New media and religion scholar Elizabeth Drescher asks whether the Pope on Twitter really represents a digital ministry. Should it? This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Dec. 11, 2012.
Since the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI—@pontifex to Twitter followers—would begin tweeting after his regular Wednesday audience in Rome, the #askpontifex hashtag, meant to gather concerns of the faithful, has buzzed. However, tweets have flowed from comics to capitalists to critics and outright haters at a pace and quality that makes one tweet less ironic than was likely intended by its author, @popenheimser: "Dear @pontifex you pretend to be infallible Do you still believe in this dogma after having expected that #askpontifex would be a good idea?"
The Pontifex Maximus is an enthusiastic supporter of religious social networking, issuing messages on the last three World Communication Days encouraging priests and laity to carry the Christian gospel into the digital world. His recent tweets begin what many see as a more participatory papal gesture that also offers a model to ministry leaders in the Catholic Church. It raises other important questions, too.
Digital ministry must be grounded in listening closely to those whom one hopes to engage.
One is whether Il Papa's social media participation is ministry at all—or if his tweets more faithfully serve the Twitter marketing apparatus, aggregating a religiously committed, critical, and curious cohort for advertisers. For instance, Catholic bloggers Lisa Hendey and Brandon Vogt quickly deployed #askpontifex to drive traffic to Hendey's blog and stir interest in Vogt's book on social media. This commercialism piqued the ire of @outofcarolina: "Wow, what a tacky way to cheapen #askpontifex hashtag! So much for God, faith, spirituality. It's all about the $$."
But is such criticism fair? After all, it's a rather venial sin to grab the hem of the Pope's cassock in exactly the way Twitter advertisers with deeper pockets will be able to do with greater demographic precision once tweets start flowing from St. Peter's Square. Maybe the bigger question is, should the leader of the world's largest Christian denomination be involved in that project?
Other questions highlight digital social papal practice itself, which follows the top-down broadcast model against which Twitter is positioned. As seen with #askpontifex, the message control that religious leaders once enjoyed is absent in social networks. Sure, the Pope will issue his own tweets and select worthy questions for response. But, unlike in face-to-face audiences, on Twitter anyone can comment and critique.
Does the Vatican know how to deal with nondeferential Twittersphere engagement beyond ignoring it? Like the decision that the Pope will follow only himself, such practices offer their own messages of self-referential, non-participatory authority that seem out of step in today's interactive, increasingly democratic world. Thus, the Pope's tweets may constitute a ministry of presence, but they hardly model engagement with believers, seekers, and skeptics that I'd suggest is the heart of Christian ministry.
Beyond this, it's hard to know what authority the Pope's tweets will have among devout Catholics. Will they have the status of magisterial teaching, functioning like official encyclicals, or are they passing commentary? Something in between? Entweetcyclicals? The emergence of digital sacred texts—from Facebook prayer pages to religious narratives in video games—is the focus of a public learning series "Sacred Pixels" this winter at Santa Clara University.
Meanwhile, my research with clergy and laity across denominations revealed best practices for digital ministry that might help Il Papa in his Twitter ministry. First is that digital ministry must be grounded in listening closely to those whom one hopes to engage.
In the Catholic Twittersphere, Fr. James Martin (@jamesmartinsj) and Bishop Christopher Coyne (@bishopcoyne) are worthy exemplars. My prayer for the Pope's digital social pilgrimage is that he attends to his own insight on World Communication Day: "Learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak."
Story Update (Feb. 28): After his resignation, the Pope sent a final tweet (below) and then the twitter account was shut down. The @pontifex account had over 1.6 million followers.
Elizabeth Drescher teaches religion and is a scholar of Christian spiritualities at Santa Clara University, where her work at the intersection of new media and religion has been funded in part by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011).