May 26, 2011
The Catholic Church and Technology: The Case of the Confession App
— Ken Chitwood
The release of a new application for Apple Products such as the iPhone, “Confession: A Roman Catholic App,” made bemused headlines across the United States, including Maureen Dowd’s “Give us This Day our Daily App,” and Nicole Brewer’s “Forgive Me iPhone, For I Have Sinned.” With their clever titles and commentary, however, the media exacerbated the public’s initial confusion over the Confession App. Dowd wrote, “[N]othing is sacred anymore, even the sacred. And even that most secret ritual of the Roman Catholic faith, the veiled black confessional box.”
The designers at Little iApps, who dub themselves a technology company with a Roman Catholic flair, hoped that the app would serve as a preparatory program and penitential aide for faithful Catholics to use in the confessional with their local priest. They intended for the traditional elements of the sacrament of confession to remain intact as they introduced a tool to facilitate the faithful in their introspection and regular practice of confession. They did not mean for it to replace confession with a priest. Yet many users interpreted the app to do just that.
Downloaded for a modest fee, the app allows users to create their own confession profile (married, single, priest, etc.). The app also features an examination of conscience according to the Ten Commandments, using questions customized for each user. For example, a married man might be asked whether he neglected his duties to his wife and children. Following this examination, one may click on the “Confession” tab and follow the instructions to confess one’s sins to a priest, perform acts of contrition and receive absolution.
The app rose in popularity, reaching number one on the iTunes Lifestyle app list and number forty-two overall within the first week of its release. In the meantime, it seemed to the media that the Roman Catholic Church responded with mixed messages. Because the app had been released with an imprimatur (an official declaration for release) from Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Ft. Wayne, IN, the app appeared to be authorized by the church. However the Vatican stated that the Confession App cannot substitute for a sacrament offered by a Catholic priest, which some media outlets errantly interpreted as the Vatican restricting, or even banning, use of the top-selling app.
Compounding this confusion is the Roman Catholic Church’s callowness regarding mobile applications and social media. Despite having an up-to-date and interactive website, the Vatican is not well known for its endorsement and utilization of cutting-edge technology. Indeed, it was quite the surprise when, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI called on young Catholics around the world to use new technology to bring the Gospel to the people of a digital age. The first pope with a YouTube channel and a presence on Facebook, Pope Benedict XVI encourages his flock to adopt new internet technologies for the sake of the church. Nonetheless, the church’s forays into the brave world of new technologies have met with mixed success.
For example, many Catholic communities in Florida made the move to establish parish Facebook accounts in 2010. Then the Orlando diocese instructed those same communities to disable comments on their wall, thus severing any “social” aspect of a social media tool such as Facebook. Such perplexity only continues with the Confession App.
The app includes a disclaimer that “This app is intended to be used during the Sacrament of Penance with a Catholic priest only. This is not a substitute for valid confession,” but the designers and the Roman Catholic Church are naive to believe that such an announcement will prevent incertitude. In an age when mobile app users are accustomed to having the world at their fingertips, having an app that allows the user to confess their sins anywhere at anytime is to be expected; never mind the theological conundrum such a reality produces for church authorities.
With that said, while this event illuminated the Roman Catholic Church’s naivete in the world of mobile apps, it also highlighted a fair degree of religious illiteracy on behalf of the general public and the mass media. Both of these factors were central to the ensuing confusion surrounding the release of the Confession app and will remain issues to contend with as the interface between technology and theology continues in the years to come.
Dowd, Maureen. “Forgive Me Father, For I Have Linked.” The New York Times. February 8, 2011.
Drescher, Elizabeth. “Confession Fail: iPhone App Controversy Muddles the Sacramental Waters.” Religious Dispatches. February 11, 2011.
Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. “Confessing Sin In the Age of The iPhone.” National Public Radio. February 9, 2011.
Kunnerth, Jeff. “Catholic Church Embraces Social Media - With Limits.” Orlando Sentinel. March 23, 2011.
Mann, Benjamin. “Chart-topping Confession App Draws Catholic and Non-Catholic Interest.” Catholic News Agency. February 15, 2011.
Sweas, Megan. “Vatican first approves, then bans iPhone confessions?” US Catholic. February 9, 2011.
Ken Chitwood is a graduate student in Theology and Culture at Concordia University Irvine, CA and serves as an intern with LINC Houston, a charitable organization in Houston, TX.