New media sacramentals?

A few weeks ago, my Catholic Dilemma column for the Catholic Herald ran as follows:
I use my iPad to follow the readings at Mass, for prayers after Communion and sometimes to follow the chant. Last week someone behind me tutted loudly. Is it wrong to use an iPad in Church?

Some readers might say “Yes, you should be using an Android tablet” but I prescind from that argument. There is no intrinsic reason why you should not use an electronic device to read the scriptures or the text of prayers and devotions. The iPieta app is a wonderful collection of spiritual writings, scripture, theology and magisterial teaching, and I know several Choir Directors who find the Liber Pro app an amazing resource for Gregorian chant.

One potential problem with using any backlit device in Church is that the bright screen could distract others. A small phone can be hidden but a tablet is likely to catch peoples’ eyes from quite some distance, especially if the lighting in the Church is subdued. In the current state of technology, the use of an e-book reader is less problematic in that it is not a light source; with a discreet cover, it can be made to look quite like a book and therefore not scandalise people who think that others should not play with what they think are just silly toys.

Let us be honest as well that if the use of tablets in Church becomes popular, some people will not resist the opportunity to check their email or catch up on their favourite blogs. If you are ever tempted to do this, consider whether you would start texting people in Church or take out a copy of the Daily Mail. The use of a device that is connected to the internet will always require a certain discipline.

We do not know what new hardware may become available even in the relatively short term. The Church was in the forefront of making use of the new technology of moveable type and Pope Benedict has several times encouraged us to use technology in the service of the Gospel.

And by the way, tutting at others in Church is not quite the thing either.
This weekend, the paper carried a thoughtful letter from Stephen D Wood. I have added incidental comments in red in order not to distract from the principal question which Mr Wood raises, which I will address afterwards:
SIR – Fr Tim Finigan (Catholic Dilemmas, October 5) approves the use of the iPad at Mass, saying that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. [With some qualifications.] I beg to differ.

Like prayer books, statues or the rosary, objects used for devotional purposes at the liturgy are sacramentals. Sacramentals are a means to receiving grace, but unlike the sacraments are instituted by the Church rather than directly by Christ. Also the reception of grace depends on the disposition of the individual using it. [An approved sacramental also benefits from grace given ex opere operantis ecclesiae, that is, from the prayer of the whole Church.]

First, I don’t think the iPad can be dscribed as a sacramental. The book, or a piece of paper, contains the sacred text in a completely different way to how the iPad contains it. The spatial aspect has effectively vanished with the iPad and with it the purposeful dimension. These two elements of a sacramental are significant for they reflect the Incarnation. [But remember that Our Lord also had a human soul and mind as well as human flesh.]

Secondly, regarding the disposition which the iPad represents, it is one of “the consumer”. It user is conscious always of choice. He or she selects the texts from maybe thousands of possibilities.[There are choices in a prayer book - the iPad presents more choice and this could be a problem secundum quid but not absolutely.] Entering the church we need to sense – and how much more in this age of rampant consumerism – the given.[I heartily agree in terms of the Liturgy itself, but I also support the idea of leaving people free to participate according to their own dispositions.]
In his irreplaceable canonico-moral tractatus on the sacraments, Fr Felix Cappello SJ set out a list of different types of sacramentals which I summarise in my notes as follows:
  • Things and actions – (holy water, blessings)
  • Permanent and transitory – (a blessed object, a blessing)
  • Blessings and exorcisms (asking for a good effect, compelling the departure of the devil)
  • Blessings and consecrations (consecrations use blessed oil)
  • Reserved and non-reserved (some blessings are reserved to the Bishop or to the Pope)
  • Real, personal and local (blessing of a rosary, of a person, of a house)
  • Verbal and real (blessings with a form of words, blessings with only an action)
  • Private or solemn (according to the nature of the rite or prayers used)
  • Constitutive and invocative (e.g. permanent consecrations e.g. of a Church; blessing of the sick)
A car or a house can be blessed. This does not make the car or house to be a sacramental in itself: it is the blessing which is a sacramental. When a rosary or prayerbook is blessed, that thing itself should be treated with respect as a sacramental in itself now that it has been blessed.

An iPad could be blessed. Since it can be used to look at email or the Guardian, or many billions of other pieces of content, it seems reasonable to say that the blessing of an iPad it is more in the nature of the blessing of a car than the blessing of a rosary.

But could there be virtual sacramentals? Let me take as examples Universalis (the modern office) and iPieta (a magnificent collection of liturgical, catechetical and spiritual texts.) Stephen Wood's point about the spatial and material aspect of prayerbooks is important. A piece of software does not fit. Although we could point to the source code and say "Well that is a script that can be printed on a piece of paper", that is not how it is used. The iPad user, normally unaware of the underlying code, just downloads the app and uses it. It is indeed ephemeral in that it can be deleted at the tap of a finger.

Still there is the question of something intellectual that exists in a way that is more concrete than an idea in my mind. We can pinpoint changes - whether the updating of the office to 2013 or the addition of further texts to iPieta. Also, Our Lord was made man - not simply in having human flesh but also in having a human soul and having human knowledge and will (these doctrines were thrashed out and defined by the Church in the wake of Nicea and Chalcedon.) Is is too outlandish to suggest that intellectual property, set out in something downloadable by the Christian, could itself be a new type of sacramental now that the printed word is challenged by new media?

Since the Holy Father has repeatedly encouraged us to use the new media, and has set an example himself, perhaps those projects which especially enrich Catholic life could be blessed and benefit from the prayers of the whole Church, being given the status of working ex opere operantis ecclesiae?

And finally once again - thought I think it could be OK to use an iPad in Church to pray, I do not approve of distracting others or using it to surf around aimlessly in the house of God.

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