Pope Invites his Flock to Join Facebook: Is the Digital Reformation Here?

I was already having a digital-doo-dah social media day when I learned via Twitter that the Vatican had issued a new encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, “Truth, Proclamation and the Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” The tweet from @philritchie, sometimes drummer and Canon of Chelmsford Cathedral in rural Essex, arrived while I was mulling over a question Parker Palmer had posted just a bit earlier on his Facebook page about the relationship between violent words and images in broadcast media and violent acts.

I’d added my two cents to the developing conversation, citing Douglas Rushkoff’s quip that “They don’t call it ‘programming’ for nothing,” and noting that the unreflective consumption of media is a characteristic of the Broadcast Age that doesn’t necessarily characterize interactive media engagement in the Digital Age. Then I hopped over to Twitter, where I gathered The Rev. Canon Ritchie’s news and took a quick look at his insightful blog post on the Pope’s letter. While I printed out the encyclical (I can be very old school like that, too), I toggled back over to Facebook, where I saw, to my great delight, that Parker Palmer had “liked” my comment.

“Ah, top o’ the morning to me,” I thought, as I headed to the backyard with a cup of coffee and Il Papa’s latest digital missive.

New Forms of Shared Awareness”

I couldn’t possibly have expected the day to offer much more than a thumbs up from one of leading thinkers and activists on education, spirituality, and social change. But it turned out that the Pope seems to have cribbed much of my commentary on his 2010 letter on digital social media. Whereas that letter focused on the special responsibilities of priests to engage believers and seekers in new online media outlets—a focus that I argued largely missed the distributed rather than hierarchical point of digital media practice—this year’s letter for World Communication Day spoke much more broadly to Christians about the possibilities and risks of new media.

“I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible,” wrote Benedict. He added, sounding a new cultural sophistication with regard to digital communications:

This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life. The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness.

The Pope’s new embrace of digital space as a site for the meaningful expansion and enrichment of social, intellectual, and spiritual relatedness in which the faithful should engage is welcome. But, as Ritchie pointed out in his blog, the Pope’s letter errs in assuming that digital media are the particular provenance of the young. While it’s true that more than 90 percent of teens use the internet, usage by adults has climbed some 30 percent over the past decade, with nearly 80 percent using the internet. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, three-quarters of American adults had a Facebook profile in 2009. Which is to say that the internet—and social media in particular—is not entirely wasted on the young.

Likewise, Ritchie was right to note that Benedict’s characterization of the “one-sidedness of… interaction” in digital communications betrayed a lack of practical familiarity with social media. Just a few years ago, I might have read and learned from Parker Palmer’s insights on media and violence, very possibly online. But it would have been all but impossible for me to engage in a synchronic and asynchronic conversation with two dozen or so people from various walks of life from Arizona to Ithaca to India on Parker’s reflections and questions. And it would have been nearly unimaginable that I would have had the opportunity that unfolded through the day to interact with the renowned thinker himself.

I’d add that the Pope’s worry that digital communication is marked by “the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself” also betrays a certain unfamiliarity with communication practices in daily life generally, digital or otherwise. When are we not communicating “only some parts of [our] interior world” (that with a big dollop of latitude on the notion of “interiority” itself)? Where are we fully free of the risk of duplicitous self-presentation?

Yet the papal encyclical is to be lauded for framing the overall discussion in cultural, ethical, and spiritual terms rather than narrowly technical or functional ones:

…the radical changes taking place in communications are guiding significant cultural and social developments. The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.

Blogs Ritchie of this turn in the Pope’s recent letter, “What most appealed to me in the message was the acknowledgement that the digital world is part of human life and therefore needs to be embraced. This is a very affirming observation for those of us wanting to take engagement seriously.”

Our Technologies, Ourselves

Nonetheless, two further bursts of digital news during the day challenged the papal letter’s continuing insistence on a sharp separation between the so-called “virtual world” and the “real faces of our brothers and sisters.” The outpouring of critiques of digital culture in the past year—the most recent, something of an about-face from Sherry Turkle—makes clear that we indeed must take “time to reflect on our [communication] choices and to foster human relations that are truly deep and lasting.” But this does not mean that relationships developed in global, digital spaces are any less “real” than those with the neighbor down the street to whom we nod in passing, but with whom we never otherwise engage in any “deeply true” way. Moreover, in the era of mobile technologies, the social isolation previously associated with internet-based communications is radically diminished and, very often, interpersonal intimacy is in fact enhanced. Our use of technology can thus enrich and extend meaningful face-to-face relationships rather than necessarily excluding or otherwise diminishing them.

It is the blurring of the virtual/real boundary that made me so pleased when one of my digital besties, Pastor Keith Anderson, stole a moment from the celebration of his own incarnation to share a link to the most recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “The Social Side of the Internet.” In a survey of 2,303 adults in November and December of 2010, researchers uncovered striking findings about the relationship between “virtual” and “real” engagement in religious, civic, charitable, social, and other groups:

80% of internet users participate in groups, compared with 56% of non-internet users. Moreover, social media users are even more likely to be active: 82% of social network users and 85% of Twitter users are group participants.

The survey results are even more interesting with regard to religious practice in particular. Both internet and smart phone users were more likely to participate in religious or spiritual groups than were people who do not regularly use digital media. By “participate,” the researchers were referring to physical, geographically located, face-to-face engagement: attending meetings, volunteering, taking leadership roles, and donating money. In all of these categories, participation was higher among internet users than non-internet users, making clear that digital or so-called “virtual” practice is an important component of the “real” relationships and commitments made by believers today. Texting, blogging, tweeting, and posting on Facebook group pages and personal profiles have become, as I argue in my own forthcoming work on the topic, important modes of relational and spiritual communion that are progressively eroding an interpersonal and spiritual disconnectedness that developed through the Enlightenment and reached its zenith in the now-waning Broadcast Age.

Collaborative, Social Reading

This new connectedness, as I’ve suggested here previously, is perhaps more premodern than postmodern in its ethos, a point made far more concretely by the announcement that San Francisco start-up Rethink Books will be launching software with which publishers can produce books as iPad apps that allow for collaborative, social reading. Like so many ancient and medieval religious sages, readers will have the opportunity to share commentary, debate interpretations, offer illuminations, and otherwise collaboratively immerse themselves in intellectual and spiritual relationships through a social Bible to be published by HarperCollins later this year.

More than an e-reader like the Kindle or Nook, social books accessed through iPad apps allow readers to enter into relationships within and across communities. What’s more, readers themselves, as they interact both with each other and the text, have the opportunity to reshape the meaning of Scripture itself, and with that the commonly held understanding of the faith. As Palmer insists in The Courage to Teach, “Authority is granted to people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts.” This very well could mean that the Bible Christians thought was more or less fixed in canonical form in the fourth century could once again be in play.

It’s hard to know what it might mean for the practice of faith or the shape of the Church in the future when my reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians relies on a digitally distributed comment from someone in Cincinnati or Calcutta. Yet these relational readings will certainly cross many boundaries—geographical, social, ecclesiological, and hermeneutical, but the least significant of these will perhaps be the artificial one the Pope insists remains between the virtual and the real. Acknowledging, exploring, and developing strategies for meaningfully and safely navigating the contours of this convergent, diversely populated landscape seems to me to be especially critical work for believers today.

Still, the gracious, affirmative, and arguably universalist tone of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, in marked contrast to his 2010 letter (with its emphasis on the authority of the priest as this fed upward through the hierarchy of the Roman Church) is more than a nod to the new digital social reality. Sure, it’s perhaps a little silly for the Pope to be “inviting” Christians into locales through which most have been travelling regularly for several years by now. But it is nonetheless important that he has offered his spiritual and ethical leadership into the increasingly digitally integrated world.

Indeed, to the extent that Benedict’s gradual expressions of what appears to be genuine contrition for the actions of the Church hierarchy in response to the sexual abuses of clergy and his recent comments on the moral permissibility of condoms were in no small measure shaped by the swirl of digital commentary by ordinary believers across the globe, his most recent encyclical raises a profound new question: Could it be that the Reformation that Gutenberg’s press could not fully sustain will be realized through the likes of Zuckerberg’s invention?