Pope Tweeted into Retirement

Among the least remarked upon, but most interesting aspects of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was his mention of the “rapid changes” in today’s world, which has been “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” While Benedict has had to deal with a number of volatile political and theological issues in recent years, it may have been the startling changes in communications technology that made the whole thing ultimately untenable.

Since believers see the office of the Pope as God’s mouthpiece on Earth—God’s Twitter handle if you will—the new communications technologies have become increasingly worrisome, clogging the pipes of communication with so much competing “data” that it’s difficult for religious truths to make it to the top of the faithful’s media feed. Indeed, Pope Benedict has seen mind-boggling changes in communications technologies in his brief period of service. It’s no wonder he’s tired.

Benedict’s wish now for a quiet retirement may be gleaned from his recent praise of “silence” in the midst of the ceaseless rush of digital information, as expressed in his World Communications Day speech of 2012:

“In our time, the Internet is becoming ever more a forum for questions and answers—indeed, people today are frequently bombarded with answers to questions they have never asked and to needs of which they were unaware. If we are to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions, then silence is a precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive.”

Silence from the cacophony of networking is exactly what he’ll have soon—we should all be so lucky.

This difficult relationship of the Church to technology has dogged Benedict from the very beginning of a tenure in which he’s had to oversee an avalanche of change that was only hinted at when he was selected. The previous pontiff, Pope John Paul II, saw the creation of the Vatican’s website in 1994, not long after the Internet became available for popular use. The Internet Explorer browser was launched in 1995, and the Palm Pilot first appeared in 1996. When John Paul first took office, SMS (texting) and Google were still several years in the future. Use of the Internet in the early nineties for most people consisted largely of acquiring plane tickets, reading relatively static documents, and emailing acquaintances. 

By 2004, the year before John Paul died, search engines had become sophisticated and powerful, and the immensely popular online world Second Life was in its third year. MySpace had appeared the year before, and Mark Zuckerberg was feverishly writing the code that would become Facebook. YouTube was just an idea, and wouldn’t appear online in any form until 2005.

John Paul did embrace social media as it existed then. He was the first pope to use SMS to send out a daily message to Catholics in 2004, after brokering a deal with Verizon—one of the first troubling commercial agreements between the Vatican and communications companies. For the most part, though, communications technologies at this time seemed a grand and wonderful thing, enabling the sharing of God’s truths with many in an easy and effective way. Interactivity was still relatively limited, and our media mimicked our religion: much of it was still top-down, though change hung in the air.

But it’s Benedict who has seen unprecedented change in communications technology—enough to make anyone wish for retirement. He’s observed the massive development of YouTube and Google, the ubiquity of smart phones and mobile devices, and the rise of Facebook and Twitter, which boast nearly a billion and half a billion respectively. For good and for ill, we are available 24/7 for communications via multiple lines of digital contact.

Amidst this chaotic stew of interactive entertainment Benedict has worked to figure out, with increasing urgency and frustration, just what the Church’s role ought to be.

In his 2011 World Communications Day speech Benedict noted that recent “radical changes” in technology “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.” The interactive nature of communications, he says, relativizes the distinction between producer and consumer so that “communication appears not only as an exchange of data, but also as a form of sharing.”

The Pope’s recent creation of a personal Twitter account in December 2012 seems to have been an attempt to engage with this interactive world without compromising papal authority (though as Elizabeth Drescher notes here on RD, this is a nearly impossible feat). The medium itself demands “sharing” in the form of give and take, while the power structure of the Vatican insists that religious authority is in the giving, and less so in the taking.

A June 2011 video of the Pope learning to use an iPad

reveals what appears to be resignation and only minimal curiosity. One can only imagine the weariness induced by the attempt to constantly acclimate to new hardware as well as new software. What do touchscreens have to do with encyclicals? This would have been an absurd question just ten years ago. But for today’s wired believers, if you don’t have a digital device, you probably won’t even read those encyclicals. Paper is so yesterday.

The Pope’s 2011 observations about the dangers of social media are fairly astute, even if they do reflect a growing fatigue. He recognizes that social networking can offer new forms of relationships, but he cautions that networking also raises new questions about morals and “authenticity,” an issue of particular concern for Benedict that resurfaces in several messages, where he urges youth to “not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.” Benedict would prefer that the faithful insert “expressly religious content into different media platforms,” and to “witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile” a lifestyle that is “fully consistent with the Gospel.”

As I have argued in my book Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality, this is a difficult challenge, since the medium of social networking itself encourages the cultivation of multiple selves, each suited for different digital environments. The life of faith, which is presumably to be grounded in singular identity, suffers amidst the multiplicity. What’s a pope to do when he must compete with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga in the same visual and symbolic space? He can issue missives, tweet calls for faith, and hope for better times.

Only a few weeks ago, in anticipation of World Communications Day 2013 (perhaps already considering stepping down before the May event later this year), Benedict prepared a statement on social networking platforms. Expressing again his deep anxiety about “authenticity” in the media age, Benedict warns that “the significance and effectiveness of the various forms of [online] expression appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value.”

One can imagine the pope wringing his hands in frustration at the lack of civility in online arguments about anything from celebrity divorces to the afterlife: “In the digital environment, too, where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail, we are called to attentive discernment.” This is advice well heeded by anyone, regardless of faith. Perhaps, though, the only way for this Pope to silence those “divisive voices” is to give up, and go find a quiet place with no screens. Popes are, after all, human beings too, and everyone deserves to spend their final years without passwords or keyboards if they so desire.

In a hopeful gesture about social media’s future, Benedict recently claimed that “the growing dialogue in social networks about faith and belief confirms the importance and relevance of religion in public debate and in the life of society.” Indeed, arguments about value and meaning do take place online too, amidst the more empty discussions about celebrity hairstyle and recent movies. And whether religious groups like them or not, interactive new media networks are here to stay. If Catholicism is to thrive, it will have to determine how to reconcile millennia-old, top-down communications systems of faith with an interactive, user-driven environment where individual voices clash and clamor for attention. Now it’s up to the next pontiff to try to sort out the madness.