Mobile apps for confession aiding or challenging church authority?

Users of mobile apps for practicing the Catholic ritual of confession find the experience authentic and affirmative of their faith, although they are in many cases replacing the authority of the priest with “algorithmic automation,” according to a study in the Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (11). The study, conducted by Sasha A. Q. Scott, studied the use of such popular confessional apps, including Confession, iConfess, Mea Culpa, and The Confession App, analyzing the developers’ descriptions as well as user comments between 2015–2016, totaling 311 comments across all the platforms. These apps are not meant to be substitutes for the actual rite of confession and are approved (in one case even receiving the imprimatur of a bishop) as aids to practicing the sacrament. The apps serve as reminders and classifiers of sins for the penitent and provide a step-by-step guide of what to do inside the confessional, even providing the functions of absolution and penance. While church officials warn that the apps should not encourage a “confession via iPhone…this is exactly what users are reporting themselves as doing. It would seem that the legitimacy bestowed by official endorsement is important in user adoption of these platforms, but has less impact [on] how they then use them in their own personalized practices,” Scott writes. “Having performed the sacrament using The Confession App, there appears on screen a button titled ‘Erase My Sins’. Once pushed, the user is rewarded with the notification ‘Your sins have been erased’.” Scott does not indicate how many users take this priest-less approach.

She finds that the reviews of these apps were overwhelmingly positive, with users reporting a reduction in anxiety that is often associated with the fear of forgetting one’s sins while in the confessional. Users also report satisfaction at keeping an accurate, cumulative record of sins. Scott finds that a common theme in the reviews is the broad appeal the apps have in personalizing the ritual—from new converts to the faith to those who have been active for many years to the young who are especially adept at this technology to lapsed Catholics seeking an accessible way to reconnect with the church. Most of the negative comments concerned technical issues. Scott also finds that the users single out the developers for specific praise, seeing them in some cases as a channel of grace. Because these apps have received church approval, even developed in cooperation with clergy and bishops, they are widely seen as authentic to the faith, adding to user satisfaction. But the “algorithmic agency” in such apps, even if it is just for cataloging and classifying sins to examine one’s conscience, may be replacing the authority of the church and priest and is becoming part of the ethical and moral dimensions of everyday life, Scott concludes.
(Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet,