Pope to Catholics online: It's not just about hitsVATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI told Catholic bloggers and Facebook and YouTube users Monday to be respectful of others when spreading the Gospel online and not to see their ultimate goal as getting as many online hits as possible. (Thank God it's not about the hits. Now I can stop comparing EC to Huffpo.)
Echoing concerns in the U.S. about the need to root out online vitriol, Benedict called for the faithful to adopt a "Christian style presence" online that is responsible, honest and discreet. (Someone asked me the other day what I liked best about this blog and blogging. I said the fact the community keeps the conversation on a much higher plane than average and that I learn a lot from the comments.)
"We must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its 'popularity' or from the amount of attention it receives," Benedict wrote in his annual message for the church's World Day of Social Communications.
"The proclamation of the Gospel requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive."
Benedict didn't name names, but the head of the Vatican's social communications office, Archbishop Claudio Celli, said it was certainly correct to direct the pope's exhortation to some conservative Catholic blogs, YouTube channels and sites which, with some vehemence, criticize bishops, public officials and policies they consider not Catholic enough. (Hmm, this is interesting. I guess it's still OK to criticize these officials for not being honest, not being Christian, and for being secretive, deceitful, and self promoting. Oh and too often criminal.)
"The risk is there, there's no doubt," Celli said in response to a question. He confirmed that the Pontifical Council for Social Communications was working on a set of guidelines with recommendations for appropriate style and behavior for Catholics online. (Oh goody, a whole new category of sin.)
"I don't love such things, but I think we can define some points of reference for behavior," he said, adding that he hoped such a document would come out as soon as possible.
The Vatican's concern comes at a time when incendiary rhetoric — in the media and online — has come under increasing fire; even U.S. President Barack Obama has urged greater civility in political discourse following the attempted assassination of a U.S. congresswoman.
In his message, Benedict echoed many of the same themes he has voiced in years past about the benefits and dangers of the digital age, saying social networks are a wonderful way to build relationships and community. But he warned against replacing real friendships with virtual ones and warned against the temptation to create artificial public profiles rather than authentic ones. (I'm all on board with Benedict on this one.)
"There exists a Christian way of communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others," he wrote. "To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one's own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preference and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel."
The 83-year-old Benedict is no techno wizard: He writes longhand and has admitted to a certain lack of Internet savvy within the Vatican. (I bet the brouhaha over SSPX resulted in a whole lot more Internet savvy--like learning how to do a basic Google search.).....
........Celli acknowledged that the pope's annual message — which is full of technical jargon — is not his alone. Celli's office prepares a draft and the pope then makes changes. Celli said he didn't know if Benedict had ever been on Facebook, but said he expected one of his aides had probably shown him around. (I hope Benedict gets with it on Facebook because I might even ask him to be a Zoomate.)
Off hand I can think of more than a few conservative websites who should take heed of this message from our infallible Pope. Even on a progressive publication like the National Catholic Reporter, the frequent onslaughts from Fr. Z'z brigade against certain writers makes my blood boil. Mostly because the comments are utterly predictable and almost always adhominem. Since many of them give the advice to find an Episcopalian Church down the road, I find it all most impossible to refrain from suggesting they find another website further down the Internet.
I had to chuckle with Archbishop Celli's assessment of the current Vatican website. It is relatively primitive. It certainly doesn't have the eye candy or interactive opportunities of some other religious websites, say like EWTN. Maybe Celli should give them a call. I'm sure they could give the Vatican tons of advice--and on more than modern communication opportunities.
Speaking Facebook and avatars and invented Internet personalities, my daughter got me interested in playing Zooworld. It's become our long distance sharing experience. We chat on the phone and the chat program at the same time. Redundancy is also a modern communication trait. To get anywhere in Zooworld you really do need zoomates, but I didn't want to evangelize to get any, so we made up Facebook pages for all our pets and gave them their own zoos. So if you go to my Facebook page all you see is Zooworld stuff and half my friends are really personal pets. I can't wait for Archbishop Celli's guidelines to see if this would be considered a sin. It is for Facebook, who deleted one our pet's zoos for having been created with an email account registered to my daughter. That is being remedied courtesy of Yahoo not being so picky.
In many respects the Internet is kind of fantasy world, but it's also an amazing vehicle for creating communities which transcend boundaries. It is possible to create a different consensus reality through Internet communication and other social networks, and that is really it's power. I think back to the recent Iranian elections and how quickly information passed into the global community via cell phones and the Internet. Lives were saved because of it. Secretive governments and institutions can no longer control the real time information flow and that is a reality that calls for a major fine tuning in relating with one's constituency. In the long run these institutions will have to come to the conclusion it's better to tell the truth and let the truth go viral, rather than a never ending series of disinformation, out right lies, and hypocritical platitudes directed at others.
It really is a new and evolving world out here in the blogosphere. So far the Vatican has been using it poorly, in a one way direction that lacks the give and take and information flow of comm boxes. It's a method that denies the real creativeness of this medium, one of the very thing that takes it beyond newspapers, tracts, and sermons--and it's global. It's still mind boggling to me that this blog gets comments from people across the globe, and not just predominately English speaking countries.
I guess I can afford to be in awe of all of this because it doesn't threaten me on any fundamental level. For institutions like the Vatican, which brook no real dialogue or discussion of issues, and desperately wants to maintain total control of the information flow and dialogue, I bet there are times the Vatican is tempted to see the Internet as a diabolical invention. I on the other hand, see the hand of the Holy Spirit.