02/11/2011 09:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

iConfess: Apps for Coming Theologically Clean

Theologians, psychologists and sociologists agree about the benefits -- spiritual, emotional and communal -- of confession.

Revealing our sins and missteps to another person, whether in writing or in person, helps alleviate guilt and its accompanying anxieties, leading to happier, healthier living.

Most recently, in what appears to be an unprecedented move, the Vatican gave its imprimatur to a thoroughly modern take on the ancient act of confession when one of its American bishops gave the thumbs up to "Confession: A Roman Catholic App," a new application for the iPhone and iPad that allows users to prepare for and simulate the experience of entering a church confessional booth.

Developed by the Indiana software company Little iApps LLC, the "Confession" app -- which sells for $1.99 via iTunes -- leads users through a "personalized examination of conscience" with "password protected profiles and a step-by-step guide to the sacrament."

Little iApps developer Patrick Leinin has said he was inspired create the "Confession" app (and eventually other Catholic-friendly programs) by Pope Benedict XVI's World Communications Day address where the pontiff endorsed the spiritual value of "new media" saying "if used wisely, [it] can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being."

Since the pope was the inspiration for Leinen's app, he sought a nihil obstat (meaning, in Latin, "nothing hinders") from his local bishop, the Most Rev. Kevin Rhodes, which says, essentially, the app is theologically kosher.

While the "Confession" app received the bishop's seal of approval, the Vatican cautioned users against thinking that it could be a substitute for physically entering an actual confessional with an actual priest.

"One may not speak in any sense of confessing via iPhone," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said in a statement earlier this week. "[The] Sacrament of Penance necessarily requires the relationship of personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor and absolution by the confessor present."

Indeed, even in its official listing on iTunes, "Confession" buyers are warned that, "it does not and cannot take the place of confessing before a validly ordained Roman Catholic priest in a Confessional, in person, either face to face, or behind the screen. Why? Because the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments has long ruled that confessions by electronic media are invalid and the absolution by the priest must be given in person because the Seal of Confession must be protected and for the sacrament to be valid, there has to be both the matter and the form, which means the priest."

While some users might consider "Confession" little more than a gimmick, its creators appear to be serious about their intent: to draw more Catholics back to the church and its confessional. The same cannot be said of the makers of more than a dozen other similar apps available either for free or for a small fee via iTunes.

For instance:

  • iConfess, the [Catholic] Confession Handbook and Guide ($1.99) -- Introduced in July 2010, this app is most similar to the "Confession" app, but doesn't have an official imprimatur. It allows users to track of sins in a list they can take with them into the confessional booth, as well as a feature for note taking and annotation to remind the user of previous conversations with their priest about ongoing spiritual issues.
  • Mea Culpa: Catholic Examination of Conscience for Confession ($1.99) - "A thorough exam is the surest way to make an accurate and holy confession." This app provides a check list of "mortal" (signified by a jolly roger icon) and "venial" sins, as well as offering prayers for use before and after confession.
  • iRepent ($1.99) "Worried about going to hell? ... Your peace of mind is just one click away..." and I-Confess ($.99) "Too busy or too ashamed to go to a real priest?" both feature graphics that mimic the experience of confessing to a priest through a darkened screen. I-Confess allows users to "confess" by typing in their sins or just speaking into their iPhone microphone.

A number of iPhone apps -- some of which are listed in iTunes as "games" or "entertainment" -- take a less spiritual -- and decidedly more voyeuristic -- approach to confession:

  • The free app Confession (audio) lets users record confessions in their own voice, upload them and share them with the world (as well as listen to the "anonymous" confessions of others.
  • iAdmit ($.99) lets users "anonymously admit what's on your mind and view what's on others' minds," and offers "thumbs up/thumbs down" buttons to vote on whether they "like" another user's confession.
  • Penance, a free app "game," featuring public confessions lets users choose their own "confession door" (confess, absolve or reflect), and also ranks "notable confessors" on a "league table," with the "foremost" winning titles and "the right to issue week-long edicts to the faithful."

This glut of confession apps is, of course, simply the latest contemporary twist on an ancient rite in the Christian tradition and many other religious traditions as well, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.

One of the biblical scriptures frequently cited as establishing confession as a sacrament is from the New Testament book of James: "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed."

Healing -- of the spirit and the mind -- is supposed to be the goal of confession. If these new technologies lead to real-life reconciliation and wholeness, they might endure.

If they merely attempt to titillate and entertain, their faux-piety will amount to nothing more than a pixilated flash in the psycho-spiritual pan.

A version of this post originally appeared via Religion News Service.