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?
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.)