The controversial French Roman Catholic pay telephone hanging on the wall is currently under fire from bishops in the church who say it is misleading and not a replacement for true confessions. The pay phone charges .34 euros per minute of service, offering advice and “listening” to confessions with an automated voice. Is this the next step in religious practice, cutting out the middle man or priest and instead harboring in a whole new generation of automated objects set up to fulfill the religious needs at a time when technology is fusing with all other aspects of life?
The voice at the other end of the phone is that of a soothing priest who wishes to help the listener find absolution. The problem? He’s an automated recording. “For advice on confessing, press one. To confess, press two,” and perhaps most disturbing, “to listen to some confessions, press three.” The automated “Line of the Lord” service offers a chance for those who can’t or won’t confess otherwise to do so in a way that offers anonymity, convenience, and (according to several bishops) not much else.
There are, however, special protocols that have been set up in the case of “mortal” sins. The automated voice continues as it advises those who may have cut themselves off from contact with the Roman Catholic god, “In case of serious or mortal sins… that is, sins that have cut you off from Christ our Lord, it is indispensable to confide in a priest.”
The whole experience is reminiscent of George Lucas’ confession booth in THX-1138, where a man sits at a confessional and relates his experiences to a robotic face of Jesus as it continually reassures him with pre-recorded statements such as, “Yes I understand,” and “You are a true believer,” or Philip K. Dick’s dial priest who can be dialed and set to various religions to offer differing advice from alternative points of view based on religious stereotypes. Though it does have a practical component to it, it certainly seems to be almost laughably too futuristic and disconnected from reality to exist.
But on second glance, what is a confessional? Confessions given under the screen of anonymity are often criticized according to some faiths who say the bond of confession is a bond, and that anonymity is a direct violation of that bond. But what is a confession? If a confession is merely admitting to a wrong and requesting a chance to move on and live free of these worries, then it seems reasonable that a confession phone could exist according to some faiths who believe confession is more about self admission than it is about admission to another. Of course if this was the case, however, why have the phone at all? And there is a very real component here to the spiritual tradition of Roman Catholics. In a world where sermons can be broadcast from one source to millions of people thanks to technology, is it possible those who are integrating the technology are undermining the role of living breathing priests and endangering traditions that go beyond convenience and mass appeal? It is of course a question that will become ever more prevalent as technology continues to get more advanced.