Recently I paid my $1.99 and downloaded the new iPhone app for confession. Seeing the app was subtitled “a Roman Catholic App,” I figured it wasn’t going to suffer from “Catholicism Lite.” (Whether the new app would meet the demanding standard of John Allen’s “Taliban Catholicism,” I was about to find out.)
Since its release, the confession app has received incredible media attention, including some predictable confusion about whether it absolves the penitent of the need for a priest. Bill Donohue at the Catholic League was first into the breach in clarifying what a number of stories had misrepresented. The creators of the app itself are very clear on this issue:
The app is intended to be used during the Sacrament of Penance with a Catholic priest only. This is not a substitute for a valid confession.
The company that created the app — Little iApps — received an imprimatur, the first for an iPhone app, from Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Indiana; while advice was given by Rev. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M., executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices, and Rev. Dan Scheidt, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mishawaka, Indiana.
The app itself allows multiple users to log in with their own password, thus providing security for the examination of conscience that follows. It opens with a listing of the Ten Commandments, each containing four to six questions with boxes following. Once a box is checked, indicating a particular sin has been committed, it is bolded over a light blue background.
For example, the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is followed by questions asking if I’ve “mutilated myself through any form of sterilization?” or “encouraged or condoned sterilization?”
The general examination of conscience is followed by a “Custom Category” list, where you are invited to “add questions to your personal examination” of conscience, clicking the edit button “to add or remove custom sins.” (There’s a real note of hope in allowing for the removal of “custom sins.” In my experience, once something vaults into the category of “custom sin,” it’s very likely to remain there for the rest of your life.)
After the examination of conscience, the app provides a step-by-step guide through the process and proper language of confession itself — even prompting you to mention how many days it has been since your last confession. Just in case you’ve forgotten anything from the examination of conscience, the boxes you checked earlier are compiled into a list that opens after the initial prayers with a priest.
The final section of the app lists seven acts of contrition, including one in Latin, followed by the Church’s traditional prayers, such as the Memorare. Once you ask for and receive absolution, a short spiritual quote appears on the screen. In my case: “St. Frances de Sales: We can never attain perfection while we have affection for any imperfection.”
As far as I can tell, the examination of conscience does not produce a graph over time of what sins I check. This is just as well, because it would feel odd to scrutinize an app on my iPhone or iPad for the state of my spiritual life, in the same way I check my Golfplan app for my putting and driving statistics.
After reading through the long list of media reports on the confession app, I was left wondering: Why all the attention? I concluded it was a tribute to the Catholic obligation of confession itself. The juxtaposition of a sacred practice so ancient with a device as high-tech as the iPhone creates an irresistible opening for media coverage and comment.
In point of fact, the confession app really provides nothing that couldn’t be achieved with an old-style tract and pencil. But what’s remarkable about the new smartphone devices is how much of our day-to-day lives can be contained there. It’s important that a company like Little iApps has produced an aid to confession that does not distort or cheapen it. And kudos to Bishop Rhoades, Father Weinandy, and Father Scheidt for providing help to these Catholic entrepreneurs.