Setting the iPhone “Confession App” Story Straight

The media’s been going crazy over a new iPhone app for Confession, the aptly named “Confession: A Roman Catholic App.”  So let’s just make one thing clear:  the iPhone app helps to remind people of their sins by asking personalized questions.  That is, if you put that you’re a seven-year old girl, the app will have a list of possible sins — and a very different list than if you put a 33 year-old man. It does not take the place of confession – it prepares people for confession. It also includes a copy of the prayers, in case you haven’t been in a long time and are nervous about forgetting them. All in all, the application seems very helpful but relatively unremarkable outside of Catholic circles.  But the media has been acting like this is a world-changing event.

For example, Maureen Dowd dedicated a typically-obnoxious New York Times editorial to this app alone.  It’s a grating experience to read the whole thing.  The editorial’s title is “Forgive Me, Father, for I Have Linked.”  The prayer, of course, is “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.”  This sets the general pattern for the piece by establishing that (a) Dowd doesn’t know anything about technology, and just uses the words in a random, Mad-Libs style, and (b) Dowd knows even less about Catholicism than technology.  For example, she begins her piece by mocking the Lord’s Prayer, but just replacing the prayers with random meaningless strings of words.  For example, what does, “Thy Web site come, Thy Net be done” mean?  How does one’s Net “be done”?  There was a time when the New York Times was one of the finest newspapers in the world.  Now, it’s publishing the equivalent of “Be-Bop-A-Lula” over a prayer.  And, of course, a Catholic prayer.  You won’t see Dowd (or anyone else at the Times) trying to turn the Muslim “Allah Akbar” prayer into a prayer praising Apple, say.

The editorial is revealing that Dowd’s fantasy world, besides having its own syntax and language, also has Roman Catholic priestesses, something that this world doesn’t have.  So she complains:

The app also tailors the questions if you sign in as a priest or a “religious.” For instance, if you say you’re a female and try to select “priest” as your vocation, a dialogue box appears that says “sex and vocation are incompatible.” So much for modernity.

“So much for modernity” suggests that we currently have Roman Catholic priestesses, and that this App wants to send us back into the past.  If someone told you that America doesn’t have flying cars, you wouldn’t say “so much for modernity” in response, unless you were a time traveler, new to English, or crazy.  We know Dowd’s not a time traveler (and Pope John Paul II explicitly declared that the Catholic Church will not and cannot ever ordain women, and that no pope has the power to), but she’s left the other two options wide open.

The comments make clear that the overwhelming majority of Dowd’s readers thought that the app replaced confession.  The first person to comment wrote, “One good thing about the iPhone app — it makes clear that confession is one of those rituals that should be phased out, and in the meantime, made optional.” The second began, “Confession by Internet, even if oblique and hypothetical, kind of takes the sacred secrecy out of the sacrament, does it not?” Of course, the general tenor of all of the comments reveal that an overwhelming majority of  Dowd’s commenters hate Catholicism and, often, religion in general.

Both the Vatican and the app developer have made clear that this app does not replace oral confession to a priest.  In her limited defense, Dowd did mention that that the application wasn’t supposed to replace confession. But in fairness to the commenters (who almost all assumed it did), this was at the end of the editorial, and only a brave few can trudge all the way through a Dowd editorial.  Besides, a quite legitimate question to ask is: if this is only a guide to help people confess their sins, like thousands of existing websites, pamphlets, etc., why is the media focusing on this?  Why does this app warrant New York Times coverage?  Most of the Church’s prayers are available in iPhone apps – there are missals walking you through the Mass (note: you still have to go to Mass), an iBreviary, and so on.

The only reason this story seems to be popular is that people think the app replaces confession.  So the media  coverage keeps “burying the lede” – putting the “this is not an i-Confession” disclaimer towards the end, where it’s less likely to get noticed. So that’s the point of this post: to make clear that no app replaces confession, and that the media is just being stupid about Catholicism again, and making people less informed than if they’d never picked up the paper.

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