Confession Fail: iPhone App Controversy Muddies the Sacramental Waters

Earlier this year, Vincent Gonzalez wrote here at RD about a new iPhone app, Penance, that “allows users to absolve one another’s sins.” For even vaguely orthodox Roman Catholics, and for many Protestants as well, the app presents a significant theological conundrum inasmuch as it invites users to go well beyond the removal of the priestly intermediary in petitioning God for forgiveness that was a central element in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Here, users usurp clerical sacramental authority entirely and, as Gonzalez notes, offer spiritual reflection, penances, and absolutions to one another directly.

Of course, we do well to remember that Penance is categorized as a game in the iTunes store for a reason. It’s clearly designed to gather the remuneration of so many digital indulgences from users (though one hopes the developer, Hasham Abbas, has kept his day job given apparently sluggish sales of the app since its December 2010 launch). Still, given the glib tone of app’s instructions and its devil-may-care characterization of confessions, it didn’t take a particularly conservative Catholic bent to see the Penance app as something less than spiritually wholesome.

It’s All Fun & Games  Till Someone Loses a Soul

As the medieval English prior John Myrc reminded the Church-endorsed confessors whose spiritual ignorance troubled him enough to write at least three books for their enlightenment, “God says himself, as written we find/ That when the blind lead the blind/ Into the ditch they both fall/ For they do not see in which direction they go.” A kerfuffle this week over the introduction of an iPhone and iPad app with formal backing from at least one Roman Catholic bishop, Confession: A Roman Catholic App, has highlighted the degree to which such new spiritual technologies make it difficult for any of us to predict into what liturgical, theological, or spiritual ditch they might send believers.

A more earnestly spiritual and sacramental effort, the Confession app was released in January with the development support from a local priest and official at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as an imprimatur from Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Maureen Dowd has described the weirdly variant age, gender, and station-appropriate (if you’re Roman Catholic, at least) catalogue of possible sins that make up the “Examination of Conscience” and “Confession” options available through the app.

The developers of Confession make clear that one cannot use the app to confess directly to a priest, to be absolved of sins, or to be assigned penance. Rather, like the Mea Culpa app released in August 2010, it is, according to developer Ryan Kreager, “an aid to confession.” Kreager notes that the app can help the penitent in recalling sins revealed in a more thorough, systematic, examination of conscience. But, he insists, “all of the parts of the confession that would be said by a priest are not in the app,” so users should not conclude that the app effects an absolution or otherwise replaces face-to-face confession with a priest.

However, it has seemed easy enough for the average user to misunderstand the developers’ intention that the app be used as an incentive to go to church. Indeed, enough that Vatican officials were moved to issue a statement yesterday making clear that use of the Confession app—or any technological devise—cannot substitute for the sacrament properly offered by a Roman Catholic priest. Kreager is quick to affirm the Vatican’s statement, adding, in response to a wave of errant reporting, that neither the Vatican nor Bishop Rhodes has banned or otherwise restricted the use of the app for the purposes described by the developers.

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 talk with a priest about a tendency to engage in, say, sexual acts that were not open to the transmission of new life (a sin against the 6th commandment)—would not assume she or he had, in fact, been granted absolution by through, if not by, the app itself.

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 by 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.

Now, one obvious way to short-circuit this tendency to assume technology itself is serving a relational function is to build genuine relationality into the technology. That is, apps for confessional preparation, prayer, spiritual guidance, and so on might include the option of sending emails to set up meetings with appropriate spiritual guides. The Examination of Conscience on the Confessions app, for example, might end by prompting the user to email or text her or his priest. Chat functions might be added so priests could reply. Lists of local spiritual guides might be added. It could have, that is, at least the minimal sociality that the less ecclesiastically robust Penance app has managed. (Note to developers: You’re welcome.)

Nonetheless, even more careful, socially-sensitive design cannot be guaranteed to save the doctrinal day in a world defined much more by improvisation than by obedience. That is, regardless of how developers intend for an application to be used, the very nature of the culture shaped by digital social media allows that users will come up with new, creative, and, in the case of an app like Confession, wholly heterodox ways of using it. In the end, developers never really own the applications they create. They are not selling passive use. They are sharing access to new ways of engaging longstanding traditions that can be further adapted through wider use. These apps, then, are malleable cultural resources rather than merely functional tools.

In my new book, I argue that, “Our ability to turn the page… on a new era of religious practice in which mainline churches have continuing relevance will depend on our ability to understand the cultural changes associated with new digital media.” This understanding is evidenced by our ability to resist the urge to see iPhone, iPads, Blackberries, laptops, and the apps that populate them merely as technological tools, as gizmos and gadgets that improve efficiency and enhance personal convenience.

To the extent that religious leaders (a category that clearly now includes religious technologists) take seriously the cultural, interpersonal, and, therefore, deeply spiritual implications of new media as they are integrated into located, face-to-face relationships, they will have a chance to cross the digital Jordan along with their flocks. Otherwise, no amount of episcopal imprimaturs and Vatican clarifications will stop believers and seekers from moving forward like so many digital Joshuas anxious to leave the arid desert of Broadcast Age communications behind.