Imprimaturs, Sacraments, and Cyberspace

Michael O'Hanlon has a post up on Confession: A Catholic App, "Yes, there's evan an app for that."  It spurred some reflections too long for a comment.

The app is essentially an examination of conscience ported to the iPhone.  At least two similar apps have been around for a while.  There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here.  Examinations of conscience have long been printed on holy cards, in small pamphlets, and included in personal missals.  This one tailors questions to one’s age and gender.  All allow the entry of sins and implement a virtual seal of the confessional through a passcode.  That last little point begins to make it interesting.


It has garnered attention because of its claim to be a Catholic app is buttressed by the collaboration of the USCCB Secretariat of Doctrine and Pastoral Practices and it has received an imprimatur from Bishop Kevin Rhodes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend… “the first  known imprimatur to be given for an iPhone/iPad app.”

The emphasis on the imprimatur is pastorally relevant.  Some of the criticism of similar apps concerns the liberties their authors took in defining various sins.  Ecclesial anxiety about authority in the space of new media is a widespread and well founded. 

On the one hand, this app stands out as a constructive way of addressing the problem: put appealing, useful material out there for people to engage.  On the other, it highlights the profound limits that models of authority developed in the age of print encounter in the fast moving and vast world of the new media.  This comes to market 6 months after other apps. and the 20th century classic nature of its examen may limit its attractiveness in contemporary culture.  No doubt this app will achieve market dominance among iPhone toting tradition-minded Catholics who know and care about imprimaturs.  It’s hard to imagine a demographic less in need of new forms of outreach.

By far, the most pressing need for outreach lies with generations who have no experience of examinations of conscience or confession.  Such work will likely require something more edgy than any contemporary bishop would be willing to endorse.  We cede that field to faster moving, more freely creative, and quite a bit thinner, forms of Christianity.  Imprimaturs in cyberspace tempt with a profoundly false assurance that our conceptions and practices of authority are adequate to this context.

The digital confessional seal brings us into the second anxiety that accompanies the app and more generally the issue Catholicism in the new media realm.  One of first reviews on the iTunes store--quoted approvingly by the developers in their description of the app--stresses that it “does not and can not take the place of confessing before a validly ordained Roman Catholic Priest.”  Today Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi declared “I must stress to avoid all ambiguity, under no circumstances is it possible to ‘confess by iPhone’”

This anxiety is about much more than clerical authority as some coverage has suggested.  In the words of the 2002 document  “The Church and the Internet” “There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.”  The sacraments anchor the Church to the body and teach us that our personhood is unavoidably bound to our embodiment and embodied relationships. 

We are perhaps, the first generation alive that can really act on the perennial desire to flee our flesh.  In Exodus to the Virtual World, Edward Castronova catalogues the deeply immersive power of the current online world and sketches the profound advances coming in the next decades.  It took only a decade for the cutting edge special effects of TRON to come to affordable video game consoles, expect to be able to enter an immersion level as compelling as Avitar within a similar time frame.  But he also notes that virtual worlds are increasingly profoundly social worlds.   Second Life and World of Warcraft have many flaws, but it seems undeniable that such virtual realms will soon host compelling and important new forms of society.  (Of course, the Internet already does.)

This, I think is the source of the buzz and anxiety that have surrounded the app.  We all sense we are going there.  Lombardi’s comments were ill informed--the app never claimed to substitute for confession--but his anxiety is the same one we feel watching our children silently text their friends while sitting with us; with our friends who spend weekends playing WoW; and with parents who spiral into the alternate reality of Glenn Beck and Fox News.

We fear everyone will get sucked into cyberspace and be lost to us.  I don’t know the answer.  A sacramental attention to the body must be part of the mix.  But it is worth noting this anxiety arises from the outside.  Like any culture or society, virtual worlds can only be adequately undertood, critiqued, and transformed by those who know them from within.

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
 " ...This, I think is the source of the buzz and anxiety that have surrounded the app. ...  We fear everyone will get sucked into cyberspace and be lost to us."

I think so too, and I don't know the answer.

I have been intensely involved in internet communing for more than 15 years.  And I know with certitude that if I do not discipline myself in how much time I spend online, my sense of self and my ability to center and be still and quiet, become severely compromised.  I need great chunks of time each day in which I confront and interact with the Reality and people who are immediately around me.  I need great chunks of time in which I am quiet and alone, and can pray. 

The idea of doing an examination of conscience with an "app", helpful as it might seem, also feels somehow sacrilegious to me.  At any rate, I know that it won't work for me, and it worries me that the Church is following along with the sideline of "being hip" or something.

I've come to know that, for me, the internet is largely a distraction.  Though the reading and commenting here on the America blog sometimes can spur me to think more deeply about life and God and the role of religion, I have to admit that it is mostly a distraction or entertainment. 

I'm always glad when I turn off the computer and go for a walk.

Is it just me?
7 years 11 months ago
"Lombardi’s comments were ill informed-the app never claimed to substitute for confession-but his anxiety is the same one we feel watching our children silently text their friends while sitting with us"

I am pretty sure the comments were only due to the inevitable spin or misunderstanding that the non-Catholic population - esp. the media - may have upon hearing of the app.  The secular media is, after all, pretty good at taking all things Catholic/Vatican and reporting them out of context.

In any case, I think that this could be helpful to many as it allows the more active members to bring up the topic to those would do not understand the sacrament in a new and interesting/updated media format.

I agree about the dangers of digital world - and Benedict made very substantial comments on this recently.  This app, however, is another way or means to conversation and greater understanding of the faith.

Mark Harden
7 years 11 months ago
I wonder about the Imprimatur in light of revisions that are already being made to the app as a result of feedback received with all this publicity. Unlike a book, there is no new edition slowly published which could be re-reviewed. Surely, the bishop is not expected to sign off on each new software revision! And yet, if not, how can they continue to claim Imprimatur for the revised application? How does the Bishop certify that the revisions are still deserving of Imprimatur?
Mike Evans
7 years 11 months ago
How about an app for 'spiritual direction?' Most of us sinners are minor leaguers; we just don't have the gumption for a real mortal sin. And a 5 minute encounter with a priest is unlikely to help us make much progress. Hence an app that lets us communicate our efforts to do better by not fighting with our brothers and sisters, nagging our spouses, shouting bad words, or kicking the dog. If we are anti-government types we might even reconsider our over the top critiques and support for obvious hate filled rhetoric and stinginess towards the poor. Heck, we might  even decide not to own a pistol. The typical parishioner might be very well served indeed by some kind of communicative process of seeking group wisdom on the exigencies of living daily life well. God knows, we need to learn how. Perhaps we really can help each other...
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
I was talking this over with a friend of mine who is a professor of media studies.  He says that the fascination with and use of electronic media in all forms combine to erode private identity and create a real apetite for belonging.

This resonates with me, and perhaps is part of the reason why the idea of an "app" and the privacy of the confessional seem so incongruent.  Privacy has become public.

In the old Our Gang comedies, when the kids wanted to belong to something, they'd put-on a show, privacy becoming public; the new Our Gang puts on an inner crowd, and goes out to see it is real. . .

Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
David (#9) - Yeah, but it's close!  I've noticed that when I'm writing something serious I have to actually turn off the airport so that I'm not interrupted with some "research" and then I get off the track and before long it's been 30 minutes and I've just been looking around at what others are writing.

They don't call it the World Wide Web for nothing - it truly is a web!!!


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