Algorithmic Absolution: The Case of Catholic Confessional Apps
Sasha A. Q. Scott
Queen Mary University of London
This article explores the Catholic ritual of confession as practiced through the use of mobile apps. Confession is a surprisingly persistent social form and in this article I begin by contextualising the relationship between society, confession and technology before presenting a case study of Catholic confessional apps that covers their design, marketing, and user feedback from review forums. This throws up a series of important questions about how we understand religious authenticity and authority in practices of faith that have a computational agent taking moral deviations as ‘data input’. How should we conceptualise these applications when an algorithm imparts absolution, when penance is assigned by computational code? Observing that most people do not question the automation of the confessional ritual and that users feel their use of confessional apps as entirely legitimate forms of religious practice, I argue that questions of authenticity are secondary to those of authority. In the traditional Sacrament of Penance a priest, acting in persona Christi as the minister of Christ’s mercy and drawing upon canonical law, recites the Rites of Penance, thereby performing the transition from the state of ‘penitent’ to ‘absolved’. The replacement of a priest with the silent logics of algorithmic automation has profound implications for the authoritative power of confession as a transformative ritual.
Online ritual; mobile apps; confession; algorithm; authority; authenticity; digital religion; ethics