@Pontifex signs off: Exploring Benedict’s digital media legacy

Posted Feb 15, 2013 | New Media Project


By Keith Anderson, guest blogger

This is the first in an occasional Friday series on recent news and events.

The complex legacy of Benedict XVI will be debated for some time, but his complicated relationship to new digital social media will certainly be no small part of it. The pontiff’s new media engagement threw the struggles of traditional institutions with social media—churches, as well as businesses (just ask Applebee’s) and other organizations—into high relief.

It has also highlighted the long, public, and sometimes painful journey for leaders from all fields from web 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond, from broadcast to social media.

@Pontifex the First

Pope Benedict XVI is the first pope of the digital social media age, presiding during the explosion of social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter. He is the first pope to Tweet, taking the handle @Pontifex and tweeting from an iPad on December 12th, 2012: “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.”

This was only the latest, and now one of the last, developments in Benedict’s digital leadership. The Holy Father began publicly mulling the significance of digital media in 2008, noting in his World Communications Day message that “The new media--telecommunications and the internet in particular--are changing the very face of communication; perhaps,” he added, “this is a valuable opportunity to reshape it.” It was hardly a prophetic message by that point in our increasingly digitally-integrated world, but it marked an important step into a new consideration of media participation for religious leaders across denominations.

Benedict’s statement for World Communications Day in 2010 moved further into this new social media engagement by encouraging priests to use the new technology “to testify in today’s world to the new life which comes from hearing the Gospel of Jesus.” Still, as Elizabeth Drescher then pointed out, he neglected to appreciate the democratic nature of social media, envisioning it as essentially a broadcast medium for priests to form the faithful.

Benedict’s most recent statement, published just three weeks before his resignation, focused on the call to engagement by all believers and the promise of digital media not only for evangelism but human development. Still cautious about ministry in an environment “where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail,” this latest papal message was nonetheless a remarkably positive and constructive statement on the role of social media in religion, particularly given his earlier statements.

In an ancient institution that could have conceivably waited it out, or at least wait for the next thing, he recognized new media as more than a fad, but rather as a global commons that changes the communication of the gospel and the way believers live their lives and share their faith. Perhaps most importantly for religious leaders and practitioners, Benedict recognized social media as something to be reckoned with theologically rather than as mere technological tools and church marketing platforms.

An Awkward Embrace

However, in practice, the Pontiff’s relationship to social media seemed awkward at best.

He has 2.8 million followers on Twitter, but only follows eight and they are all his profiles in other languages. This is due, in part, to an underlying tension between social media as a fundamentally non-hierarchal communications medium in which everyone has a platform to let their voice be heard and the culture of one of the most hierarchical institutions in the world. I suppose a belief in papal infallibility would only add to that tension.

Indeed, that idea of infallibility has been part of the challenge for the Vatican even as it sought, during Benedict’s papacy, to participate in the new media revolution. Social media engagement happens in real-time, people learn as they go, they make mistakes, they are learning in public. It is very human. The office of Supreme Pontiff has not, traditionally at least, allowed for that possibility.

No longer can leaders just hold audience from high above in a balcony. They must not only be present but engage people in the digital gathering places where people of all ages, traditions, and gather by the billions.

Thanks to social media we expect our leaders to be more human, more accessible, and more open. As Elizabeth Drescher and I argue in our book, Click2Save:The Digital Ministry Bible, when we apply broadcast media strategies onto social media, we do more harm than good, alienating the very people we hope to engage. The often angry, irreverent, and sometimes incredibly pained blowback on the @Pontifex Twitter feeds is but one indication of that sort of failure.

Monseigneur Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, has said, “Institutions, be they governmental or church are often risk averse. We don’t like making mistakes in public. And yet, if you’re to speak the language you’re not going to learn it until you try speaking it. One of the things important for us is trying different things, working with different things and, through receptivity and feedback, learning to make it better.”

@Pontifex II

The @Pontifex Twitter handle will be inherited by the new pope. How, we might reasonably wonder, will @Pontifex II engage with social media? Will he branch out into other social media, perhaps having a digital audience on a Google+ Hangout, as the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu have done? Will he embrace the more visual ethos of the digital media culture by snapping iPhone pictures for Instagram and Pinterest? Will he enact the call to deep listening to new voices that swirl around the new media landscape, as Benedict suggested last year?

Whatever turn the new pope takes on the new media pilgrimage Benedict XVI began, he will have the benefit both of his predecessor's robust theological reflection on digital communications in religious practice as well as many lessons on the need not just to transfer ancient religious traditions to new worlds, but to fully translate them as new modes of religious engagement.

Digital social networks, Benedict said in his final World Communications Day Message, “can also open the door to other dimensions of faith.” Digitally-engaged believers around the world might well pray in the weeks ahead that the new pope is more open to such newness in the faith wherever it unfolds.

The Rev. Keith Anderson is a pastor at Upper Dublin Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA. He is the author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012), and his blog, PastorKeithAnderson.net, was ranked among the top 100 religion blogs by Technorati.

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.


  1. 1 Meredith Gould 05 Mar
    IMO, the @pontifex account is only the latest in a series of Vatican what-the-what? moments.

    As you and other observers have pointed out, Keith, that account has been devoid of engagement. I've also been struck by how out-of-sync the Vatican's social media use is with its inspiring rhetoric about 21st century communications.

    What's next? Who knows? As I've written elsewhere, I've almost completely abandoned all hope of a #CatholicSpring.

    I underscore "almost" because I do believe in the Holy Spirit and join you and others in praying "the new pope is more open to such newness in the faith wherever it unfolds."

    And although we are currently observing Lent, I'll sneak in an alleluia amen to that!
  2. 2 Rose Brain 19 Feb
    I've seen that issue myself. I belong to an opinion/discussion site called Sodahead (opinions on just about anything, not just political or issues in the news) and the same type of mean spirited comments are there. If I'm in the fighting mood, i'll engage someone. But it wears you down and you ultimately fall into sin, at least I do with my Italian temper. And frankly no matter what reasons you bring out it hardly ever changes anyone's mind. The only hope is to catch a reader who isn't locked in stone to a perception and hope he at leasts listens to you. Most internet discussion is either preaching to the choir or locked into perpetual fisticuffs.



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