Tonsured saints poring over Scripture share space with smiling teens pecking away at laptops on the Vatican’s new online home, Pope2You.net. Considering its ancient roots, tomes of canon law, and secret archives of dusty manuscripts, the Roman Catholic Church’s recent emphasis on an increasing Internet presence seems almost anachronistic. But as disorienting as photo galleries of the beatifically-smiling Benedict XVI may be at any URL, the Vatican’s Facebook fan pages and new iPhone apps have been in the works for centuries—theologically, at least.
The Catholic Church is not only the largest Christian church, but one of the world’s longest-lasting institutions in general—something that hints at a strategy of more than inertia at work. Though rigid in matters of doctrine (there’s no arguing a priest out of transubstantiation), throughout its history the Vatican has shown itself to be surprisingly flexible in matters of practice:
St. Paul convinced the Council of Jerusalem, way back in the first century, to accept non-Jews into the infant Christian community without requiring that they follow the strictures of Mosaic Law. Pope Gregory the Great’s extant letters to 7th-century missionaries, entrusted with converting the pagan bretwalda of southern England, instructed them to be practical more than zealous: no burning temples or banning pagan holy days—just re-name them. Even the Protestant Reformation, which is often used today to highlight the corruption and abuses of the medieval Catholic Church, was a break based on doctrinal differences—criticizing indulgence sellers was perfectly orthodox; rejecting the consecration of the Eucharist was not.
Historically, this tendency to adapt on matters of practice has been used to make Catholicism accessible to more people; today, the Vatican is continuing that pattern by embracing the use of the Internet in evangelizing. St. Paul had his Gentiles; Benedict gets the bloggers.
In the last year alone, the Church under Pope Benedict XVI has worked to disseminate Vatican news with a YouTube channel (updated daily) and an officially-sponsored Facebook, iPhone, and iPod Touch application: iBreviary, essentially a digital prayer book. (All of this, of course, can be shared with friends via “virtual postcards” from Rome.) The Vatican has also recently called for more use of the Internet at the local level, encouraging parish priests to learn how to blog, Facebook, or use multimedia tools in how they communicate with their flocks.
The Pope made his position clear on January 24, 2010: the 44th Annual World Communications Day, at which he called the Internet “an opportunity for believers,” cited a “challenge to employ the Gospel” with these new resources, and commented that the Internet “can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.”
Nevertheless, this progressive outlook on technological culture contrasts sharply with the Vatican’s increasingly conservative stances on other cultural topics. In the early 1990s (just a few centuries late), then-Pope John Paul II officially acknowledged that the Earth does, after all, orbit the sun—but Benedict XVI still calls the unfortunate Galileo Galilei’s trial and house arrest “rational and just.” Ironically, it’s those same college students who, after this statement, protested His Holiness’s planned lecture at LaSapienza University in Rome, are now the targets of the Vatican’s recent cyber crusade.
Benedict XVI has shown himself to be more than conventionally traditional on issues closer to the modern day, as well. His support for distinct gender roles and comments on homosexuality, for example, has proven particularly controversial: his statement that homosexuality “is a more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” goes just a little beyond John Paul II’s hate the sin, love the sinner sort of outlook.
And the Church has shown itself as implacable on contraception as it is on abortion. Benedict XVI crushed the rumored Vatican council on the use of contraceptives that made headlines some years ago, and had chastised those rebel priests who claimed condoms might be permissible when used for family planning. The notion is simply unacceptable—even within the bonds of marriage.
If these reactionary doctrinal positions seem incompatible with his strong support of Internet preaching, it may be because this latter stance is a very recent change in policy. The 44th Annual World Communications Day may have been a triumph for the Internet, but this same Pope Benedict XVI had less flattering things to say about the online world at the 43rd. To take one excerpt from his vitriolic speech, Facebook was accused of “degrading human beings.” The mass media in its entirety was denounced as “poison.”
These previous statements indicate the real purpose of this Internet policy turnabout: a shrewd attempt to spread a conservative message and make it accessible as practically as possible, not the hint of a more progressive outlook on modern culture in general. For Pope Benedict XVI, the Internet, it seems, is just one more barbarian temple to re-purpose.