The Pope on Social Media

Pope Benedict XVI tweeted using his personal Twitter account last week for the first time. The first tweet was a message of good will, thanks, and blessing:

"Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."

While it is not unusual for religion individuals and communities to experiment with digital media, this event perhaps is quite significant for religion and digital media researchers because of the implications for the Catholic Church and digital technology. The Pope's blessing on his followers through social media opens up large questions about the intersection of digital media, religious authority, and theology.

The Pope himself articulated in part his stance on digital technology in his World Communications Day message in January 2011. In it the Pope praised the potential of digital technology to advance the Gospel and encouraged Christians "to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible." His invitation for engagement was tempered, however, with the notion that authenticity needs to be carefully considered in participation in cyberspace. The Pope also admonishes: "it is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."

Social media as an integral part of life behooves the Christian to participate in it. But the Pope warns there are risks of creating a false image of oneself and being less present with people in everyday life. Digital relationships cannot replace "direct human contact," creating a hierarchy or dichotomy in communication; digital contact is perhaps supplemental or secondary and cannot replace physical presence. One can enclose oneself in a "parallel existence" if not mindful.

Digital technology has perhaps not been grafted itself into the Catholic Church as readily as in other religious expressions. For example, the independent Protestant Church has many campuses, including an online campus where worship experience can take place. Conceptualizing digital technology as a site for witnessing and engagement belie the absence of virtual worship. In this sense it seems that digital technology is seen as a conduit for evangelization rather than a locale for worship or ministry. This official approach to digital technology can be contrasted to virtual religious communities like those in Second Life, for example.

It might be banal to say that different religions approach and appropriate digital technology in different ways. But in the case of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the warnings against "parallel existence" and becoming involved at the expense of being physically present may stem from an embodied theology akin to the transubstantiation in the Eucharist.

The Pope's Twitter account is further evidence of the proliferation of digital media and the importance of what researchers in new media and religion do. It also serves as a reminder that robust reflection and study of digital media and religion must understand the nuances of religious traditions and beliefs as they inform religious individual and communal engagement with digital media.

The Pope's Twitter Page:

The Pope's 45th World Communications Day Message
Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age: