When the medium is not the message

Posted Dec 11, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jim Rice


The Vatican announced on December 3rd that Pope Benedict XVI had joined the Twittersphere, and within a week the pontiff had more than half a million followers. An official statement from the Holy See said, “The pope’s presence on Twitter can be seen as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is the church’s presence in the world of new media.”

According to The New York Times, a papal spokesperson laughed when asked if the pope’s posts would be infallible, saying that they would be “pearls of wisdom” and part of the church’s body of teaching (the Magisterium), but “not exactly doctrine.” In any case, the spokesperson continued, “it’s a papal teaching. The message is just entrusted to a new technology.”

The Times continued with a brief summary of the Vatican’s pioneering communication efforts in the past century or so:
The Catholic Church may be one of the slowest-changing institutions in the world, but when it comes to communicating with the faithful, it has been an early adopter. In 1896, Pope Leo XIII became the first pope to appear on film. In 1931, Vatican Radio was founded, and Pope Pius XI was the first pope to make a radio broadcast. In 1949, Pope Pius XII was the first to appear on television. In 2009, a Vatican Web site, Pope2You, went live, offering an application called “the pope meets you on Facebook,” and another that allows readers to upload the pope’s speeches and messages to their smartphones. In 2011, the Vatican started its own news Web site, News.va.

A few days before the Vatican’s Twitter announcement, a branch of the Catholic Church sent a different message altogether. In late November, a 92-year-old Jesuit priest in Milwaukee named Bill Brennan was stripped of his “priestly faculties,” meaning he can’t perform any priestly duties in public, contact the media, or appear as a Jesuit at any “public gatherings, protests, or rallies,” according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Brennan’s sin? He co-officiated a liturgy with Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a woman ordained in the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. The Vatican, perhaps needless to say, considers members of the RCWP as renegades and excommunicates anyone who acts on the goal to “achieve full equality for all within the Church as a matter of justice and faithfulness to the Gospel,” as the group’s mission statement puts it. The women, for their part, insist that they are loyal members of the church as they “use equal rites to promote equal rights and justice for women in the church.” More than 150 women have been ordained priests and bishops by the group, according to NCR.

“I’m not trying to defy the church,” Father Brennan told NCR. However, he said, “Why is it that this privilege of celebrating the Mass and preaching, why is that exclusively a male privilege?” He added, “after all, women have an eminent role to play in the work of creation of children with men. What about the sanctification process? Don’t they have any share in the preaching of the Gospel? ... Isn’t that worth discussing?” (Another priest, Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, was notified in November of his dismissal after 45 years in the priesthood for “disobedience and preaching against the teaching of the Catholic Church about women’s ordination.”)

So, there you have it, two stories in the same week: One on the pope’s “pioneering” presence on Twitter, and the other on the church’s refusal to allow even discussion about equality for women.

The Vatican would have us believe, by virtue of its use of new media, that the church is an innovative, up-to-the-minute entity, riding the crest of developing technology. But this is a case where the medium is definitely not the message. In using twenty-first century technology to push nineteenth century values—such as the refusal to treat women as equals—the Vatican is trying to construct a virtual Potemkin village to hide crusty, archaic practices that the world is increasingly leaving behind. As is so often true when the church, or any organization, tries to stubbornly remain on the wrong side of history, the shiny facade of new media won’t be enough to hold back the winds of change.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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