Sunday, March 6, 2011

Digital Absolution


The title of the article linked to above is "'Confession: A Roman Catholic App' allows iPhone, iPad users to repent for sins on the go." What rubbish.

Here’s my perspective, which is that of someone who designs web sites and mobile applications for a living.

This is yet another item that got sensationalized and distorted by the press. Keep in mind that the titles of news articles are written by editors, while the reporters are the authors of the stories themselves. In this case the title makes an amazing claim -- i.e. "repent for sins on the go" -- that is nonsensical and is actually contradicted by facts presented in the content of the article itself.

The mobile phone application is a tool to help Catholics prepare for Confession. It's a program that serves as a checklist (i.e. review these points for an examination of conscience) and a note-taking device (i.e. store a list of your transgressions on your mobile phone). The Vatican has said that as such it is permissible. Not surprisingly, insufficient care was taken (in my view) to make clear that people cannot receive absolution by using the device. No Catholic who knows his faith would think such a thing was possible, and I suspect it's unlikely that Rome seriously considered the possibility.

Enter the media, who promptly started running news stories about digital absolution using the application (absurd, I know, but the press usually misses the mark when reporting on religious stories). Only after that absurd story started to get traction did the Vatican issue a clarifying statement that no such thing was possible; they've been trying to refute that misunderstanding ever since, with limited success. It doesn't help at all that the press, often enough, doesn't care enough about the Faith or whether they get their facts straight regarding dogma and doctrine; dramatic headlines sell papers. Besides, they might have rationalized, those with any kind of attention span can actually get some of the correct facts by reading the whole story.

In my view the Vatican's approval of the application is ill-advised.
* People who take Confession seriously would already have methods for preparation, and they wouldn't need a digital device like this, so the whole thing is superfluous. I think someone in Rome just wanted to appear trendy and topical.
* Given the lack of consistent security standards in mobile applications and devices right now, I wouldn't ever store information about items I need to confess on a mobile application. There's sufficient uncertainty and unnecessary risk to make using it imprudent.
* Finally, if someone wants to promote an application that helps Catholics make Confessions, that's one thing. By giving approval (whether as endorsement or as a declaration of merely tolerating the tool, I have no idea), the Vatican (whoever that is; it might or might not be the Pope himself) has given the appearance of changing the way the Sacrament of Confession is administered, leading to the risk of confusion and misunderstanding among both Catholics and non-Catholics.

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