In debate over iPhone confession app, aftershocks of Calvinist-Catholic fault line

The iPhone confession app is stirring age-old questions: Do mediating objects assist or hinder in the pursuit of grace? Do things lessen the sincerity or authenticity of religious action?

The New York Times is not known for particular sensitivity toward religious issues. So Maureen Dowd had my full attention when she recently proclaimed that “Nothing is sacred anymore, not even the sacred.”

Was she referring to new revelations of clergy scandals? Or to the latest poll statistics showing continued decline in church attendance? Was she lamenting new twists in the commingling of religion and politics?

Perfect aid?

None of the above. Ms. Dowd was writing about a new application for the iPhone and iPad: a “Confession App.” “Designed to be used in the confessional,” reads the official iTunes product description, “this app is the perfect aid for every penitent.”

A succession of screens guides the user through the steps of Confession. The penitent reviews a list of responsibilities (“Examination of Conscience”) before checking off boxes on a menu of committable sins. Then follows a list of suitable prayers. There are even pop-up quotes from Scripture.

Reactions, predictably, have ranged from praise to puzzlement to ridicule. (When was the last time the sacrament of Confession got so many headlines?)
(Apps, for the uninitiated, are mini software programs lined up in rows on the touchscreen phone surface; touching the appropriate “icon” launches the program.)

Catholic bloggers jumped into the debate, lining up screenshots and dissecting the content and product specs. Flaws were noted: true confession requires indicating the number of times a sin has been committed (and not just the kind of sin). Nor does the app include the required penance befitting each sin. The general verdict appears to be “useful but flawed.”

Is the new app, then – conveniently priced at $1.99 – really a “perfect aid for every penitent”? Apparently not.

Minor product flaws aside, much of the concerned commentary centers on a familiar, nondenominational source of anxiety: the role of mediation in our religious lives.

Tension between the spiritual and the physical

Throughout human history, people have been caught in an irresolvable tension between the desire to experience the divine intimately and immediately, and the inexorable need for mediating words, objects, and relationships.

This tension, of course, was at the core of the theological and political battles in Reformation Europe. Calvinists drew a sharp distinction between matters of human and divine origin: “The word of God suffices,” wrote one of Calvin’s predecessors: Verbum Dei sufficit.

Yet five centuries later, the same basic questions remain alive and relevant: How does divine grace become active and take effect among flawed human beings? Do mediating objects assist or hinder in the pursuit of grace? Do things lessen the sincerity or authenticity of religious action?

Seeking to dispel myths about the saving impact of modern gadgetry, a Vatican spokesman responded to the controversy by stating, bluntly, “One cannot talk in any way about a ‘confession via iPhone’.”

No less than in the 16th century, we still wrestle in the 21st with the appropriate boundaries between the physical and the spiritual.

Today, in an age of diminished faith, we cling to our gadgets as vehicles of transformative, quasi-religious power, in search of pleasure, entertainment, or knowledge – in search of secular salvation.

“For the love of God,” wrote one popular Catholic blogger, anxious that his readers experience the old-fashioned kind of salvation: “Go to Confession!”

Nor does he trust the average iPhone-using Catholic “who hasn’t been to confession in a long time” to properly use the app. It needs “help screens and gentle welcoming language, rather than just thrusting” the user “into a list of sins.”

The app developers responded almost immediately: existing flaws, they assured, would be corrected in future updates.

Will apps weaken our faith?

In a recent book, Nicholas Carr argues that spending our lives increasingly online is making us more shallow, and less capable of deep thought. Will our electronically mediated spiritual lives, too, suffer from the same weakness?

At least one consumer, Greg K., appears to be on the road to digital salvation:

“I actually prayed to God that I be able to get an iPhone back when they came out and I promised Him I would use it to improve my spiritual life to the best of my ability. He came through in an obvious way. He made it possible for me to get the iPhone (it certainly was not my finances). The Mea Culpa app has helped me and it seems to me the Confession app would as well.”

Greg adds: “I have spoken to my pastor about using the app and he approves.”

How could Jesus object to that?

David Charles is editorial director at the religion and spirituality website

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