Much has been made recently of the Vatican’s sudden and widespread appearance in social media. Pope Benedict XVI now has a Twitter account in Latin along with several other languages. There is an app for smart phones that disseminates information from the Holy See and a YouTube channel broadcasting papal messages around the world. The Roman Catholic Church, so often accused of backward thinking and outdated practice, has finally entered the Internet age.
The pope himself has praised the digital world as an “an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.” The Internet, in his view, opens opportunities for the church’s “New Evangelization,” an effort to apply ancient beliefs to the contemporary situation with renewed vigor. Participation in blogs, online forums and social networking sites encourages dialogue and the chance to share Christian values with a worldwide audience. For an institution accused of disengagement from modernity, it seems the church is finally making progress.
The reality, however, is far more nuanced. The use of technology in and of itself is never a guarantee of the dialogue, community or truths the church seeks to foster. One need to look no further than Hollywood or Washington for examples of blatant self-promotion and shameless propaganda wrapped up in impressive technological forms. A message’s packaging can never assure its relevance or good content.
There is no question the Roman Catholic Church has in recent decades struggled to articulate its beliefs to the modern world. Church attendance in many places has drastically fallen as a result of poor catechesis and the inability to translate Christianity’s message into contemporary terms. If the Vatican seeks to make Catholic teaching relevant to the world, it must go beyond mere acquiescence to technological innovation and engage society on society’s terms. Like its founder, Jesus Christ, the church must meet the world within the world, listening deeply to its questions and not merely sounding off as another voice clamoring for attention in the wilderness of popular media.
This deep engagement should take on many forms, but Catholic Christians must, in imitation of Christ, go outside their own communities for dialogue. Approaching secular, atheist or contrasting religious perspectives with respect and a spirit of listening will encourage trust and an environment where beliefs can be considered apart from the vitriolic rhetoric so often accompanying discussions about religion. The USSCB could take seriously the world’s concerns by instituting an online forum where all are able to express their frustrations, hopes, or accolades, perhaps in the way President Obama interacts with constituents via the “We The People” initiative.
The Vatican Twitter feed could engage in real time the questions of believers and non-believers alike in two-way conversation, demonstrating the vulnerable and human side of a church that so often presents itself as the sole voice of God. Theologians could contribute to conversations on social Web sites belonging to nonbelievers, the church hierarchy and Christian laity in order to better understand the cultures they often are unable to engage from their lofty positions in academic ivory towers. Ultimately, rightly interacting with the world will require a spirit of humility and openness that is too often lacking within the church. This vision requires believers to listen and learn, rather than to speak and preach. It will cause Christians to be humble and, like Christ, to enter into all the complexities and curiosities of human existence in the world.
What the church can offer via the new media is a forum for exchange that breaks traditional boundaries between hierarchy and laity, sacred and secular. The Internet can be a place where the body of faith takes seriously contemporary questions without rejecting out of hand the reasoning and philosophies that the world brings to the conversation. Only then will true dialogue be possible with a world in such great need of the message of hope that Catholic faith offers. Only when the church engages the world as Christ engaged it--in service to often disorderly, though human, circumstances--can it become relevant to any age.
Jason Steidl is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Fordham University.