The God app: Vatican should rethink the ban

It could be a blessed relief for Catholics.

It had only just been announced, but a "God App" that some hoped would allow Catholics to confess their sins via their iPhones has been denounced by the Vatican, even though the programme had been given an Episcopal thumbs-up from a US prelate, the Bishop of South Bend, Indiana. "One cannot speak in any way of confessing via iPhone," says Father Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Holy See.

For once, I find myself sharing the view of my one-time Telegraph colleague Tom Utley, who has not been able to bring himself to go to confession since 1967. In today's Daily Mail he writes:

If it was OK by the church authorities, who was I to argue? If it would cut out the middleman, giving electronic absolution without the embarrassment of having to face a priest, it seemed like the answer to my prayers.

Like Tom, I have not been to confession for many years; unlike him, however, I feel no remorse at this, having thoroughly and completely lapsed in my teens. But I do remember what an excruciating business it was, and wonder if some kind of electronic version might not be a bad idea, whatever the current line from Rome.

Non-Catholics may be baffled by the very notion of it. But current and former Catholics will know how seriously confession is taken, even if it is not regarded as it was a few centuries ago (Hamlet's father, you will remember, was condemned to purgatory because he died unshriven).

You were supposed to go regularly, although I and most of my friends avoided it whenever possible. Hence, when you did go, you invariably committed a sin by lying almost as soon as you were in the confessional. "When was your last confession, my son?" "Er, a while ago, Father. About three months." (That is to say, anything between six and 18 months, if you were lucky.)

If you went to confession at the church where you attended Mass, you almost certainly knew the priest on the other side of grille, which hardly eased the process of unburdening. At least that old-fashioned practice was better than one that began to replace it around the time of my First Confession in the late 1970s. In tune with the liberalising trends of the decade, to which the Catholic Church was then not immune, guitar-strumming priests would sometimes substitute for the organ. Likewise, the confines of the confessional were occasionally abandoned in favour of face-to-face sessions.

I remember having to sit opposite Father Sean, a young, popular and charismatic priest whom everyone in the parish adored, and not being able to come out with anything like a proper confession (unlike in Utley's day, we were provided with no lists or examples to crib from). I was only seven, so I'm not sure how serious an array of sins I was expected to own up to. Nevertheless, you were meant to try. I think in the end I might have admitted to squashing a spider, which seemed a small matter with which to trouble Our Lord, and not quite what the whole process was supposed to be about.

The farce was completed by the fine, as it were – the list of prayers you had to say as penance afterwards in return for absolution – "five Hail Marys and one Our Father", for instance. These were to be uttered prayerfully and contemplatively. Naturally, we would rattle through them as fast as we could. Timing myself today, I find that I can still say a Hail Mary in six seconds. I'm sure I could have shaved a second off that in my pious youth.

Whatever I might miss from my church-going days – the glorious hymns, the intoxicating incense billowing through the pillars, the deep tolling of the bell at the consecration of the bread and wine, and the sense of being part of a ritual that connects Catholics across continents and millennia in a way that no other Christian service can – going to confession is not one of them.

Once, when I was a child, the difference between Protestants and Catholics was described to me by a telephonic analogy. The former had a direct line to God, it was said, but in confessing their sins Catholics were required to go through the operator. If that's so, shouldn't the Church be willing to embrace the latest technological successor to the human operator at his or her exchange – one of the many functions the iPhone provides? For millions of Catholics, confessing in such a manner would truly be a blessed relief.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle