Michael O'Hanlon has a post up on Confession: A Catholic App, "Yes, there's evan an app for that." It spurred some reflections too long for a comment.
The app is essentially an examination of conscience ported to the iPhone. At least two similar apps have been around for a while. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here. Examinations of conscience have long been printed on holy cards, in small pamphlets, and included in personal missals. This one tailors questions to one’s age and gender. All allow the entry of sins and implement a virtual seal of the confessional through a passcode. That last little point begins to make it interesting.
It has garnered attention because of its claim to be a Catholic app is buttressed by the collaboration of the USCCB Secretariat of Doctrine and Pastoral Practices and it has received an imprimatur from Bishop Kevin Rhodes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend… “the first known imprimatur to be given for an iPhone/iPad app.”
The emphasis on the imprimatur is pastorally relevant. Some of the criticism of similar apps concerns the liberties their authors took in defining various sins. Ecclesial anxiety about authority in the space of new media is a widespread and well founded.
On the one hand, this app stands out as a constructive way of addressing the problem: put appealing, useful material out there for people to engage. On the other, it highlights the profound limits that models of authority developed in the age of print encounter in the fast moving and vast world of the new media. This comes to market 6 months after other apps. and the 20th century classic nature of its examen may limit its attractiveness in contemporary culture. No doubt this app will achieve market dominance among iPhone toting tradition-minded Catholics who know and care about imprimaturs. It’s hard to imagine a demographic less in need of new forms of outreach.
By far, the most pressing need for outreach lies with generations who have no experience of examinations of conscience or confession. Such work will likely require something more edgy than any contemporary bishop would be willing to endorse. We cede that field to faster moving, more freely creative, and quite a bit thinner, forms of Christianity. Imprimaturs in cyberspace tempt with a profoundly false assurance that our conceptions and practices of authority are adequate to this context.
The digital confessional seal brings us into the second anxiety that accompanies the app and more generally the issue Catholicism in the new media realm. One of first reviews on the iTunes store--quoted approvingly by the developers in their description of the app--stresses that it “does not and can not take the place of confessing before a validly ordained Roman Catholic Priest.” Today Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi declared “I must stress to avoid all ambiguity, under no circumstances is it possible to ‘confess by iPhone’”
This anxiety is about much more than clerical authority as some coverage has suggested. In the words of the 2002 document “The Church and the Internet” “There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.” The sacraments anchor the Church to the body and teach us that our personhood is unavoidably bound to our embodiment and embodied relationships.
We are perhaps, the first generation alive that can really act on the perennial desire to flee our flesh. In Exodus to the Virtual World, Edward Castronova catalogues the deeply immersive power of the current online world and sketches the profound advances coming in the next decades. It took only a decade for the cutting edge special effects of TRON to come to affordable video game consoles, expect to be able to enter an immersion level as compelling as Avitar within a similar time frame. But he also notes that virtual worlds are increasingly profoundly social worlds. Second Life and World of Warcraft have many flaws, but it seems undeniable that such virtual realms will soon host compelling and important new forms of society. (Of course, the Internet already does.)
This, I think is the source of the buzz and anxiety that have surrounded the app. We all sense we are going there. Lombardi’s comments were ill informed--the app never claimed to substitute for confession--but his anxiety is the same one we feel watching our children silently text their friends while sitting with us; with our friends who spend weekends playing WoW; and with parents who spiral into the alternate reality of Glenn Beck and Fox News.
We fear everyone will get sucked into cyberspace and be lost to us. I don’t know the answer. A sacramental attention to the body must be part of the mix. But it is worth noting this anxiety arises from the outside. Like any culture or society, virtual worlds can only be adequately undertood, critiqued, and transformed by those who know them from within.