iPhone Confession; Verdicts Via NPR, Protestants

A few days ago I wrote about the new confession prep app developed by two priest and approved by the Bishop of Fort Wayne.

While I thought the tool could be a terrific aid in the examination of conscience, I also worried that — despite repeated declarations that the app did not constitute a confession, or dispense absolution, that it did not preclude the need to go to confession — some would go through the app process and decide that, click, click, click, they had pretty much taken care of confession. That worry was supported by my informal survey of two young Catholics, one of whom said he could see precisely that circumstance arising.

A few friends and emailers told me I was stupid to worry about such a thing, because “common sense should tell people that it won’t replace confession.”

Oh, yeah? Tell that to people who have heard CNN’s Kyra Phillips say — stupidly and erroneously — “this replaces confession; priests aren’t needed and the Vatican has signed off on it!”

Okay, so much for common sense. A better take on the app comes from NPR, where Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s report makes a point of leading with “designers say it’s not meant to replace the priest but to help believers prepare to bare their sins.” Hagerty talks to a few people as they peruse the app.

The verdict? Well, listen to the report. It seems some felt immediately encouraged to follow-up with confession, and some were horrified at the idea of actually discussing their failings with a priest, or — for that matter — even getting too icky-in-introspection. One 22 year-old respondent was adamant that she would not be heading to confession. Seeming to find the examination of conscience intrusive (we have catechized our young so poorly) she declared, “I feel like I got it over with by doing this!”

There is something kind of ironic in the notion of people being “taken aback” by probing questions, privately considered. The culture is crazy for psycho-babble, and approving of psychotherapy (which is, um…baring your thoughts and actions to the scrutiny of another human being) and we are continually being prompted to “look inside yourself” and otherwise obsess over ourselves, but when the spiritually sound and profitable idea of deeply examining one’s conscience comes up, there is this “ewww…seriously?” sort of reaction.

So, do we actually mean it when we gas away about “finding” ourselves or make resolutions to “be a better person,” or is it just the superficial jabbering of the moment? An examination of conscience is a valuable tool to aid in those efforts. And in that respect, I really like the idea of this app.

I just worry a lot about that “I got it over with by doing this” response, which I think will be the route taken by those of us who are accustomed to that path of least resistance. Sigh.

For Protestants and Evangelicals, who don’t have to consider following-up with a sacramental absolution, this app may prove to be a very helpful too as we all gear up for Lent and Easter!

Like most people, John Mark Reynolds, a professor of philosophy at Biola University and co-editor of The New Media Frontier, initially thought that the app allowed users to confess and receive forgiveness through the iPhone. He told The Christian Post that his first reaction to the app was, “Arghh, another example of failing to understand that physicality matters.”

But after looking more closely at the tool’s features, he said evangelicals should take a cue from their Catholic counterparts on the practice of confessions and checking their “spiritual temperature” with the Ten Commandments.

“A checklist like that is totally compatible with evangelical traditions. Someone like John Calvin or Martin Luther would want you to go through the Ten Commandments and reflect thoughtfully on how you may have broken them,” said Reynolds.

As digital confessors tap their way through the app, they are asked questions like: “Do I not give God time every day in prayer?” “Have I been angry with God?” and “Have I encouraged anyone to have an abortion?”

Daily and thorough introspection is a good thing, according to Reynolds.


Over at Busted Halo, Phil Fox Rose
puzzles it out some more:

The problem is that when you get this specific, then you’re going to include some things some people won’t agree with and leave out some things some people think are essential. For example, one question is whether you’ve prayed daily. I myself do, and it is most decidedly a good thing, but if you fail to do so, is that something you have to bring to a confessor? There are also unnuanced questions concerning highly charged issues like homosexuality and contraception.

Well, let’s face it, when it comes to our faults, failings, sins, it’s never been about nuance and the app — if it is to reflect the reality of the church — must reflect the teachings of the church. It cannot be expected to shy away from delicate or politically incorrect questions, not if it wants to facilitate an objective examination of conscience. Anything less would be a denial of itself, and how can any tool help you to become more aware of who you are, if it is not first being fully being what it is supposed to be? It’s one thing to say “I disagree…” it’s another thing to say, “and because I disagree you must change and conform to my view.” A Catholic app must represent the Catholic Church’s views, or the whole exercise becomes pointless. The app must be allowed to be what it is, as a church (or “belief system”) must be allowed to be what it is, too.

But then again, that is the very heart of the real practice of “tolerance,” and personal liberty, is it not? Being able to disagree without compelling another person’s (or institution’s) conformity to a point of view he/it finds abhorrent?

Come to think of it, it’s at the heart of the battle between truth and the dictatorship of relativism, too.

We’ll keep following this story. Perhaps tonight, if I can find five minutes, I will download the thing onto my iPad and try it out!

Meanwhile, Deacon Greg is following up on the new missal translations.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Human nature being what it is, the confession app is a bad idea, because people will use it to replace confession, whether they’re supposed to or not.

    You shouldn’t be going to your phone anyway, for religious help, I mean, for God’s sake. . .

    Meanwhile, Christian persecution increases across the world. In Indonesia, Moslem mobs attacked three churches, and a Christian orphanage.

    Maybe we need to turn off our iphones, ipads, what have you, and pay attention to what’s actually going on.

  • Mandy P.

    You know, I understand that there are probably going to be people who fill out their confession app and then consider themselves done. But I would posit that those people aren’t likely to go to confession anyway. Ms. Scales, your own quizzing of the two young Catholics in your previous post about the subject really only underscores this point. Neither one had been to confession in quite some time. And using this app didn’t make them any more likely to go any time soon. Well, it seems that they are already predisposed to ignore the call to Reconciliation.

    However, as an incoming Catholic who is preparing to make my first ever confession during the Lenten season, I’ve read the reviews and checked out the demo and am considering using it to help me in my examination of conscience. It’s really very thorough and asks questions that I wouldn’t likely think of myself. Overall, my impression is that the app is a really helpful tool for those who are already inclined to practice the Sacrament. I mean really, what’s the difference between the pamphlet about conducting an examination of conscience- including lots of questions to prompt you through the process- given to me by the Sister who is in charge of my catechesis and this app, aside from the technology angle? What’s the difference between the app and the examination of conscience questions found in the books I’ve read on the Sacrament? You could make the same arguments about those that are on paper serving to unintentionally discourage people from going to confession as you can about the app.

    I honestly think is is really only an issue for those who are already inclined to avoid the Sacrament and are looking for an excuse to continue to do so. And in that case, instead of reinforcing that narrative, I think it would be wise to make it clear that use of an iPhone app is not a valid excuse to ignore the call to be reconciled with God and the Church.

  • Anonymous

    The media are clueless when it comes to religion.

  • Mandy P.

    That should say Ms. Scalia, and not Scales. The auto-correct monster gets me every time.

  • Mandy P.

    That should say Ms. Scalia, and not Scales. The auto-correct monster gets me every time.

  • KentuckyCatholic

    I couldn’t agree more, Mandy.

    I have serious doubts whether the person who values the sacrament enough to go weekly, monthly, or even yearly, are going to be fooled by the app. If they are catechised well enough to know that they need Reconciliation, they are catechized well enough to know this app is not it…

    It is only those that are looking for excuses not to go that will find this as their excuse.

  • Nzie

    I am thinking of getting it. I was never very good about going to confession, to be honest- I went when I was marched to it in Advent and/or Lent, even though I was receiving Eucharist weekly. I knew I had to go last year, and the priest, a simply lovely Polish priest who sits for us in the English Mass (I’m in Moscow) using his schoolboy English from probably 50 years ago, and asking me to speak slowly, told me that I’m supposed to come once a month. He told me, and you know, I’ve haven’t gone more than 2, and only that long once, since then. I am always amalgamating various Acts of Contrition and I know I have more sins than I can remember. I really look forward to feeling truly prepared – I just hope Fr. Augustine doesn’t think I’m playing with a phone!

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Meanwhile, Iraqi Christians fear for their lives, and Christians are dying in Indonesia.

    Here, we worry about our iphone apps—yes, even a confession app is still just an app, and still just part of your mobile phone; a great gadget, but still just a phone.

    Maybe we’re becoming too reliant on our techno-toys.

  • Nzie

    Oh, and I’m 24, in case age is relevant. I notice a lot of us simply don’t do things until we’re reminded and asked. I am from a very Catholic family, and I try to live faithfully, and I still wasn’t going more than once a year probably; I knew it, but it wasn’t brought forward very often, so it just stayed in the back of my mind.. One of the articles I read, maybe one by a college classmate, covered it nicely, and said confession rates are much higher when priests encourage it. I think the priests who did this are trying. Now, if we can back up the app with having more than 30 minutes on a Saturday or “by appointment” for confession, I think there’s a real chance for progress.

  • Ruth Ann Pilney

    It is exciting for me to see how this topic is being discussed in many venues. I mean how often does this happen where it goes beyond strictly Catholic circles?

    I guess the topic to discuss among ourselves and with others is, “What is an examination of conscience, and how does it relate to the sacrament of Penance?”

    Another topic might be, “What are ALL the ways a Catholic may be forgiven by God for his or her sins?”

    Speaking for myself, I make a daily effort to examine my conscience, and I do this at Night Prayer. As for sacramental confession, I make it a practice to go monthly. Others go less often. The Church teaches that we must confess all serious sin, aka mortal sins, once yearly, as a minimum. If one has no mortal sins, and I would hope that is most people, there is no obligation for a sacramental confession.

  • http://www.noodlingonit.com Kris, in New England

    Like Mandy below, I too am an incoming Catholic – preparing to go thru my first Reconciliation in April. I have downloaded the app to my iPhone and so far – I like it. Like Mandy, it will be a great way to prepare myself for the Sacrament by learning how it all works. Coming from an evangelical Christian background – confession is just not something I ever did.

    I have logged on, set myself up and done my first confession. I am a tad frustrated because there is a screen for “Sins” but I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to record them in the space provided. Learning curve!

    And again, I agree with Mandy – if this app is all you think you need, then going to confession was never high on your list of priorities anyway.

  • SW72

    What about the issue of privacy? If the app prompts you to enter information about your specific sins (and I don’t know that it does), then the confidentiality that priests ensure in the sacrament of confession is violated by the privacy-betraying nature of digital devices.

  • Ruth Ann

    It’s true that the priest may not violate the seal of confession, which means he may not tell anyone what was disclosed to him in a sacramental confession. But there is no prohibition against the sinner telling someone what he or she confessed.

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  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Please, go read the article the Anchoress links to about the Coptic Mother Theresa.

    Then, turn off your iphone for a while. Egyptian Christians live in garbage; we fret about out gadgetry.

    If you need an iphone app to prep for confession, then. . . .well, I think something, somehow, has gone wrong. In fact, if you need your iphone for anything really serious. . . well, something, somehow, has gone wrong.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6SQWADITZPYHKSWSM5ONMDI52I Greta

    But will the parishes go online soon to accept tweet confessions electronically? I would bet you will soon see a liberal led parish somewhere move to go electronic. Most have taken the sacrament of reconcilliation as a low priority along the same lines as central tabernacle and Eucharistic Adoration. Yes, we offer the sacrament on Tuesday evening for 10 minutes, but you can shoot it over electronically and get an instant forgiveness without pain or inconvenience.

  • Sally Thomas

    I don’t even have a consistently-working cellphone, let alone an iPhone. But I do often vary up my examens before Confession — I’ll use one examination for a while, then when I start to feel a little too comfortable, or to have the nagging feeling that there’s something else I ought to be thinking about, I’ll go online and pull something up, just to look at a different set of questions, or a different list of what constitutes “sloth,” or whatever. So I have no particular beef against the idea of presenting an examination of conscience via a gadget, even though it’s not a gadget I’m ever likely to own.

    I have just been stressing to my First Communion class, by the way, who are making their first Confessions this month, that while the minimum requirement is once a year, that’s a little like saying that since it’s possible to live for something like three weeks on no food, that’s how long you should plan to go without eating.

    Also, I’ve just last month celebrated the fourth anniversary of my reception into the Church, and my first Confession. When I was Anglican, I used to say to myself that the number-one reason I’d never be Catholic was that I would have to go to Confession. Now I wonder how I didn’t implode.

  • http://twitter.com/Sr_Lisa Sr Lisa M Doty

    I half-heartedly ask question on my latest post if the app was developed so to entice people to think about confession. Of course, the real question is, ‘Why Go to Confession?’: http://nunspeak.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/why-go-to-confession-anyway/

  • Karu

    Okay, here’s the real problem with it — it’s misnamed. If they had called it “examination of conscience” it would have been far more accurate, but less intriguing, I guess.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    And, trust me, if you “confess” to an iphone, it’s going to go on some record, somewhere, whether you want it to, or not.

    And will the iphone absolve you, once you’ve confessed?

    This is a very bad idea.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Or, putting it another way, sinners are going to wind up letting a lot of people know about their sins if they list them on iphone, whether they intended to tell them, or not.

    The iphone has no seal of confession. The iphone cannot absolve your sins. The iphone has some useful attachments, such as maps, but it’s main purpose is so people can walk around yakking and texting all day: “And then I told her, uh-huh. . . and she told me. . . yah right! And I’m like. . . and he’s like. . . ”

    Bless me iphone, for I have sinned? What have we come to?

  • Guest

    Just for the record, Lutherans and Anglicans CAN follow this up with sacramental absolution. We have it, too. (See Apology to the Augsburg Confession, XIII.3-4; Book of Common Prayer, p. 447)

  • Jason

    Mobile devices are just a type of technology. It could be said that books are also a type of technology. Both can be used as good tools in bringing people into the fullness of Truth. Before we were able to print books in large quantities quickly the Sacred Scriptures were not widely available. Books brought the Word to the faithful. Just list radio, television, computers, mobile computers, etc.

  • doc

    Kyra Phillips…you gotta be kiddin me. If CNN employs reporters this stupid or this dishonest (because she’s one or the other), why would any Catholic trust any of the nonsense spewed forth from CNN?

  • Math nerd

    Couldn’t say, I don’t.

  • jte

    The laying on of hands is required for absolution, the same goes for consecrating bread and wine to become the body and blood of our Lord. It’s just not something that you do over the phone/email/iphone app. Plus, the sacrament of reconciliation is an opportunity to encounter Jesus.