The Tablet Blog
@Pontifex, Twitter is about dialogueStephen Bullivant, guest contributor
7 December 2012, 9:00
So, Pope Benedict XVI has joined Twitter: @Pontifex for those of you not already following. This isn't, of course, his first foray into the Twitterverse. He sent his first tweet last year, launching the @news_va_en service. But his appetite evidently whetted, on Monday he - or, at least, a Vatican staffer - launched a 'personal' account. While @Pontifex hasn't actually sent a tweet yet, and is following only seven other accounts (all other-language mirrors of his own), at the time of writing he has well over 500 000 followers.
A pope lining up alongside the likes of @SallyBercow and @iamwill will, naturally enough, be the occasion for much mirth and criticism. That is only to be expected. Levity is an integral part of much online interaction, and an 85-year-old scholar using Latin for his online handle is frankly inviting parody. Furthermore, his previous tweeting - though a masterful PR stunt for a drily informative news feed - was not wholly auspicious. Pundits found in @news_va_en's monologic 'inviting followers, but following no one' approach, so alien to the web's current thinking, a metaphor for the Catholic Church itself. And as my brother remarked on Facebook after watching the official video of the Pope's maiden tweet: 'If it takes five aides to show you how to make one touch on an iPad and whilst doing so you look confused by the whole ordeal, you're still some way from joining the digital age, your Holiness.'
As it happens, the Catholic Church, and indeed @Pontifex himself, has rather better form in this area than one might expect. The Vatican itself has a long tradition of embracing cutting-edge new media. This proverbially out of touch institution put a pope (Leo XIII) on film in 1896, and launched an international radio station in 1931. By 1957, Pius XII - the first pope to speak on television - could write that 'We often use these wonderful modern means ... to move the hearts of men and exercise a saving influence on them.' More recently, as Heidi Campbell observes in her excellent Religion and the New Media, the Vatican was a notable 'early adopter' of the internet. Its website launched in 1996 - a year before the launch of BBC Online, and a good two years before The Guardian got in on the act.
In May 2009, @Pontifex himself addressed a message 'to those who constitute the so-called digital generation' - that is, 'those young people who have grown up with the new technologies and are at home in a digital world'. He described these 'technologies [as] truly a gift to humanity... respond[ing] to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other', while cautioning users to promote 'a culture of respect, dialogue, and friendship'. Earlier this year, while reminding new media users of the virtue of silence, he nonetheless acknowledged that 'In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives.'
This latter insight, it would seem, is the rationale behind this week's development. It is reported that @Pontifex will properly go live on 12 December, answering questions put to him by other tweeters (#askpontifex). Now that does, of course, allow a certain stage-managing of who and what he does or does not respond to. But don't assume that he'll simply dodge the tough questions. An abiding theme of his papacy has been the importance of genuine dialogue, with the recognition that 'Such encounters, if they are to be fruitful, require honest and appropriate forms of expression together with attentive and respectful listening.' He is, moreover, particularly keen for such dialogue to include 'those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown' (which is precisely what his Court of the Gentiles' initiative is all about). Judging by the 140-character self-descriptions of many of his newest (and unlikeliest) 'followers', this could well be his best opportunity.
Stephen Bullivant is a lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary's University College, Twickenham
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