Busted Halo
column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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February 10th, 2011

What Works: A Look at the New iPhone Confession App

Helpful tool or digital distraction?

 
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As Ginny Moyer’s recent article here on e-readers and the reader responses showed so eloquently, you’re either comfortable with digital replacements for technologies or you’re not. To me, while they have their limits, for sure, I love their benefits. For example, my iPhone and iPad are loaded with digital study bibles from Olive Tree and the iMissal app for daily readings and the hours. (I’ve also sung the praises of the amazing handwritten Saint John’s Bible and my home is filled with books.)

There’s a new iPhone app, Confession: A Roman Catholic App, from Little iApps, that’s been making quite a stir this week. Since I’m always looking for tools that might make your daily spiritual practice a little easier, I got this app when I first heard about it last week and have been putting it through its paces for a few days.

One thing needs to be clear about the Confession app up front: it’s not a way to do confession without having to see a priest. Rather, it’s a tool to make confession easier. I see nothing wrong with that idea. Many Catholics, especially if they aren’t very actively involved with the Church or have been away for a while, find confession very intimidating. That’s why, at Busted Halo, we created a pair of videos and a PDF to help people deal with the very same issue.

The core of the Confession app is an examination process based on the Ten Commandments. For each commandment, there is a series of questions with checkboxes.

For example, for the Third Commandment, it asks: “Have I deliberately missed Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation?” “Have I not tried to observe Sunday as a family day and day of rest?” “Do I do needless work on Sunday?”

Based on the user’s sex, age and marital status, some questions change. For example, the married are asked if they’ve been faithful to their partner while singles are asked if they’ve had any sexual activity outside of marriage. Children and priests are asked questions in a different way, with some overlap with the regular set of questions. (With priests, while there are obviously extra things they would be asked, I don’t see why they wouldn’t also use the same questionnaire as adults.) The children’s questions include things like, “Have I pouted or been moody?” Now that I think of it, I’m not sure why that wouldn’t be an appropriate question for everyone too.

I already use my iPhone and iPad for all my note taking with Evernote and I rely on the OmniFocus app for all my task management. So I’m used to pulling out my iPhone to help remind me of things.

At the same time or at any later point, you can click the “Confession” button and the app puts together one list of all the questions you checked off. The idea is that you would then use this list to remind yourself of what to confess about. The app also prompts you for what to say to the confessor before and after. The final step in using the confession part of the app is to click “Finish” which wipes away all the checks, leaving you with a blank slate literally and figuratively, until the next time you answer the questions.

I already use my iPhone and iPad for all my note taking with Evernote and I rely on the OmniFocus app for all my task management. So I’m used to pulling out my iPhone to help remind me of things. In this sense, the Confession app is a great idea.

But I have one serious problem with it. I found one or more questions in the list for nearly every commandment that I felt were inappropriate, inapplicable, or framed in a way I found off-putting. These questions are not from any universally agreed-upon list, but they aren’t arbitrary; according to the company, the lists were put together as a collaboration between a local pastor and a priest at the USCCB, and the result received an imprimatur from an Indiana bishop. (The folks at Little iApps say this is the first time an app has received an imprimatur.)

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The problem is that when you get this specific, then you’re going to include some things some people won’t agree with and leave out some things some people think are essential. For example, one question is whether you’ve prayed daily. I myself do, and it is most decidedly a good thing, but if you fail to do so, is that something you have to bring to a confessor? There are also unnuanced questions concerning highly charged issues like homosexuality and contraception.

Given the approach they chose, a checklist, the app’s creators did the best they could to come up with a legitimate list of questions. But if I were going to use this app to prepare for confession as they suggest, I wouldn’t want to have to intentionally overlook questions every time. The point of a checklist is that you can scan down the list and say yes or no. If you have to get into saying, “Yes, but I don’t agree that this question should be on here so I’ll leave it unchecked,” then you’ve defeated the purpose.

The app does allow you to add questions to an extra section, but there’s no way to alter the questions in the main section, tied to the commandments. This app would be substantially improved, and useful to many more people, if in the examination of conscience section you could choose from different question sets reflecting different approaches to that part of the process, some with detailed checklists, some with more open-ended questions. It would be helped further if users had the ability to alter question sets by adding, editing and removing questions, but this would be less needed if there were options in the first place.

I just want to be extra clear here. I’m not talking about avoiding difficult questions. But there are many ways the same question can be asked or the same subject interpreted. I’m just asking for flexibility. Right now, the app offers only one way to approach the process.

My other concern about the app is that despite its mission, there isn’t enough hand-holding for the person who hasn’t been to confession in a long time and perhaps on impulse buys this $2 app in hopes of reconnecting. The app should have help screens and gentle welcoming language, rather than just thrusting them into a list of sins. It’s not the right tone for the intended audience.

All in all, though, I give the folks at Little iApps props for trying to create a useful tool to make our regular spiritual practice a little easier to maintain. I look forward to a version of the Confession app that addresses this one’s shortcomings. At $1.99, you might just want to check it out anyway.

 
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The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Chris Allen

    I use an app called iconfess. It doesn’t have one if you are married or not married child or adult but i love the questions on it

  • debbie

    I have noticed that , when , Communal Penance Services are offered at Christmas and Easter, the Church seems to be full. Why not have Communal Penance Services monthly at rotating Parishes.. More opportunity, more community, more love of the Sacrament!!!!

  • Frank

    I agree with Rakhi that the app is likely to feed a “list” mentality toward sin and morality. I also think, like Steve, that the somewhat uninspired name of the thing, Confession, is partly to blame for the confusion about it being a “replacement” for a face-to-face confession. The Vatican spokesperson, incidentally, made a statement yesterday: He said that the new application might have ‚Äútrue pastoral‚Äù uses as a ‚Äúdigital pastoral aid.‚Äù But, those who use it, must be aware that it is ‚Äúnot at all a substitute for the sacrament.‚Äù (from Catholic News Agency)

  • Rakhi McCormick

    While I think the idea itself is not entirely bad, my other critique (while not having taken the examination myself) would be the perpetuation of the “checklist” mindset. The notion that if I do “XYZ” and don’t do “XYZ” then I am good with God, or am earning my salvation. In reality, our relationship with God is just that, a relationship, and there are inexhaustible ways in which we might breach that.

    I agree also, that for someone who has been away from the sacrament for some time, this might not be the most welcoming return to it.

    Good concept overall, but definitely still to be used/recommended with caution in my opinion.

    As a sidenote, I’m wondering if you know the Vatican’s reaction to this – I thought I saw a newsclip saying the Vatican has “banned” this app? I’ve not looked into it further myself…

  • Steve

    This apps seems like a great idea. My only complaint is its name, “Confession,” which implies that it is a substitute for the sacrament rather than a useful tool for examining one’s conscience.

  • http://www.thepenanceproject.org Jason

    There is a free application for Android devices that is similar called PenanceProject. It helps users do an examination of conscience before the Sacrament and to pray afterwards.

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