The Pope and Social Media: A Digital Counter-Reformation?

A couple of weeks ago, in anticipation of the 44th World Communications Day (May 16, 2010), Pope Benedict XVI issued a message in which he ardently encouraged priests, very particularly, to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audio-visual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, Web sites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization, and catechesis.

Many commentators saw Benedict’s statement as a bold move by the Roman Catholic Church into a new era of open, interactive communication with the faithful. But the Pope’s message, starting with the title, “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word,” made clear that the Vatican did not intend to engage in the sort of wide interactivity, distribution of authority, and mashing of diverse perspectives that is characteristic of the Web 2.0 world. The message makes clear that the task of proclaiming the Word of God belongs primarily to priests, and that they must be trained to be actively present on in the internet “from the time of their formation… shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.”

That is, we may presume, navigating new social media should now be entering the seminary curriculum. On this point, at least, il Papa and I are in complete agreement: those called to ministry must develop fluency in what are fast becoming the dominant modes of interpersonal expression and communication as well as central mechanisms in the construction of personal identity, social identity, and community.

One Step Forward, Three or Four Centuries Back

Yet, Web 2.0 and all that his effort attempts to be, I can’t help noticing how much the Pope’s World Communication Day message echoes themes of the 16th and 17th century Counter Reformation.

Largely a response to the provocations of the Continental and English Reformations, the initiating event of the Counter Reformation was the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which affirmed the medieval teachings on the authority of Roman Catholic traditions. As was the case in many previous and subsequent reforms, the Council sought to improve the education of the clergy and laity, striving to bring them into closer relationship without upsetting the balance of spiritual authority that weighed decisively in favor of the priest.

In a now classic essay on the period, the historian John Bossy argued that the Counter Reformation was fundamentally about shoring up the institutional power of the Church by reeducating both priests and laity on the fidelity the faithful owed the Church (via the parish priest) over loyalty to kinship networks, community bonds, or feudal relationships. According to Bossy, the reforms of Trent were bent on dissuading believers from attending to the theological novelties of Protestantism and humanist secularism that were swirling throughout Christendom, aided greatly by new, printed social media.

As Pope Benedict’s message tacitly acknowledges, today’s communication technologies invite engagement with religious pluralism and spiritual syncretism to a degree which neither Pope Paul III nor Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avilla, John of the Cross, or Francis de Sales (the all-stars of early modern Catholic reform) could not possibly have imagined. So, while it certainly seems a wise move to urge clergy to enter digital communities and conversations as keepers of the Catholic faith, their very use of social media undermines the clerical control that the Pope’s message is intent on securing.

Users, Not Consumers

New social media is defined primarily in contrast to not to print, but to broadcast media: radio, movies, television. Where the latter is characterized by passive reception of a message crafted outside the immediate experience of the audience, social media today is by its nature participatory, interactive, collaborative, distributive, and, importantly, integrated deeply into the day-to-day experience of users. Updating a Facebook status or tweeting a question about the nature of the Trinity (it happens!) is not a break in the action, an interruption of demands of daily life. These activities are intimate parts of contemporary daily life for the more than 350 million Facebook users and more than 80 million Twitter users.

The key here is that these millions of people are users, not consumers. They are active and engaged, and have a level of authority over the messages they encounter the likes of which we have probably never seen before. What’s more, their engagement in social media has the effect of changing the forms and functions of these media themselves. All of this is to say that the masses with whom the Pope rightly believes Roman Catholic priests ought to engage on “the digital continent” have considerably more authority in relation to institutionalized spiritual authority delegated to priests over the construction of Christian spiritualities than believers and seekers may have had at any time in the past. In ways that have surely always been true, but which are much more pronounced in competent engagement with the Web 2.0 environment, Christian evangelization and catechesis ultimately result in the conversion of both the missionary and his [sic] subject.

To wit, though the Pope’s message highlighted the centrality of priests in leveraging new social media in the service of the Church, “P2Y,” a Vatican Web site directed to young people inverts the traditional hierarchy, inviting users to post the Pope’s message on their Facebook pages and to send it directly to their priests via Facebook, email, or, for the hopelessly disconnected priest, snail mail.

“Who better than a priest, as a man of God, can develop and put into practice, by his competence in current digital technology, a pastoral outreach capable of making God concretely present in today’s world and presenting the religious wisdom of the past as a treasure which can inspire our efforts to live in the present with dignity while building a better future?” the Pope’s message asked.

The answer, apparently, is a 15-year-old with a Facebook account and a Wi-Fi connection.

Taking No Prisoners

The Vatican’s brave foray into the social media landscape offers but one illustration of how new social media reshapes religious institutions and practices, pressing intently on traditional roles, centers of authority, understandings of spiritual identity, and the construction of spiritual community in what has been called the “Digital Reformation.” Clearly, this is not an exercise in simple inculturation or contextual translation (if there ever really were such things). Effectively participating in the new social media environment is not a matter of picking up a new vocabulary of glyphs, images, and sounds that will “capture” the attention of those with whom we want to connect. Digital media has no captives. At least so far, no one’s really figured out how to effectively and durably colonize it. And, I’m pretty sure that’s all to the good.

A meaningful interactive pilgrimage through the Web 2.0 world requires traditional Christian leaders to take very different approaches to mission and ministry; ones that demand a particularly respectful attentiveness to what the Roman church would call the “sensus fidelium” (the sense of the faithful) that is not always the strong suit of Christian leaders across the denominational spectrum. Active users of social media have claimed their Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels as places where status updates, tweets, video uploads, and cellphone text messages rely only on the authority of those expressing and representing their own experience—and that authority is almost instantaneously shared with those who read, listen, watch, and may re-present their own self-authorized interpretation of what they have gathered.

Inviting young Roman Catholics to pass along messages to their priests from the magisterium, as the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has done through the “P2Y” site, is nothing like asking them to courier, intact, a missive waxed shut with the Papal seal. It is more even than a digitized game of telephone. It is, rather, to enter the message into to the social and intellectual currency of world defined by distributed authority, collaborative interpretation, and communally-regulated improvisation that simultaneously affirms, resists, challenges, and repurposes available resources.

Truly engaging the digital world from this perspective promises, as has been the case in every reformation, to turn the institutional Church around in ways, we can only hope, that revive the radically countercultural and spiritually transformative heart of Christianity.

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