken male voice on the line offers touch-tone options: "For advice on confessing, press one. To listen to some confessions, press three," before warning, "In case of serious or mortal sins – that is, sins that have cut you off from Christ our Lord – it is indispensable to confide in a priest."

The telephone service is the brainchild of Camille Hautier, a self-declared Catholic. She said the Line to the Lord does not offer absolution for sins, which only a priest can provide. "The idea is to confess sins which are not capital sins, but minor sins, directly to God," she said.

Whether God is at the end of the line may be a matter of faith, but callers certainly don't get the option of talking to a person. Instead they are offered an "atmosphere of piety and reflection" where they can listen to prayers and music.

Some 300 people have called the hotline in its first week – although whether to confess their own sins or just to listen in to other people's transgressions is not clear.

The country's bishops were at pains to stress that the line had "no approval from the Catholic Church in France".

They conceded that telephone services had a role to play in supporting the aged, isolated or those with disabilities, but said: "It is unacceptable to allow confusion over the notion of confession. For the Catholic faithful, confession has a sacramental meaning and requires the real presence of a priest."

Le Fil du Seigneur declares on its website that its aim is to get young people to confess at a time when church attendance is in "freefall".

The number of people who describe themselves as Roman Catholics in France fell from 80 per cent in the early Nineties to 67 per cent in 2000. It now stands at 51 per cent of the population, but only a tenth of those go to church regularly.

Frédéric Lenoir, director of the magazine Le Monde de Religions, said the phone line was adding to commercialism and materialism in the world.

"If it was a free service that wanted to help people wishing to listen to religious music or prayers, then I would think it authentically Christian," he said. "But this is commercial. It's no different to people phoning to listen to their horoscope, so it must be transparent in what it is offering – and for how much."

Ms Hautier said that part of the money received for phone calls goes to charity. There is also a cheaper, non-charity line which costs 12c.