Crowdsourced Catholicism: New iPhone App Lets Users Forgive Sins

On the 23rd day of December, 2010 A Lustful Penitent offered a confession: 

Cybering with a girl: I had graphic cybersex with a high school sophomore girl. We are not married.

Jeshi, Archbishop of Massachusetts responded within a few hours:   

At least it was only over the internet. Stay off chatting for a while. Take a cold shower if you think you might do it again.

Monkey, an untitled confessor from California also responded within the day:

At least it wasnt real sex! Then youd be confessing to the police and not to me. Make sure you don’t.       

The confessors—no less than us, we eavesdroppers outside the confessional—must labor to fill in the salacious details. Was that the confession of a seventeen-year-old or a fifty-year-old? The age of consent leaves no obvious trace on our twitter-voices. And did the sin really happen at all? Maybe the prurient pleasure was not with any sophomore, but with us; a dirty joke traded against misplaced credulity. All we know is that both penances were accepted.

Penance, an application released for the iPhone in early December, allows users to absolve one another’s sins. After passing the application’s obligatory security PIN system (conventional online security measures are the app’s primary faith-orientation), you come to an interface resembling a confessional booth. Through the left door you can “confess,” offering your sins to whoever is listening; behind the closed door you can “absolve” any sins received; and at the far side you can “reflect,” considering the shared confessions of others, conveniently arranged like a pinball machine’s top-ten list.

The service requires that every user play both Sinner and Saint, and a novice is granted five bits of each one’s currency: Five Horns for confessing, and five Halos for granting penances. One of each is “gifted… every Sabbath day” but for zealots and louts more credits can be purchased for 17¢ apiece. As with fancy chemical aids for our Facebook farms, this money goes straight to the developers. The users deal instead in an economy of social prestige. With each accepted penance, Saints climb in office from Bishop, to Archbishop, to Cardinal, and finally to Holy Father/Mother of the Church, the cost of directly requesting their absolution increasing at each step. To convert Halos to dollars, an untitled confessor’s services only cost 51¢, whereas the Pope/Papess turns their hoary ear for $6.84.

Penance’s religiosity is well incapsulated in its splash screen. We find a paraphrase a letter of Saint Ignatius, reworked for a quite different model of religious social networking. The original had read, “To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop.” Penance’s splash screen, on the other hand, is agnostic even concerning its own efficacy: “To all them that repent, may they find forgiveness.” But Penance gathers its sacred power precisely through agnosticism. While existent applications for socially-networked religion like Prayer Wall or Manistone facilitate shared reflection on sacred realities beyond the crowds they attract, Penance draws instead upon the growing faith that social networking can miraculously generate spiritual orientation, evading with sacrilegious humor where one expects guidance. Behold: crowdsourced Catholicism.

Such a system demands a temporal rather than eternal perspective. On December 20th, I registered for the Penance application, then only nine days old, and my reflections concern a view of the entire system as I documented it on the 28th. At that point, only 12 of the 26 available countries had any users, and the 69 Saints in those countries had only shared 24 of their confessions. Even Mikhail1981, the Holy Father of the Church, had only three confessions visible and had not yet offered his first official edict. For better and worse, as of my survey, it seemed the trolls had not yet discovered Penance. Still uncomplicated by tales of murder and rape, nor even confessions denigrating other Saints by name or mocking the application, Penance feels still untried, a community yet to crystalize around substantial moral challenges, a larval church which may or may not ever mature.

In this still-innocent new church, maybe it is unsurprising that gluttons seem only to regret single instances of pizza, chicken nuggets, or cheesecake, never wrestling with longstanding food addictions, and the wrathful never repent of physical violence. But in the nearly-empty pews we find traces of real pathos. One penitent doesn’t know how to forgive a friend who called him “a fat faggot” over the internet and then accused him of forging his evidence. Another was thrown out of a strip club for saying “God must hate strippers” to a dancer who confided that she had a disabled son. Here and there, Penance hurts. Between the cheap jokes and bourgeois self-loathing are murmurs worth hearing, if only as microfiction.

Likewise, the app’s agnosticism facilitates a lucid tableau of spontaneous popular theology. Of the 24 confessions, only one references God as an active third party, two command the Sinner to forgive themselves, and three confessors speak in the first person as God. “God forgive me,” writes one penitent, to which the Cardinal of Canada replies, “Okay, I forgive me.” 

Online anonymity is most frequently associated with the cruelty of masked trolls, seduction by gender dissimulators, and financial scams. We forget too easily that online facelessness also facilitates the sacred possibilities of the masked ritual, the voting booth, and the therapist’s couch. From their first moments, online spaces have mingled the privacy of the truck stop bathroom wall and that of the confessional. Penance on the iPhone, whether or not it grows from its larval state, is a fascinatingly unabashed conjunction of the two.

vincentg@email.unc.edu'

Vincent Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is writing on Evangelical Christian video games.