It was bound to happen.
As apps proliferate for all kinds of purposes, it was probably just a matter of time before one was invented to probe the recesses of conscience for sin. With version 1.0 appearing in 2011, “Confession: A Roman Catholic App” was released several months ago in its 2.0 version. 2.0 not only fixed past bugs and added new languages, but it also confronts the penitent with “MANY new sins in every examination.” (I’ll pass on the obvious joke that one might, then, consider sticking with 1.0).
The app is not a substitution for private confession to a priest, but rather an aide in the process. The developer, littleiapps, located in South Bend Indiana, describes the $1.99 app as follows:
Designed to be used in the confessional, this app is the perfect aid for every penitent. With a personalized examination of conscience for each user, password protected profiles, and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament, this app invites Catholics to prayerfully prepare for and participate in the Rite of Penance. Individuals who have been away from the sacrament for some time will find Confession: A Roman Catholic App to be a useful and inviting tool.
The text for the app was developed with the assistance of Thomas G. Weinandy, Executive Director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Daniel Scheidt, priest of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mishawaka, Indiana. The app has even received the official “nihil obstat” and “imprimatur” from the relevant Catholic authorities, making it the first known imprimatur ever given for an iPhone/iPad app. (Nihil obstat and imprimatur [roughly: “nothing stands in the way” and “allow it to be printed”] are the traditional Latin designations given by the Church to books free from doctrinal error.)
One is tempted to snicker. Christianity and technology have, after all, had a long and often awkward relationship. In the nineteenth century, Pope Gregory XVI railed against trains, those “infernal machines,” and refused their admittance to the Papal States. The Amish have taken a pass on most of the Industrial Revolution, while mega-churches today, by contrast, strain to beguile those in the pew with the latest sound and visual technology.
But after the snickering subsides, a theological question remains: what role ought confession play in the Christian life? For Catholics, penance is one of the seven sacraments (or “holy mysteries”) of the faith. It is often taught that the Protestant Reformation shaved off five sacraments and kept only baptism and communion.
But that is not completely accurate. Martin Luther held confession or penance in high regard. In 1519, he wrote a trilogy on the “three sacraments”: penance, baptism, and communion. The first Protestant Confession, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, states that “private Absolution ought to be retained in the churches,” although it qualified this by saying that “in confession an enumeration of all sins is not necessary.” Every edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has contained provision for confession and absolution. Furthermore, bewailing one’s sins and some form of public confession stood at heart of many evangelical revivalist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Not Biblical? Christ himself thought it important enough to say this to his disciples when blessing them and sending them out: “‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (John 20:22-23). James 5:16, moreover, commends one “[to] confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Perhaps one need not buy the app, and here is not the place to develop a full-blown theology of penance. But before one’s bemusement hardens into disregard, Christians of all stripes might consider this Lenten season some collective self-examination, asking themselves if their church is enjoining its members to confession.
If not, why not?