Need some help confessing your sins? There's an app for that. "Confession: A Roman Catholic App" sells for $1.99 on the iTunes Store. The app, designed by three friends in Indiana with the help of some Catholic priests, has shot up to be the 26th top paid app on iTunes — right ahead of "Plants vs. Zombies."
But "Confession" is not a game.
It's also not a way for Catholics to bypass the Catholic sacrament of confession.
Tim Stevens at engadget.com described it this way: "(I)t lets you pick a commandment and tick off all your sins, keeping a running tally to bring into the confessional with you — a sort of anti-tasklist, if you will. Can't find your particular misstep? No problem! You're able to add your own, custom dastardly deeds, filling in those gaps the app's authors didn't think anyone would fill."
BBC reported the purpose with less humor: "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 personalized factors such as age, sex and marital status — but it is not intended to replace traditional confession entirely."
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," the spokesperson told BBC, "and this creative app will hopefully help people to make a good confession."
According to a press release at the developer's website, www.littleapps.com, Little iApps developer and co-founder, Patrick Leinen, said, "Our desire is to invite Catholics to engage in their faith through digital technology. Taking to heart Pope Benedict XVI's message from last years' World Communications Address, our goal with this project is to offer a digital application that is truly 'new media at the service of the Word.' The app has already aided one man in returning to the sacrament after 20 years. We hope many more will take advantage of this new confession resource."
Pope Benedict XVI spoke on "The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word" in Jan. 2010. He encouraged Catholics to embrace the digital world so that "the Word can traverse the many crossroads created by the intersection of all the different 'highways' that form 'cyberspace,' and show that God has his rightful place in every age, including our own."
The developers were serious enough to seek and receive official approval for their project from their local Catholic bishop. Vince LaBarbera, a spokesman for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana confirmed that Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades gave the imprimatur, the official recognition the developers sought.
But if the developers were serious, many media reports have seen it as an opportunity to approach the app with humor.
Reuters' story had the headline, "Bless me iPhone for I have sinned." The New York Daily News proclaimed it the "Holy App!" Switched.com called it "Confessions On the Go." The Washington Post headline was "Bless me, Father, for I have an iPhone."
The Catholic News Service (CNS), however, was less jocular. One CNS article said "users who have not been to Confession in some time have reported that using the app takes away the 'intimidation factor' of going to confess their sins."
"Some recent press reports, however, have suggested that the application could replace in-person confession," John Thavis wrote in another CNS article. Thavis' article quoted a Vatican official who clarified. "It's essential to understand that the sacrament of penance requires a personal dialogue between the penitent and the confessor, and absolution by the confessor who is present," said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. "This is something that cannot be replaced by any application. One cannot speak of a 'confession via iPhone.'"
The fact that the iPhone and iPad app doesn't have a button to forgive sins takes away most of the humor factor people assume when they first hear about the app. What remains is a digital program designed to help people examine their sins.
Father Lombardi told CNS that in the past, some Catholics used written questions and answers to prepare for going to a priest for confession. This app could help some people do this digitally.
An examination of conscience can be in several forms. The Confession app is taken from preexisting examinations of conscience based on the Ten Commandments. (Download one similar pdf version here)
So far the app has drawn a lot of attention and, according to comments on iTunes, appears to be bringing people to examine their lives. One customer who review the app on iTunes said: "As a straying Catholic looking to come back to the Church more fully, this app gave me the extra confidence I needed to go to my first confession. The examination of conscience was a great start in taking a look at my wrongdoings."