All the media was aflutter in February with the release of “Confession: A Roman Catholic App.” The headlines included pithy periodical titles such as “Give us This Day our Daily App,” and “Forgive Me iPhone, For I Have Sinned,” but as the initial ballyhoo abated what we are left with today is a confessional booth’s worth of confusion.
With their clever titles and commentary, the media exacerbated initial public perplexity over the essence of the Confession app. When reporters such as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times made comments like, “[N]othing is sacred anymore, even the sacred. And even that most secret ritual of the Roman Catholic faith, the veiled black confessional box,” they inadvertently set off a whole spew of head-scratching among the faithful.
Although the Confession app was not meant to be sacramental, due to ambiguous media coverage many misunderstood it to be designed to replace traditional Confession. In point of fact, the designers at Little iApps had hoped the app would serve as a preparatory program and penitential aide for faithful Catholics to use in the confessional with their local priest. The Roman Catholic designers intended that the traditional elements of the Sacrament of Confession would remain intact as they introduced a tool to facilitate the faithful in their introspection and bring them back to a regular practice of confession.
As the app rose in popularity, reaching number one on iTunes Lifesytle app list and number forty-two overall within the first week of its release, the confusion only grew as seemingly mixed messages came from the Roman Catholic Church. Released with an imprimatur (an official declaration for release) from Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Ft. Wayne, IN, the app appeared to be imbued with sacred potency. Upon observing the average user’s misunderstanding of the app’s true purpose and hearing the media cause great confusion with their dubious descriptions, the Vatican released a statement that made clear that the confession app cannot substitute for a sacrament correctly offered by a Catholic priest. Right on cue, some media outlets errantly announced that the Vatican was restricting, or even banning, use of the top selling app.
Amidst this media confusion and public puzzlement some commentators began to wonder if such an app is even what the Roman Catholic church wants to be producing in such an era of technology. Elizabeth Drescher of Religious Dispatches challenged the Church to understand that, “regardless of how developers intend for an application to be used, the very nature of the culture shaped by digital social media allows that users will come up with new, creative, and, in the case of an app like Confession, wholly heterodox ways of using it.” From Drescher’s perspective, it is not the user or the media who is confused, but the Church itself.
As lay members and Church leaders seek to fulfill Pope Benedict XVI’s call to use technology to bring the Gospel to the people of a digital age, they are entering into a brave new world where they will have to face handing a lot of control to the user, something the Roman Catholic Church is not historically noted for. All this confusion clearly communicates that creating an app is one thing, transmitting theology, sacramentalism and the personal element of religion into an age of social media and digital devices is another thing entirely. Nevertheless, accompanying the confusion is the encouraging fact that a church that traces its origins back two millennia made the brave attempt to translate an ancient tradition into a contemporary scene of iPhones and iPads.
Although this event illuminated the Roman Catholic Church’s social media naivete it also highlighted a fair degree of religious illiteracy on behalf of the general public and the mass media. Both of these factors, I believe, were central to the ensuing confusion surrounding the release of the Confession app. With one group that understands and lives a life shaped by social media and another group that understands and lives a life shaped by theology there is no question that there will be, at times, a failure to communicate as both try to understand the other in the years to come. All the confusion informs us that both groups are in need of a lesson, one on religious beliefs and practices and the other on social media best practices. My question is, where is the app for that?
Dowd, Maureen. “Forgive Me Father, For I Have Linked.” The New York Times. February 8, 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/09/opinion/09dowd.html
Drescher, Elizabeth. “Confession Fail: iPhone App Controversy Muddles the Sacramental Waters.” Religious Dispatches. February 11, 2011: http://
Hagerty, Barbara Bradley. “Confessing Sin In the Age of The iPhone.” National Public Radio. February 9, 2011: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/09/133629830/iPhone-App-Helps-Catholics-Confess
Mann, Benjamin. “Chart-topping Confession App Draws Catholic and Non-Catholic Interest.” Catholic News Agency. February 15, 2011: http:// www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/chart-topping-confession-app-draws-catholic-and-non-catholic-interest/
Sweas, Megan. “Vatican first approves, then bans iPhone confessions?” US Catholic. February 9, 2011: http://uscatholic.org/blog/2011/02/vatican-first-approves-then-bans-iphone-confessions
*This was submitted for publication and reviewed by the editorial team with Sightings, an online publication of the University of Chicago’s Martin E. Marty Center.