The trouble with iPad Confessions

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Confession iPad AppConfession has been one of the Catholic practices most intriguing to the wider public. That's not surprising. It is associated with secrecy, sin (subtext: sex) and sacerdotalism. So recently the Confession app for the iPad received predictable publicity and led to speculation whether confession could be made virtually as well as virtuously.

In fact the app simply helps people prepare for confession. But it also shows how new communications technology is shaping church practices, and in the process is raising more fundamental questions about them.

The internet has become an accepted field for personal spirituality. The Irish Jesuits' site Sacred Space, which offers reflection and images to accompany the text chosen each day, has been enormously popular. So has the English Jesuit podcast, Pray as you Go. It offers music, text and questions for reflection.

Retreats now are increasingly offered electronically. Input for reflection is sent each day, and guide and retreatant can exchange reflections.

In addition all manner of YouTube videos, blogs, ringtones and websites are designed to help people name, understand and enter their faith more deeply.

So it would seem a small step to make confession available online. Indeed, even in the Mexican religious persecution of the 1920s, many people confessed by telephone. Yet the Catholic Church has insisted that confession be made face to face.

This insistence is not simply a matter of sticking to outmoded technology. It rests on the conviction that the sacraments involve bodily contact and communication. In the Catholic outlook it follows from the belief that God has taken on our bodily existence in Christ. It is natural that we meet Christ in the Church through bodily actions: eating and drinking, being washed or anointed, marrying.

So Catholics have resisted the privatisation of faith, whether this is expressed in finding God simply in one's heart instead of going to church, marrying without public ceremony, or simply saying sorry to God in one's heart without need to say it face to face. Faith should be expressed in bodily and communal ways.

It is often hard to make this argument cogently within the Catholic Church, however, because its theology and practice so often privileges the individual soul over the shared bodily condition. Particularly in ritual, bodiliness is formalised and etherealised. The treatment of confession offers a good example of this. Its public and bodily shape has been eroded over many centuries.

The earliest forms of confession were mainly for public sins that were destructive of the community and any claim it made to live by Christ's values. Typical sins were denying Christ during persecution, adultery and murder. The sinner needed to be reconciled both with God and with the Church community. The process of reconciliation was protracted, with penitents publicly identifiable and excluded from the Eucharist until they were publicly welcomed back.

The public dimension of reconciliation fell into the background in succeeding centuries when emphasis was put first on the performance of severe penances measured to each sin, and then on the accurate confessing of all major sins. Confession to a priest remained a symbol of the reconciliation with the church, but the priest was usually portrayed as representing God rather than the Church.

In the ritual, contact was minimised and disembodied by the confessional box. Confession was experienced as the exchange of whispers in the dark.

After the Second Vatican Council the communal dimension was re-emphasised, and was embodied in communal forms of reconciliation. After permission for these popular rites was withdrawn, however, the transaction has again been popularly presented as a private encounter with God through the priest as God's representative. Little attention is given to the communal and bodily dimension.

Actually, the communal rites were open to criticism on the grounds that they too were fairly disembodied. Certainly those who participated gathered as a community, but the ritual was largely through listening to and speaking words without much bodily involvement.

In contrast, for example, we could imagine the power of a ritual in which the whole congregation prostrated themselves in penance, as has been done by the celebrants in services asking forgiveness for sexual abuse within the church.

But unless the bodily and communal dimension of the sacrament of reconciliation is emphasised, the prohibition of virtual confession will seem to be no more than a quixotic refusal to acknowledge new technologies. And the distinctive earthiness of the sense of what it means to be Catholic will come under increased pressure. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Confession app, iPad, sacerdotalism

 

 

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Existing comments

Surely the faithful's renunciation of private confession is obvious. This mass expression of rejection is mirrored at least twice each year in most parishes through the barely disguised third rite offered at Easter and Christmas. . The people of God flock to this. That a small body of the disaffected had sufficient pull in Rome to have this rite banned is a scandal not far short of the other one of which we are all so sadly familiar.
grebo | 03 March 2011


The confession app is a method for examining conscience, not for the actual process of confession. For this reason alone, the app is misnamed. Indeed, calling it a confession app only helps attract general good-humoured scoffing, as well as the journalistic ‘poking out of tongues’ that we have seen in places like The New York Times recently. When I hear Jesus say that we go to our room and lock the door when confessing, I take it to mean that we confess directly to God. Likewise, if we have anything against anyone we go over and clear it up straight away; such direct action seems to be done in the same spirit, it’s between us and the person involved. The sacrament of confession has its place and where the need is strong it as well that we have confession. But surely if we are talking about “the communal and bodily dimension”, the most important act is the one that follows in the main service, the General Confession. General Confession is a permanent reminder of where we are all at and that no one is an exception before God, except that we are all exceptional. The General Confession is directed toward God, with the hope of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this way, even those things we have done wrong which we cannot for the life of us think of as wrong, are brought before the only one who can finally and truly forgive. A confession app won’t help remind us of the sins we have forgotten, or never noticed.
Desiderius Erasmus | 03 March 2011


Well said Andrew. And also Grebo 'a scandal not far short of the other one of which we are all so sadly familiar'. After my disquiet of just finishing Chrissie Fosters Book 'Hell on the way to Heaven, An Australian mother's love. The Power of the Catholic Church . A fight for justice over child sexual abuse' on the Kevin O'Donnell sex abuse/church cover up, our community has been searching for a public act like the march across Sydney Harbour, to show solidarity with the victims and draw attention to the inadequacies of the current Pell Process that declines to adopt the Victorian Police demands. We have rejected the option of driving a bulldozer through Sacred Heart Oakleigh, but Andrew your vision a ritual with all prostrated in penance maybe around the Cathedral or Sacred Heart, as you say has been done by the celebrants in services asking forgiveness for sexual abuse within the church and may offer a constructive way forward. Force stay with you Mike Parer
Mike Parer | 03 March 2011


Thanks for the reflection, Andy. I see a couple of challenges with the app aid to penitential practice: I think the 10 commandments as moral guide are useful but not specifically Christian in origin or scope. The proleptic Isaac and Ishmael would be at home with them as would their descendants. But Jesus did a Hillel reduction of them without even mentioning the 'God' part (Mt 7:12) Secondly, this electronic stuff is good but I think, like spell check, it can very easily become an encouragement to laziness of intellect and reflection. Pastorally and theologically, I think public 'confession' is the way to go. Pastorally, I am convinced that people don't carry around a load of 'serious' sin. We repent of them anyway at the start of Mass. An extra formal Rite (3rd) would help us all, from time to time, to remember that our sins have social consequences and that if we have need to get rid of heavier moral baggage we can do something Sacramentally about that too. Theologically, people have not lost a sense of sin but they are terribly confused about the proportions of sin. Centuries of Jansenism, often channeled here through Irish clergy has trivialised sin by raising the insignificant to the highest levels of moral failure. This 'maxima culpa' and associated breast beating presumes that the natural attitude for us, the perpetually unworthy, is the grovel position. I don't think God would want that.
David Timbs | 03 March 2011


Desiderius, how can there be "things we have done wrong which we cannot for the life of us think of as wrong". Surely it's necessary that we think of the thing we do as wrong to make it wrong. Aren't the conditions grave matter, full knowledge and full consent? We can't have the last two without thinking we are doing wrong.
Gavan | 03 March 2011


In Anglican circles in the 20th century there was great interest shown in our Celtic origins that continued into the Middle Ages and the Reformation period with the emphasis on the priest being a "Soul Friend" and counsellor. Absolution was given as part of counciling. Unfortunately Anglo Catholics in the 19th century made a distinction between the informal discussion in the priests study with the formal confession in church. The Rev Norman Goodacre who was the Archbisop of Canterbury's advisor on spirituality in the 1970's shocked Anglo Catholics by combining the two going back to Celtic practises
John Ozanne | 03 March 2011


"After the Second Vatican Council the communal dimension was re-emphasised, and was embodied in communal forms of reconciliation. After permission for these popular rites was withdrawn, however, the transaction has again been popularly presented as a private encounter with God through the priest as God's representative. Little attention is given to the communal and bodily dimension."

I think you will find that permission for the communal rite of reconciliation (I presume you are talking about general absolutions, also known as the third rite), was never withdrawn. This is because permission for the third rite under normal circumstances was never given. The third rite was created by the Church in her mercy and prudence for the sole purpose of accommodating situations where there is an imminent danger of death and there is insufficient time for individual private confessions.

Unfortunately, particularly in Australia, there was a deliberate push by some Priests and Bishops to go directly against what was intended by the Church and hold third rite ceremonies under normal circumstances. This situation was somewhat improved after Pope John Paul II’s Statement of Conclusions to the Australian Bishops after representation by concerned lay people.

Regarding the private nature of confession, yes it would be nice to have a public confession of one’s sins; I believe Augustine find It very useful. However, once again, the Church in her mercy and prudence removed this requirement to avoid scandal (Not in the sense of the modern use, but rather in the sense of causing another to sin) and the concealment of sins due to embarrassment.

Also Grebo, I don't know where you are from, but I can tell you at my parish I would estimate there are around 200 or so private confessions heard every week.
Francis | 03 March 2011


I suggest Gavan think again about the statement that 'Surely it's necessary that we think of the thing we do as wrong to make it wrong.' It may not be a mortal sin if it's not a deliberate act in repudiation of God, but that's not the same as 'It's OK if I feel it is for me.' - it is still wrong. One could rationlise anything, including paedophilia, with that sort of new age waffle - which to our great cost spread inthe Catholic school system from the late 60s.
PM | 07 March 2011


"in the Mexican religious persecution of the 1920s, many people confessed by telephone."

This assertion is incredible. Firstly because the question was raised, and answered, by the Holy See soon after the invention of the telephone in the 19th century: confessor and penitent must always be physically in the same place. Secondly because in the days of manually-operated phone exchanges, the Government employee could hear every word said (contrary to Church rules) and could instantly identify the location of the priest, at a time when just to be a Catholic priest in Mexico was a capital offence. And international calls were extremely expensive and even more tightly controlled.
Peter G | 12 March 2011


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