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Confessing Outside the Box: The iPhone Reconciliation App

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Unlike many Catholics, I actually go to confession.

I was curious, therefore, to check out the iPhone app for Roman Catholic Confession, which, the Holy See and its designers remind us, is no substitute for spilling one's Catholic guts in a dark box like the ones we see on Law and Order.

I began by logging in as myself and found sins a married woman might commit, organized by means of the Decalogue. The use of contraception and supporting abortion are, for example, listed under "Thou Shall Not Kill." (Supporting Capital Punishment is not included.)

I quickly discovered that even a faithful spouse can easily rack up quite a list of sins under the heading of adultery. Dressing like Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8 and having a crush on James Franco are construed as quasi-adulterous. One of my favorite sins (and one I, intentionally, commit daily) is the failure to "control" my "imagination." How much less attractive the Holy Father's own dwelling would be had Michelangelo been more obedient in this!

When I logged in as "Father Mike" I learned that priests' transgressions were organized differently those of lay people, not around the commandments but around disposition and duties relative to religious vocation.

Certainly envying the following sin on the checklist for priests and members of religious orders would qualify as "coveting my neighbor's goods": "Have I overworked, not taking time for exercise, relaxation, prayer and reading?"

Huh? Why isn't that one on my married woman's list?

I was surprised to find the sin of overworking on "Sister Teresa's" (I couldn't decide between that and Sister Bertrille.) transgression inventory because any nun I know would scoff at a notion so inane. Nuns work incessantly, tirelessly, for almost no pay, and can no more afford vacations than they can iPhones!

Nuns and priests, like other adults, have a list of sexual sins to ponder and tick off: intercourse, sexual feelings, sexual touching, lustful kissing. The modesty requirement isn't spelled out in the same way for nun as for a "lay" (so to speak) woman, but it is reasonable to infer that nuns are expected not to dress like Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8.

When I logged in as a single woman ("Hildegarde"), I noted that sins of carnality were almost identical to those applying to married women and men: impure thoughts, failure to dress modestly, homosexual activity, sexual thoughts, masturbation.

Masturbation remains a sin for everyone. Even single men like "James Franco" (I know he's not Catholic, but given his role in my own degradation, this alias for a single, male sinner made sense) is prohibited from masturbating. Men are called to dress modestly (like those in Butterfield 8) and are subject to all physiolically feasible sexual regulations that apply to women.

I was glad to see that respecting the poor and prohibitions against brutality had found their way in to the app, but dismayed to see that the making of war, capital punishment, child abuse, bigotry, waste, sins ecological, usury and greed are not explicitly noted.

A few years ago I attended a communal Advent Penance Service, at the end of which I wound up confessing to a visiting priest whose English was poor. He "absolved" me of my sins without understanding anything I'd said, and assigned me the kind of penance he thought best befit an aging ingénue dressed like Liz Taylor in Butterfield 8: "Go to mass regularly. Every Sunday," he said.

A few days later, I talked about this with another priest, a friend, who found my penance amusing. (I attend daily mass often and never miss a Sunday.) "You're at mass more often than he is!" I cracked wise about the blandness of my transgressions and the squandered opportunity: "I could have told him anything! Just think of all the grave sins I could have committed and been absolved for!"

Catholics are divided on the nature of absolution. More conservative Catholics argue that a priest does the absolving. Others insist that absolution comes from God and that the presence of a middle man is "pro forma." Others, of course, deem these distinctions only unicorn-worshippers could care to quibble over. There tends to be consensus that God has the last word on all things sacramental.

About seven years ago I went to confession for the first time in 33 years (Holy numerology being in effect.) I warned the priest ahead of time not to expect anything "mortal." Father could not possibly have been surprised to see me pull out the pocket-size notebook that contained a list of my sins; he knew me I was a writer.

I knew him too, well enough to recognize that beneath that man-of-the-cloth poker face of solemnity, my priest was pushing away the urge to roll his eyes sardonically while chuckling in amusement as, itemized list in hand, I began to confess in the manner I'd learned at the age of 7:

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been 33 years since my last confession."

He smiled reverently, suppressing an all-out guffaw.

"What?" I asked, "People don't do the 'Bless me Father' thing anymore?"

"Some do," he said, in guru voice. (Translation: "Sure, they do. If they're freakin' 96 YEARS OLD!")

We sat en face (No need to tick reading this off on your list; it's French, for "face -to-face.") but as I started, a partition descended between us, a screen woven of convention and faith, as palpable as it was invisible. It lent a strangely comforting formality and provided clear but perforated line of demarcation.

Detachment and intimacy intertwine when two confessors engage. This dramatic, situational, fleeting conjoining can be transformative and beautiful. As a poet, I love how the word "confessor" expresses this potential.

Even as a child I thought attempts to render "confession" easier seemed silly. I remember overhearing Irish Catholic ladies at the kitchen table talking about confession. One could off to the "next parish over" in order to confess anonymously. My own mother once queried me on why I would confess my sins to a priest I knew when I lived in "the borough of churches," in close proximity to many Catholic churches.

Reading an introduction to Buddhism about 10 years ago catalyzed my interest in confession. Those new to Buddhist practice are often urged to seek a teacher. I saw confession as both a sacrament and a form of attending a teacher. I craved grace, a dialogue about sin with a priest whose path I knew something about, and the holy wallop I suspected the combination of the two could deliver.

It bears the Nihil Obstat imprimatur -- there are no doctrinal surprises in the iPhone Confession app, which is neither godawful nor good, but I came away from test-driving the app thinking it one of many such props, designed to make a Church ruled by medieval minds and frigid hearts seem a little more "user-friendly "and a tad less backward.

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