Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bless Me C3PO For I Have Sinned

For a $1.99 you too can download the Confession App to your phone and have endless fun having an endless number of  fictional consciences examined--except women can not be fictional priests.

For those of you who may not know this, Catholics can now download a Confession App to their iPhone or Blackberry. It's turned out to be popular enough to rank 42 on iTunes App Billboard chart. Basically one enters their sex and age and the App then tailors an examination of conscience based on those identity markers.  There is also an option for religious and clergy.  Should a woman try to sign on as a priest the program will tell you the two categories are incompatible. Maureen Dowd has a fun op ed piece on the Confession App, but for this post I've chosen to focus on some of  Elizabeth Dresher's thoughts from Religion Dispatches. The following is excerpted from a longer article.

God’s Server isn’t Down, but...

While my conversation with Kreager left little doubt as to the sincerity of the app developer’s sacramental intentions, the confusion around this latest Roman Catholic foray into digital ministry raises important questions about liturgical, theological, and spiritual significance of such technologies for all religious traditions who are moving with speed into the Digital Reformation.

The Confession app, for instance, walks the penitent through the basic elements of the rite, tracking the time since the last digitally-integrated confession and including the list of sins clicked in the examination of conscience. Once the penitent reviews her or his sins (logged in the Examination of Conscience option), the app invites the recitation of “Act of Contrition” prayer, after which she or he is instructed to “Receive absolution and respond ‘Amen.’” Going perhaps more grammatical here than I am truly able anyway, I’d merely note that that the verb “receive” in this instruction does not have a specific direct object, so there’s really no reason that a person—especially one who would rather not share a tendency to engage in, say, sexual acts that were not open to the transmission of new life (a sin against the 6th commandment) with a priest—would not assume she or he had, in fact, been granted absolution by through, if not by, the app itself. (At the rate the priest shortage is rolling along, we may yet get to the point of confession by App.  After all, God can do all things.)

The app, that is, relies on a certain level of theological understanding, liturgical compliance, and spiritual will that we might be hard-pressed to find in even a relatively sophisticated believer. This is not entirely a failure of catechism or human will, I suspect. Rather, it is a continuation of what I have seen as a failure of mainline Catholic and Protestant pilgrims into new digital territories to grasp the social nature of new media residing on our phones and tablets and so on—devices that connect us and the information we engage to others in our lives.

As Sherry Turkle has argued, we are increasingly mapping the social function of technologies—the real human-to-human characteristics that they approximate but never truly replicate for us—onto the technologies themselves. So it is that Dowd ends her otherwise careful review of the Confession app by characterizing God as existing on the other side of a great cosmic server. “God isn’t dead,” she maintains. “His server may be down though.” In this light, color me perhaps a bit too Protestant, but I had to check myself for having “been involved with superstitious practices” just for fooling around with the Confession app itself.  (I love the last sentence because one's occult tools, or gateway to the devil, is culturally conditioned.)


It's probably just coincidence that the Confession App came out at the same time Pope Benedict gave a talk about Catholicism's need to take better advantage of modern communication media. I'm not sure how I would feel if I were a priest, (which as I've noted this program does not compute) and a penitent was interacting with their Confession app rather than attending to the sacrament itself.  I suppose I would tend to think that the hypothetical penitent didn't quite get the whole idea of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They didn't really understand the sacrament is supposed to be more than a laundry list of sins magically wiped away by magic words. It's supposed to be about conversion.  If one's understanding is on the wipe the slate clean level I don't find it surprising that people are misunderstanding the whole concept and really believe hitting the send button wipes their soul slate clean.  If only things were that easy.

I actually think the confession app demonstrates the major drawback to spirituality by technology and that's the problem of simplification or the dumbing down of spiritual concepts.  Hence we have a Confession App rather than a Sacrament of Reconciliation App.  A program that takes one through a list of potential sins is not nearly as hard to write as an interactive program that attempts to get to the heart of one's understanding and motivation for why they may transgress the way they think they do.  For the overly scrupulous this App could be a very bad thing indeed, a sort of digital scoreboard for sin.  This is especially true since it tracks past data.  I can easily see where I would never encourage this app for certain types of personality disorder.

The other objection I have to this kind of technology is that spiritual growth demands the interaction with real people in real time.  Pope Benedict, when he cautioned about the dangers of mistaking Internet relationships for real time face to face interactions, has it right.  There's a real energy give and take in face to face communication that can not take place via the Internet or running through a list of sins on a iPhone App. 

As an example Facebook and Twitter may have set the stage for the protests in Egypt, but what kept it going for almost three weeks was the energy thousands of people generated by being in actual contact with each other.  The kind of energy (courage) generated from those kinds of immediate connections will never be replicated by any iPhone app or other technology.  Or to put it differently, technology can fuel a consensus of thought in the short term, but it takes real interaction between real people to sustain that thought in the long term.  This is exactly why 12 Step groups meet frequently face to face and do not rely on an iPhone app.

But who knows what the future holds.  I guess it's possible that somewhere someone is working on an artificial intelligence network that could eventually result in meaningful interactive drive up confessional ATM's. Imagine that, no more darkened black box but confession in the privacy of one's own car. That might be the epitome of post modern American spirituality. Plug in credit card receive absolution.  Now that I think about it, they could do that now using priests like tellers at a drive in bank.  Brave New World here we come.


  1. What's rather interesting is that the Boston Globe did an article about a year or two ago about many Catholics no longer participating in auricular confession. Many of the people they interviewed tended to go to communal penance services or therapy, or both. I might be tempted to return to auricular confession if the Church can be persuaded to dump the clericalism.

  2. So call me an iconoclast, a heretic, whatever.

    I like the idea of apps in general. What's wrong with the concept of a guide to the examination of conscience? At one time it might appear on mimeographed paper. (Showing my age.) Masturbation? There was more maturity shown in the question to the 15 year old girl by referencing respect for the body.

    Years ago I had a personal trainer who coached me by email. It was very effective. There's some evidence to show patients will reveal more about their health circumstances by completing computer questionnaires than by speaking to the doctor.

    If it is viewed as a tool then use it. Of course, it could be a deeply flawed tool. I won't know until I've tried it.

    On the other hand I agree that no checklist, administered by an app or otherwise, is a substitute for a serious, thoughtful examination of conscience.


  3. Yeah, I'm with Anonymous. I don't understand what all the giggling is about. Most churches have a shelf by the confessional with little paper confession handouts; they have a checklist examination of conscience and the penitent's lines for the ritual, including the Act of Contrition.

    So, instead of picking up one of the little paper things, now you download it onto your iPod. It saves paper. What's the big deal?

  4. I don't have a problem with this app anymore than I would have a problem with using a prayerbook in Confession, or Mass or where ever. What I do have a problem with is the history of sins being kept in computer memory. I sure don't want to be treating my smartphone as some sort of electronic talisman that I don't dare let out of my direct line of sight. Because if some other person gets hold of it they gain the ability to delve into my deepest fears and conscience. Not to mention the possibility of my device being hacked. I wonder just how honest those people are going to be with the Confession app if they realize just how likely it is that while the priest may observe the seal of the confessional the smartphone has no such restriction.

    But then I've never been one to keep a diary or journal in a written format either. To me it always seemed more than a bit silly.

  5. Felapton the big deal to me is that spiritual progress is about lessons learned and conversions made, not a laundry list of sins confessed. I've heard a lot of clients confess to behavior they don't actually change until the behavior becomes so dysfunctional there is no choice. That is not usually a state of conversion as much as it is a consequence of enslavement.

  6. @T'Pel, good point. Best to tell the app "no" when it asks whether to save your sin-log for you. But unless your sin life is a lot more fun than mine, it's probably not worth hacking.

    @Col, well, not everybody is a theologian. My parish hears confessions twenty minutes before mass. The confessor is the celebrant and he has to get vested. So it's not a good time for life-changing insights or spiritual progress; laundry list is OK, I think.

  7. In those situations a laundry list is fine, but then so would a communal penance service. Speaking of which, I think the App would work fine for a communal penance service.

    One of the best innovations of Vat II was the idea of a more in depth confession, unfortunately that was a little too intense for most people who merely wanted to recite a list. Or as my dad said "if I want therapy I'll go to a shrink." He never did get the difference between forgiveness of sins and conversion which transforms the behavior pattern.

  8. @ Felapton: I'm not sure I agree. There are a number of people out in this world whom I would not want to have that kind of leverage over me - just for the possibility of blackmail. A spiteful ex-spouse in a child custody battle for example. In general, no, not worth hacking. But let's hypothesize a politician who is a Catholic. That person would be a lucrative target of such an attempted hacking. This sort of hack job could be made to pay big money in the right market. The thing is, computer hacking is generally not tailored to a specific target. It operates on the wide net principle. The reason you still see all those spam messages from the banker in Nigeria is because they send millions of them out. And some one or 3 people will be foolish enough to buy into the scheme and turn it into a moneymaker for the spammer.

    There is just no way I would suggest this sort of interactive app. No firewall and no antivirus software is good enough to justify the risk.

    Colleen, your message reminds me of the confession I made just before my Confirmation. I was in a Catholic school that year. Normally, they just brought in the parish priest and had us in maybe 3 lines. But for this one, the school had both the parish priests and also some Franciscan priests. so they had 6 or 8 lines that the students were lined up in. And I suppose they expected that with the additional priests the time to get all the students through Confession would be cut way down. I was put into a line for one of the Franciscan priests. And these priests took their job as confessors a lot more seriously. The lines did not move. By the time I was through and back in my classroom the Sister was really angry with me for taking so long. Then some 20-30 minutes later the student who had been behind me in line came in. Still since I was the student and the teacher was a Sister, I was in the wrong... somehow :)

  9. @T'Pel, yes, public figures should be extremely careful. I remember once the Prince of Wales was overheard speaking to the now-Duchess of Cornwall (back when he was married to Princess Diana) and saying "I wish I were a Tampon so I could live in your pants."

    I kind of felt sorry for the Queen. You buy your son the most expensive education in the world, years of art, poetry and philosophy classes, and then one day he wants to say something romantic to his mistress and what does he come up with? "I wish I were a Tampon." Wow.

  10. Felapton perhaps the Prince was making some sort of statement about the relationship between himself and his mother--in a Freudian sort of way.