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.