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Confession? There’s an app for that. Several, actually

March 15, 2011

Theologians, psychologists and sociologists agree about the benefits — spiritual, emotional and communal — of confession.

Revealing our sins and missteps to another person, in writing or in person, helps alleviate guilt and its accompanying anxieties. That, in turn, leads to happier, healthier living.

A Catholic bishop in Indiana recently gave his imprimatur to a thoroughly modern take on the ancient act of confession with a thumbs up to “Confession: A Roman Catholic App,” a new application for the iPhone and iPad that helps users catalogue their sins before entering a church confessional booth.

Developed by the Indiana software company Little iApps LLC, the $1.99 iTunes “Confession” app leads users through a “personalized examination of conscience” with “password protected profiles and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament.”

Little iApps developer Patrick Leinen has said he was inspired create the “Confession” app by Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Communications Day in which the pontiff endorsed the spiritual value of new media.

“If used wisely,” Benedict said, “(it) can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity, which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.”

Since the pope was the inspiration for Leinen’s app, he sought a nihil obstat (meaning, in Latin, “nothing hinders”) from his local bishop, the Most Rev. Kevin Rhodes, which says, essentially, the app is theologically kosher.

While the “Confession” app received the bishop’s seal of approval, the Vatican cautioned users against thinking that it could be a substitute for physically entering an actual confessional with an actual priest.

“One may not speak in any sense of confessing via iPhone,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said in a statement earlier this week. “(The) Sacrament of Penance necessarily requires the relationship of personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and absolution by the confessor present.”

Even on iTunes, “Confession” buyers are warned that “it does not and cannot take the place of confessing before a validly ordained Roman Catholic priest in a confessional, in person, either face to face or behind the screen.”

While some users might consider “Confession” little more than a gimmick, its creators appear to be serious about their intent: to draw more Catholics back to the church and to the confessional.

The same cannot be said of the makers of more than a dozen other similar apps available either for free or for a small fee via iTunes.

For instance:

  • iConfess, the (Catholic) Confession Handbook and Guide ($1.99).

Introduced in July 2010, this app is similar to the “Confession” app, but doesn’t have an official imprimatur. It allows users to track sins in a list they can take with them into the confessional booth, as well as a feature for taking notes to remind users about ongoing spiritual issues.

  • Mea Culpa: Catholic Examination of Conscience for Confession ($1.99). “A thorough exam is the surest way to make an accurate and holy confession.” This app provides a check list of “mortal” and “venial”sins, as well as suggested prayers for use before and after confession.
  • iRepent ($1.99). “Worried about going to hell? ... Your peace of mind is just one click away...” There’s also I-Confess ($.99), with the tag, “Too busy or too ashamed to go to a real priest?” Both apps feature graphics that mimic the experience of confessing to a priest through a darkened screen. Emphasis on “mimic.”

A number of iPhone apps — some of which are listed in iTunes as “games” or “entertainment” — take a less spiritual — and decidedly more voyeuristic — approach to confession:

  • The free app Confession lets users record confessions in their own voice, upload them and share them with the world, as well as listen to the confessions of others.
  • iAdmit ($.99) lets users “anonymously admit what’s on your mind and view what’s on others’ minds,” and offers “thumbs up/thumbs down” buttons to vote on whether they “like” another user’s confession.
  • Penance, a free app game, features public confessions and lets users choose their own “confession door”: confess, absolve or reflect. It also ranks “notable confessors” on a “league table,” with the “foremost” winning titles and “the right to issue week-long edicts to the faithful.”

This glut of confession apps is, of course, simply the latest contemporary twist on an ancient rite in the Christian tradition — and many other religious traditions as well, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

One of the Scriptures frequently cited as establishing confession as a sacrament is from the New Testament book of James: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.”

Healing — of the spirit and the mind — is supposed to be the goal of confession. And if these new technologies lead to real-life reconciliation and wholeness, they might endure.

But if they merely attempt to titillate and entertain, their faux piety will amount to another pixilated flash in the psycho-spiritual pan.

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