On the Go: Nearer, my ‘Confession’ app, to thee

For generations, Catholics carried these simple leaflets inside their handbags or wallets, short texts topped with titles such as “A Guide For Confession” or “A Personal Examination of the Conscience.”

The believer would be reminded: “Be truly sorry for your sins. The essential act of penance, on the part of the penitent, is contrition, a clear and decisive rejection of the sin committed, together with a resolution not to commit it again, out of the love one has for God and which is reborn with repentance.”

These paper guides also offer lists of questions to prick the conscience, such as, “Have I denied my faith?,” “Have I neglected prayer?” or “Was I impatient, angry, envious, proud, jealous, revengeful, lazy?” If it had been a long time since a previous confession, the penitent would be reminded, “If you need help ... simply ask the priest and he will help you by ‘walking’ you through the steps.”

That was then.

In recent weeks, waves of Catholics, along with curious members of other flocks, have downloaded a new “Confession” app for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices that combines private journaling, spiritual readings and traditional pre-confession leaflets into one password-protected digital package. Why carry scribbled notes into confession when for $1.99 one can work through the rite while being bathed in the cool blue glow that is the symbol of the social-networking age?

Scribes in newsrooms around the world sprang into action.

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 300 tweets since my last confession,” noted CNN.

In London, The Times opened its story by claiming: “Roman Catholic bishops have approved a new iPhone and iPad app that allows users to make confession with a virtual ‘priest’ over the Internet.”

The Economic Times report was even more blunt. The headline noted, “No time to visit church? Confess via iPhone.” Then the opening lines went further still, stating: “Users of iPhone can now perform contrition and other religious rituals without visiting church, thanks to a new online application.”

The problem is that these statements were just plain wrong. There is no such thing as a “virtual” priest or a “virtual” sacrament. How could electronic devices allow believers to “perform ... other religious rituals”?

“I am all for anything that gets people to go to confession,” noted the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, at his popular “What Does the Prayer Really Say?” website. “But let’s be clear about something: The iPhone app is for preparing to go to confession. It is not a substitute for going to confession.”

Nevertheless, the cracked headlines rolled on with the Catholic League expressing outrage about new stinkers, such as, “Can’t Make it to Confession? There’s an App for That,” “New, Church-Approved iPhone Offers Confession On the Go” and “Bless Me iPhone for I Have Sinned.”

It was true that the Confession app had been developed with the direct help of Catholic priests and, yes, its theological content earned an imprimatur from Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, leader of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.But after the barrage of inaccurate headlines, Vatican officials finally decided that a response was required.

It is true that “in a world in which many people use computer support for reading and reflection,” Catholics may now find that “digital technology can be useful in the preparation for confession,” noted the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office.

However, he added, it is “essential to understand that the sacrament of penance requires a personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor in order for absolution to be given.

“This ... cannot be replaced by any computer application such as the iPhone.”

This statement produced more headlines. A CBS headline offering was typical -- “Vatican: No, You Can’t Confess to Your iPhone.” Of course, the app’s creators never made that claim in the first place.

The story had come full circle.

Thus, noted Maureen Down of The New York Times, this new app “is not a session with a virtual priest who restores your virtue with a penance of three Hail Marys and three extra gigabytes of memory. ... You still have to go into the real confessional at church to get absolution, and, hopefully, your priest won’t be annoyed that you’re reading your sins off of a little screen and, maybe, peeking at a football game or shopping site once in awhile.”

(Terry Mattingly is director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)

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