Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Mortal or Venial? There's an App for That!

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
Tom Lehrer

Whatever his traditional values may be, Pope Benedict XVI seems to take seriously the idea of being a pontiff of the Digital Age.  On January 24 he gave a World Communications Address in which he asserted that the use of social networks was not a sin and could, on the contrary, facilitate communicating the Good News.  However, there is more to communicating than proselytizing;  so it was interesting to see how the Catholic Church would respond to a less orthodox approach to communications and information technology.

This morning the BBC News Web site ran a story about a new technology that might well put the Pope’s convictions about “world communications” to the test:

The Catholic Church has approved an iPhone app that helps guide worshippers through confession.

The Confession program has gone on sale through iTunes for £1.19 ($1.99).

Described as "the perfect aid for every penitent", it offers users tips and guidelines to help them with the sacrament.

Now senior church officials in both the UK and US have given it their seal of approval, in what is thought to be a first.

The app takes users through the sacrament - in which Catholics admit their wrongdoings - and allows them to keep track of their sins.
It also allows them to examine their conscience based on personalised factors such as age, sex and marital status - but it is not intended to replace traditional confession entirely.

Instead, it encourages users to understand their actions and then visit their priest for absolution.

The story also reported one “official” reaction to this technology:

A spokesperson from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales told BBC News the app was a "useful tool to help people prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation".

"The Church believes in embracing new technology and this creative app will hopefully help people to make a good confession."

It is thought to be the first time the church has approved a mobile phone application, although it is not entirely unfamiliar with the digital world.

I suspect that there will be many who will have a good laugh over this story, viewing it as yet another example of how the BBC stalks news of the weird with gun and camera.  On the other hand I had a flashback to a post that I filed almost exactly two years ago entitled “Communicating with God.”  This was one of those pieces that gave me an excuse for giving a history lesson.  I think that lesson is worth repeating in this new context:

I was a student when Joseph Weizenbaum first released his Eliza program on the MIT Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1966. Following the "non-intrusive" precepts of psychoanalyst Carl Rogers, this program "conversed" with the user by doing little more that providing cues to encourage the user to maintain the conversation. The "doctor" version of this program structured its cues around the sorts of things that a Rogerian might say in an analysis session. As Weizenbaum's Wikipedia entry puts it:

Weizenbaum was shocked that his program was taken seriously by many users, who would open their hearts to it.

Weizenbaum further observed that many (including his own secretary) would only use the program if they were left alone in a room with a connection to it. However, his "shocked" reaction missed the point: His software had provided users with the opportunity to converse with themselves about their problems, thus satisfying Rogers' hypothesis that conversation-with-self … provided the best path to working through those problems. Eliza offered the first technology-based secularization of prayer.

At one level this new software provides yet another platform for conversation-with-self;  but it also entails that critical attribute that so horrified Weizenbaum.  It recognizes that communication through a digital device can deserve the privacy of the sanctity of the confessional, since one can only confront one’s moral behavior in a setting that insures such privacy.

That is the positive side of the story.  The negative one is that the issue of privacy of any form of digital communication has not been clearly or satisfactorily resolved, whether the context involves the laws of the state or the moral convictions of any religious faith.  The World Communications Address restricted its attention to public speaking.  Questions of moral behavior are generally not discussed in a public forum (unless one chooses to be a guest of Jerry Springer).  Given that just about anything that takes place on a mobile device immediately goes into the air with little protection against intrusion, the Catholic Church may wish to reflect on its approving actions towards this technology, just as they expect the congregants to reflect in the privacy of the confessional.


DigitalDan said...

Functionally the app is no different from a little pamphlet, just maybe more convenient.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Actually, there is a screen shot on the BBC article that seems to suggest that the user can select items from a checklist. That it a bit more interactive than a pamphlet! My guess is that most users would like any information about what the check to receive the same privacy as anything they say in the confessional.

DigitalDan said...

For something like this, the interactivity may add to (or subtract from) convenience, but doesn't really change functionality. A FAQ is a FAQ. One might indeed prefer the pamphlet, when it comes to the likelihood of privacy.