Follow The Leader

How does a religion centered on holy materiality adapt to the virtual?

This week the Vatican unveiled the twitter handle @pontifex for the Pope's personal account, and even though he won't begin tweeting until next week he has already amassed more followers than even Jose Canseco–still, 500,000 at time of writing is not that many considering he has over a billion in the real world. Most have predicted that it won't be Pope Benedict XVI himself writing the 140-character tweets, but regardless of whether it's the 85 year old holy father or a web-savvy young priest, it’s surprising that a religion so predicated on materiality would invest in a virtual presence. Its very belief system is based on the premise that the body of Christ is physically, not symbolically, but physically present in a soda cracker. To combine the holy at the abstract seems risky for an organization that insists on the literality of a material practice non-Catholics often find either figurative, baffling, or both. But in the context of the Church's past use of technological innovation and new media, the move to increase its web presence isn’t just understandable, it’s traditional.

The Vatican already has a website and within it a news site, which already tweets in six languages. And there is a Catholic presence online outside of Vatican-sponsored activities. You can visit a Catholic Church on Second Life–the most popular 3D virtual community which boasts over 20-million registered accounts. The 3D church, known as Catholic Now, offers Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, but the conflict of the virtual and material is evident in their decision to not offer the Eucharist to their worshippers' avatars. On the Catholic Answers message board, user aztec1975 defends this decision, writing that “The consummate actions of a priest cannot be fairly represented since there are no physical species of bread and wine to [be] transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ.” It's a decision that some don't agree with. In the same message-board thread, Secret_Square suggests the virtual has the ability to reaffirm the physical, following the logic that offering the full service online could be a sort of gateway drug: “I think the trick to effective Catholic evangelization [is]...appealing to those who might be interested in the Church but are too shy or explore it in real life.” The idea is that the virtual does not replace the physical but that it is merely an imperfect surrogate that might encourage real physical participation.

The same idea is behind the iPhone app Confession, which came out in February 2011. The app walks the user through the ten commandments, asking them to check off which sins they have committed. The Vatican gave its blessing to the app, but qualified its support, saying that the app does not provide absolution the way a real priest does. The hope of the app's creators is that virtual approximation will encourage lapsed Catholics to confess their sins in person. The abstracting medium is intended to reaffirm the material, a strategy the Vatican has used in the past.

In 1823, a fire destroyed the papal basilica San Paolo fuori le Mura, or Saint Paul's Outside the Walls, in Rome. The genesis of the basilica dates back to Constantine's rule in the first century, when he erected a structure to commemorate Saint Paul after his execution. In the fourth century, the original edifice was expanded into an elaborate basilica. At that time, the poet Prudentius wrote that “the splendor of the place is princely.” Pilgrims would come from all over to pay tribute to Saint Paul's remains. Beyond Christ's body in the bread and his blood in the wine, Catholicism prioritizes physicality through pilgrimages and elaborate sacred spaces. Later emperors continued to invest in the extravagance of the basilica. When it burned to the ground, the Church was savvy in how they went about finding the funds to rebuild it. The Church engaged in a global outreach project using printed pamphlets to spread the word far and wide. It was through the abstracting power of print that the Church was able to reassert the sacred space’s importance, and in doing so, the significance of materiality.

The Catholic Church adapted well to print. Long before outreach for Saint Paul's Outside the Walls, the Church had realized the power of print to spread the good word. Reacting to the Protestant use of the printing press, they simultaneously called it heretical and engaged with the same tools in order to compete. The Church was also quick to embrace radio early on. Guglio Marconi, the father of long-distance transmission himself, set up the Vatican radio station in 1931–today it is broadcast in 47 languages. The Vatican was precocious in its experimentations with TV as well, trying it out in the thirties and then in the fifties, even if a satellite station didn't come until the nineties.

Compared to their use of these other mediums, the Church's web presence has been relatively dim. The aesthetic of their website harkens back to scrolls from the dark ages, or at least to Microsoft's 1997 computer game Age of Empires. The background is made to look like parchment in an unsuccessful attempt to use the ancient medium to gain authority. It's an old tactic to associate the new with the familiar; to ease readers from manuscripts to printed books, for the first hundred years or so, vellum was commonly used instead of paper and the printed font imitated handwritten script. But the Vatican seems to be making themselves look more outdated than necessary. Their worshippers never read along to readings from the Gospel off parchment. The crowded serif text of the Revised Standard Edition Catholic Version would probably be much more familiar.

In addition to poor aesthetic choices, the official Vatican site is anti-intuitive. I couldn't figure out how to install the “widget.” And I wasn't quite clear what the widget would even do if I could figure out how to install it. The instructions used the word “webmaster” which I have rarely seen since the days of web rings and geocities; it brings to mind an image of a wizard that is not far off from that of old Benedict himself in full dress.

In spite of these clumsy attempts to adapt to an increasingly digital world, the Catholic Church's congregation is still growing. The truth is though that growth in the past decades has mostly been among populations that can't even afford a computer, but as the $40 tablet that came out in India this year attested to, the Internet is becoming more and more accessible in the Global South. It's only a matter of time before parishioners in increasingly Catholic areas like southern Africa have access to these sorts of cheap devices, leaving them only a tweet away from Rome.

Millions of Catholics are already plugged in. In spite of its decline in Europe, the Catholic Church has maintained its numbers in the Americas and in Asia. While the Pope only officially addressed social-networking and new media for the first time in January 2011–urging Catholics to embrace these new tools but giving a small warning that virtual contact does not replace its physical counterpart–American Catholics have been ahead of the curve. This past August the fifth Catholic New Media Conference was held in Arlington, Texas. Many American Catholics tweet and update their blogs religiously, and the laity’s web presence is arguably stronger than the official Church's.

Catholic Online or, owned and managed by Michael Galloway of Bakersfield California, certainly has much better web design than the official Catholic Church site. When I typed “Catholic Church” into Google, it also appears higher in my search results than the Vatican's site. [Keeping in mind the fact that search optimization is somewhat individualized based on location and search history, I asked a couple friends to search the same thing–a lapsed Catholic living in London, a Jew in Paris, a Mennonite in Berlin, and a Quaker in Rwanda.There were some regional differences, but for all of us the Wikipedia entry for the Catholic Church was first, and came up before the] In addition to and its coveted domain name, there are other Catholics with a strong web presence, like the digital missionary and individual Catholic-themed twitters like @conversiondiary, @BrandonVogt1, and @TheAnchoress with thousands of followers each. Given credence to the maxim “no zealot like a convert,” many of the most popular Catholic bloggers and tweeters are born-again.

The Catholic Church is a centrally-controlled and politically powerful institution that has invested in maintaining its authority for centuries, but there always have been many Catholicisms beyond the official Church and Vatican-sponsored activities. At the Heritage of Pride parade, you can find the Gay Catholics of New York marching along Fifth Avenue. This past Spring, American feminist nuns were reprimanded by the Vatican for supporting female ordination, reproductive rights, and homosexuality. Throughout its history, the Catholic faith has been influenced by top-down and bottom-up developments. Many religious stories, like the tale of Faust for instance, stem from the medieval diablery, which is characterized by being pluralistic and democratic compared with information from the Church that is passed down through restrictive hierarchies. The Internet, and Twitter especially, is heralded for a similar sort of democratizing power. But as much as the web is hailed for smashing traditional structures of power, there are just many instances when they are re-mapped onto digital spaces. As with print, radio, and tv, the Catholic Church still has the advantage that comes with a treasury full of literal treasure. If the Pope doesn't have a knack for hashtags and pithy slogans, the reality is that, if they want to, the Church could always just buy a flock of bot followers.