There truly is an app for everything. Even for acting inappropriately.
Those who find themselves veering off the moral path—or even more importantly, those who worry they might be, but aren’t sure—can now download an application called Confession: A Roman Catholic App to their iPhones, iPads, or iPod Touches. (I don’t believe there’s a Windows version, doubtless because anyone still using Microsoft or other non-Apple products has abandoned all hope already.)
When a company called Little iApps released the product earlier this month, the predictable media reaction ranged from snickering to sneering. Much of the reportage and commentary dismissed it as a mock-worthy triviality or a nice-try evasion. In fairness, its developers may have unwittingly invited some of that the response by marketing the app as something for Catholics to use “in the confessional.” It is so much more.
In fact, the confessional is literally the last place for “Confession” to be used. The app’s primary function is to aid in the examination of conscience, which necessarily precedes the actual sacrament of reconciliation. Its functionality in that regard is phenomenal. And, despite its name, it is equally useful for Catholics and non-Catholics.
A recognized means of achieving behavioural change, after all, is combining awareness, acknowledgment, and forgiveness of an underlying fault. Programs ranging from long-term weight reduction to improved fitness to anger management, financial control, and just about everything else are based on the development of new habits by tracking the occurrence of old habits, recognizing their negative effects, and then letting go, rather than obsessing about them.
AppLand is abundant with devices that make use of that method. I have eight of them on my iPhone alone, ranging from my iRun mileage tracker to a program that lets me know if I’m getting enough green leafy vegetables and not eating too much meat. Put another way, psychology and technology are finally catching up to the Church’s two-millennia old understanding of owning up to what we’ve done, acknowledging our need to change, and committing ourselves to change without fetishizing errors.
Did I say two millennia? Actually, the heart of the Confession app is as old as Judeo-Christianity. It’s the Ten Commandments. The app’s examination of conscience feature takes users through each one of the Commandments and asks them to consider how they’ve fared against its obligations. It even provides a series of tick boxes to mark off various actions that offend some aspect of The 10.
It’s the moral equivalent of tracking the second helpings of cherry pie you ate this week, or how much money you “borrowed” from the kids’ education fund to buy that new version of Windows that will malfunction within hours of installation.
Obviously, something far more significant is at stake. (That would be your immortal soul.) But the principle of change is the same. Best of all, as with Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, or any other app, Confession’s examination of conscience feature is there wherever you happen to be.
You can sit on a bus bench waiting for the 105 after work and tick off whether you broke the Seventh Commandment against stealing that day by wasting your employer’s time.
You can spend the entire day roving between your PC, your big screen TV, and your video games and then ask yourself honestly whether you offended against the Third Commandment by failing to give “God time every day in prayer” or seeking “to love Him with (your) whole heart.”
You can drive by the church on your way to the golf course on Sunday, and make yourself honestly tick off the fault that you are deliberately missing your Sabbath obligation.
Or say you were a Canadian federal cabinet minister whose career is cratering because of allegations that you’ve deliberately deceived a parliamentary committee (Bev Oda, call on line two). You could look at the tick boxes under the Eighth Commandment and decide, in the privacy of your own conscience, the blunt question: “Have I lied?”
So it goes, down to what might be called the Silvio Berlusconi Breach of the Sixth Commandment for failing to respect all members of the opposite sex and for treating people as objects. Berlusconi’s days as Italian prime minister—perhaps as a free man—are numbered because of his orgiastic appetites and his grotesque abuses of power. But the examination of conscience questions in the Confession app remind us that the moral offense of, say, adultery isn’t because of its sexual nature. It’s because we diminish the humanity of others by putting our own gratification above everything, including our vows to our spouse and to God. To look down at the screen of a piece of portable technology and be provoked to question whether we are culpable, too, is a special kind of wake up call.
Such questioning is something we all ought to be doing—if not all the time, at least on a regular basis. That is, we should if we care as much about our moral well being as we do about our waistlines, our bank accounts, or our marathon finishing times.
And on that basis alone, Confession is one of the most profound and important apps available. It is certainly head and shoulders above one I downloaded to translate my e-mails into voice messages that sound like Donald Duck hyperventilating helium.
There remains the question of what to do with the app’s compilation of ticked off sins once the examination of conscience is completed. The next step is actual confession, and the developers are blunt: It is “intended to be used during the Sacrament of Penance with a Catholic priest only.” So much for the Presbyterian demographic, you might say.
Well, not so fast. All Christians—arguably all people of sound religious faith—believe that contrition follows examination of a properly formed conscience. Catholics believe that full contrition for mortal sins requires an outward and visible (or at least audible) individual expression to God through his priesthood for absolution to be truly valid.
It is, after all, as specific individuals—not general communities—that we commit concrete sins. It is as individuals—not whole collectivities—that we seek our particular absolution.
It is possible, in Catholic teaching, for someone to make a perfect act of contrition if they are motivated entirely by sorrow for their serious sins. Given the imperfection of human beings, however, you wouldn’t want to bet the kids’ education fund—much less your immortal soul—on the certainty that a motivation such as fear isn’t really at work.
Or as a wise priest I know once told me: “Of course, the Church is full of sinners. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need a Church.” The corollary, of course, is that the sinners who fill the Church are hardly the most reliably placed to objectively absolve themselves of sin.
Yet even those who, for reasons of tradition or theology, disagree with the Catholic understanding of confession and reconciliation can still find Confession-the-app useful. For its last section is a choice of prayers, the simplest and most beautiful of which is this:
Oh my God I am sorry for my sins because I have offended you. I know I should love you above all things. Help me to do penance, to do better, and to avoid anything that might lead me to sin.
An app that says Amen. That’s as appropriate a use of technology as we’ll ever find.