Guilt is a burden, and hard to shake. Something new, tech savvy and spiritually provocative appeared about 2 weeks ago, in the form of an iPhone app designed to help you cope. Is it for real? Unlike the droves of websites for anonymously confessing your darker deeds, it’s the first to receive the official endorsement of the Roman Catholic church. This news has gone viral, with 49.8 million Google search results to date. Should a virtual confession count? Would you accept one?
“Bless me iPhone for I have sinned,” said Reuters.com on February 7. Nydailynews.com sounded startled: “Holy App! Catholic church okays new confession app for iPhone.” The Vatican quickly clarified its view: virtual confession is not what they had in mind at all. The app they blessed is actually a “personalized examination of conscience” with a survey checklist (Have I harbored hatred in my heart? Have I been guilty of masturbation?) to be used by those who accept the program, to get prepared for a meeting with a priest. The official release from sin is still only available in person. The app concept is less interesting, perhaps, than it first seemed. Could forgiveness ever come from an online interaction? Some adventurous personal bloggers suggest they have received direct, unauthorized spiritual benefit from the Confession app experience. Fascinating, no?
For the record, I suspect nobody actually thinks that the app users confess their sins directly to their iPhone, any more than we confess to our GPS that we are lost. But evidently something spiritually significant can happen in the process of reflection, iPhone in hand, or what would be the need of warnings that the app does not provide an authentic sacramental experience? If the technology is incapable of being an instrument of grace, would anybody be making anxious jokes? Just asking.
Maybe the worry is that online experience is by definition inauthentic, in the way that texted hugs and kisses (xoxox) lack a certain je ne sais quoi. Using the app appears to lack both intimacy and the experience of encounter with a human who empathizes. But what if the technology gets better? Question: what does it take, to trust that any human relationships conducted via social media are genuine, equivalent to in-the-same-room communication? For people jumping into the digital universe at midlife, even a personal confession via Skype may seem inadequate or strange. For now. But maybe we are seeing the first awkward experiments leading us toward authentic virtual relationships, virtual confessions, and virtual forgiveness. The medium need not define the relationship. Confession app users who tell us they find peace, may have something to teach the rest of us. The requirement for authentic connection really can’t be fudged, though. Just as emerging technology is offering all kinds of new ways to betray one another’s trust, perhaps intimacy and forgiveness are finding new expressions as well. We will need them.