Pope sweet on tweets


Pope using an iPadMedia reporting on church and papal statements usually highlights any critique they make of contemporary mores. So when the Pope speaks on social media the casual reader might expect to hear the musings of an old man out of touch and out of sympathy with modern technology. If so, Pope Benedict's recent statement for World Media Day may come as a surprise.

His treatment is surprisingly positive: he pays little attention to risks, focusing on possibilities. He stresses the capacity of social media to connect people affectively, to communicate information, to enable planning, and above all to encourage people to reflect on what matters deeply to them.

The focus on truth and love, of course, is the Pope's constant theme and the main business of churches. Given his recognition that social media are not simply a technological aid but are changing the way in which human beings communicate, the Church has a necessary interest in them.

With that high view of the possibilities of social media, Benedict points out that social media can encourage superficiality rather than depth. People are more often influenced by celebrity and emotion than by reasoned argument. As a result their engagement with social media fails to touch their deepest hopes and desires.

That leads him to ask what kind of communication does touch the deeper questions of human existence. He explains that it must be authentic, touching both heart and minds. Authenticity depends on being able to enter into dialogue, responding to questions and taking seriously the convictions and discoveries of others.

For Christians, the answers to questions about life, truth and meaning are sought in their faith in Jesus Christ. To communicate faith on the web requires deeply grounded faith, an instinctive understanding of the medium, and discernment in how to speak and be silent.

The Pope also describes some specific benefits of social media for Christians. They provide a network of support for Christians who feel isolated by an indifferent or actively hostile culture. They can also enable people to move beyond the community they build on the web to make direct connections, both personally and through events. He may have World Youth Day in mind.

The tone of Benedict's message is consistently encouraging. He does not regard social media as an obstacle to personal development, but describes it precisely as a medium through which people can give themselves to each other at many levels.

Nor does he deplore, but wrestles with the difficulty of communicating faith in such a democratic medium. His address is exploratory. He raises serious questions about the human dimensions of the technology, which deserve attention from any readers who take seriously the search for depth in contemporary culture.

I found the address engaging also because it offers the reflections of an ageing scholar who is forced to grapple with a medium which is not favourable to scholarly conversation. It does not encourage carefully thought out speech based in strong, sustained argument.

The Pope responds in part as Plato responded to the Sophists who developed new educational technologies in order to meet the new demand for ready-made arguments. He sees social media as biased to the superficial, giving authority to celebrity and to rhetorical skill over sound argument and a concern for truth. But he does not see this as innate to the media but as a challenge to the people who use it.

In this respect he is less like Plato than Isocrates, who harnessed rhetoric to education in virtue.

Benedict's address leaves important questions hanging. In other contexts when he speaks of commending faith he emphasises its transmission through the Apostles and their successors in the Catholic Church. This hierarchical form of communication guarantees its authenticity.

But so inherently democratic is the structure of social media that the Pope attributes the authority of those who commend anything through it to their personal authenticity. And this authenticity demands high rhetorical gifts — the ability to listen, to be intellectually and affectively available, and to allow character to emerge.

If it is true that social media will change the ways we communicate as human beings, we might expect that authenticity of this personal kind will be a condition for exercising authority anywhere, including among Christians as well. The challenge will then be to reconcile this with the claims of tradition. It sees faith as received, not made, and as supported by wisdom, learning and reasonable argument.

The importance of the Pope's message is that he leaves the claims both of tradition and of personal authenticity in commending the Gospel to stand. Their reconciliation will be a long and complex task. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict, social media



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Existing comments

I like that picture of the Pope using social media, with the gorgeously-uniformed guard in the background! I also like the Pope's positive approach to social media. And I find it endearing that he, along with other faith leaders, is reaching out to a vast potential constituency who may never go near a church. For those of us who engage with social media, and also with a faith community 'in real life', the contrasts are sometimes perplexing. I do find authenticity and connection easier when face-to-face - subtle signs in body language and/or an easy smile can make communication deeper. The pitfalls of social media can be in attempting to establish an 'authentic' relationship when communication skills, on either side, are less than adequate. I would go so far as to say that perhaps a number of 'religious' bloggers have an agenda and perhaps not everyone who stumbles into such a space has the same agenda. How we perceive the gospel is important - I read labels like 'conservative' and 'liberal' very regularly on blogs and statements can be made that define people in a particular way. In real life encounters, subtlety (and a truer picture) can be perhaps more easily perceived.

Pam | 31 January 2013  

Andrew rightly nominates authority and personal authenticity as key characteristics of commending the Gospel. But in the mercurial world of social media, we should not overlook the power of democracy. As we have found with the reaction of many to so called infallible statements in the Church, reception is not just an individual phenomenon. Reception of what is proclaimed, is now subject to immediate and widely divergent commentary and analysis, which allows the once solitary individual to access the thoughts and opinions of thousands of thinkers. This "voice of the people" view of what is being commended, often brings into question the legitimacy of what is being commended as well as the assumptions that those receiving the news will somehow be passively compliant and un-thinking.. Commendations and proclamations in social media are better described as items for contestation and consideration, not for mere acceptance. Tweeting is not a one way process!

Garry | 31 January 2013  

Does the Pope tweet encyclicals, or simple sentence statements like mere mortals have to? "The focus on truth and love, of course, is the Pope's constant theme and the main business of churches." Well, it MAY have been, once but it certainly is not these days is it, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church? Double-dealing is the main activity of the Church these days, added to which goes a double dose of hypocrisy sprinkled with platitudes (like 'love' being the main meal), and, just to please Stephen Fry, large amounts of General Ignorance. All cheer squads have a sham quality about them, and the Pope's cheer squad is no different.

janice wallace | 31 January 2013  

The Pope's statement may well be seen as a praiseworthy example of the benefits flowing from the growth of social media. No longer are leaders or adherents of various beliefs (or opponents of beliefs) concentrating on 'preaching to the converted' or speaking solely to the like-minded. There is a growing tendency to listen, with respect, to the views of others and, perhaps, moderating their own attitudes.

Bob Corcoran | 31 January 2013  

Pam, most nation-states frown on the use of mercenary soldiers, regarding them as a threat to security, apart from being a dangerous nuisance. Odd then, that the Vatican happily uses Swiss Guard mercenaries as their armed forces, and no one question this feudal era arrangement. Not a good look, I'd have thought.

janice wallace | 31 January 2013  

"social media", "mass media", "congresses", "assemblies", "demonstrations", "conversations", where does the human capacity for human beings to communicate end? And how does one "communicate the faith"? Or "communicate faith"? As far as I can judge from talking with young people who are prolific users of social media, most of them do so out of love. They love their friends (even their facebook friends!). They love themselves. They think their ideas and those of their friends are imporant and worth airing, discussing, laughing at.... It seems to me a lot of "personal authenticity" is involved in the younger generation's use of social media. Most of the issues they deal with don't interest me. I'm more inclined to be amazed at the foresight of Isocrates (Thanks for jolting my memory, Andrew) in declaring, c355 BCE, Athens' imperialist ambitions could lead only to national bankruptcy. Political leaders ignored his warning then, just as political leaders today ignore John Paul II's condemnation of the abuses of capitalism. No matter what the medium, if the receiver is not interested in the message, he/she will instantly delete.

Uncle Pat | 31 January 2013  

"The focus on truth and love, of course, is the Pope's constant theme and the main business of churches." ***************************** Not necessarily in that order. For the first three hundred years, the emphasis was on love (See how these Christians love one another) And it received its impetus from false assumptions, that the world was about to end, and that a Universal Judgement was immanent. Only in the fourth century, with no mention of a pope, was a Creed drawn up, for political reasons, at the behest of the Roman Emperor, and what it decreed was labelled as "Truth", though there was more than one interpretation taken by various factions. For all the Pope's acceptance of the social media, he still silences any Bishops and theologians who seek to explore new avenues of truth.

Robert Liddy | 31 January 2013  

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.

Damaris‏ | 31 January 2013  

Thanks for clear explanation Andy

Sandy pugsley | 03 February 2013  

Habemus Papam? Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ, has got my vote. Even if some Jesuits oppose the idea of one of their own rising to the office of pope.

Game Theory | 12 February 2013  


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