Forgive Me, Father, for I have Linked

Op-Ed Columnist
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published in the New York Times: February 8, 2011

Our Father, who art in pixels,
linked be Thy name,
Thy Web site come, Thy Net be done,
on Explorer as it is on Firefox.
Give us this day our daily app,
and forgive us our spam,
as we forgive those
who spam against us,
and lead us not into aggregation,
but deliver us from e-vil. Amen.

Nothing is sacred anymore, even the sacred. And even that most secret ritual of the Roman Catholic faith, the veiled black confessional box.

Once funeral homes began live-streaming funerals, it was probably inevitable. But now confessions are not only about touching the soul, but touching the screen.

With the help of two priests, three young Catholic men from South Bend, Ind., have developed an iPhone app to guide Catholics through — and if they are lapsed, back to — confession.

It shot to global success, ranking No. 42 on the best-selling app list, according to iTunes.

The trio got the idea, surprisingly, from the pope.

When I was little, the nuns urged us to find the face of Christ in pictures of landscapes — snowfalls and mountains.

In a letter last May, Pope Benedict XVI urged priests to help people see the face of Christ on the Web (see The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word), through blogs, Web sites and videos; priests could give the Web a “soul,” he said, by preaching theology through new technology.

“Confession: a Roman Catholic App” is not a session with a virtual priest who restores your virtue with a penance of three Hail Mary’s and three extra gigabytes of memory.

Rather, its developers say, it’s a “baby steps” program that walks you through the Ten Commandments, your examination of conscience and any “custom sins” you might have, then after confession (purportedly) wipes the slate clean so no one sees your transgressions.

“We tried to make it as secure as possible,” said Patrick Leinen, a 31-year-old Internet programmer who built the app with his brother, Chip, a hospital systems administrator, and Ryan Kreager, a Notre Dame doctoral candidate.

You still have to go into the real confessional at church to get absolution, and, hopefully, your priest won’t be annoyed that you’re reading your sins off of a little screen and, maybe, peeking at a football game or shopping site once in awhile.

“The whole point is to get you to go to church,” said Leinen. He and his fellow programmers got help from two priests, the Rev. Dan Scheidt, the pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mishawaka, Ind., and the Rev. Thomas Weinandy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

They also got an imprimatur — billed as the first for an iPhone and iPad app — from Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne in Indiana.

The app offers different questions depending on your age and gender.

For instance, if you sign in as a 15-year-old girl and look under the Sixth Commandment, one of the questions is: “Do I not treat my body or other people’s bodies with purity and respect?” If you sign in as a 33-year-old married man, that commandment offers this query: “Have I been guilty of masturbation?”

Children are asked if they pout or use bad language. Teenagers are asked if they are a tattletale or bully. Women are asked if they’ve had an abortion or encouraged anyone to have an abortion and if they’re chaste. Men are asked about the latter two, as well.

The app also tailors the questions if you sign in as a priest or a “religious.” For instance, if you say you’re a female and try to select “priest” as your vocation, a dialogue box appears that says “sex and vocation are incompatible.” So much for modernity.

Under the Sixth Commandment, men and women are asked: “Have I been guilty of any homosexual activity?” Priests, however, are not. They are asked if they flirt.

Father Scheidt assured me that the app “isn’t a morality textbook. It’s just meant to prompt discussion.”

“I have always allowed cheat sheets in the confessional for people who want to be sure they get all of their sins,” he said of the ritual that can prompt so much anxiety. “Essentially, this provides an electronic list. Human relations are shifting more and more to being mediated by some of these gadgets. If this is the bridge for people to have a more meaningful encounter about what’s deepest in their heart, I think it’s going to serve the good.”

He said when he was giving confessions on Tuesday evening, he was surprised when a parishioner came in with a phone glowing with the Confession app.

“Seeing somebody looking back and forth is initially a little strange,” he said. “But I found that it really caused the person to focus and recollect more.”

At least we know now that Nietzsche was wrong. God isn’t dead. His server may be down though.

_______________________________________

For more information about the Confession App, see:
* Confession App Sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, Huffington Post, 2/8/11

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