The digital church
Francis has observed that we are not living in an era of change, but in a change of era. The digital revolution has changed everything, as the pandemic has made clear. Within the Church exciting new possibilities are there to be seized for walking together and growing in unity
As Covid went viral last spring, our London parish lacked a streaming
facility. So the family indulged in a parochial version of
channel-hopping: sampling a range of homilies and sanctuary fixtures.
We eventually settled for the Pope’s daily Mass in the Vatican’s Santa
Marta chapel. We see his every expression up close; listen to his quiet,
early morning voice; we can even hear him breathing.
It’s in real time, but is this “real presence”? As Francis himself warned, live-streaming is OK for the time being “in order to get through the tunnel, not to stay here”. He has stressed the importance of physical presence and touch; just as many have warned of the desensitising effects of life experienced through the screen of a device.
From the late nineteenth century, popes have embraced new technology to rule, or to reach out. Pope Leo XIII exploited mass printing to publish his encyclicals and colour portraits. His successor Pius X employed telephones, encrypted cables, and a mimeograph to hunt Modernist “heretics”. Pius XI asked Marconi to set up Vatican Radio in 1931. During the Second World War Pius XII helped direct a movie about himself, Pastor Angelicus; it was screened widely throughout Italy in an attempt to combat the Communist vote in the post-war elections. John XXIII instigated one of the first of the decrees of Vatican II, Inter Mirifica (“Among the Wonderful”), welcoming all forms of social communication, including television. It was promulgated by Paul VI in December 1963; he was the first, as pope, to fly. Adept at all forms of mass media, John Paul II greeted the internet as a tool for evangelism; Benedict saw email as a boost for friendship.
Francis has exploited digital media to interrupt the relationship between Rome and the Church in the world. American business leaders saw parallels with “disruption manage- ment”. In 2014 Francis won two of the New York Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards; the Adam Smith Prize, presented by the Harvard Business Review; and the award for Book of the Year for innovation for his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The American business glossy Forbes compared Francis to a CEO tackling shrinking profit margins, loss of market share, and haemorrhaging customers. The periodical warned (as if Francis needed any such caution) that disruption creates “anxiety and resistance from incumbent management and conservative laity”.
Disruption innovation typically involves info-tech undermining the dominance of a current provider’s service or product: landlines overtaken by mobile phones; Uber taking on black cabs. Technology increases customer control. Francis is acutely conscious of what he calls “epochal changes in communications” and their consequences for the Church and the Holy See. He inherited three overlapping information baronetcies: the Press Office, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and the Vatican Information Services. Amid these departments, numbering some 650 personnel from 40 different national back- grounds, were venerable establishments: Vatican Radio and the daily L’Osservatore Romano; as well as publishing houses, libraries and archives.
Francis called in media-savvy advisers. He merged and revamped the three departments into a single new Secretariat of Communications, launched in April 2015. The consultancy corporation Accenture was commissioned to aid full digitisation, extending to every aspect of the Vatican archives, administration, and finance. State-of-the-art software now monitors regulations relevant for the Vatican’s revenue, investment, charitable funds, and dealings with civil and criminal law across the world, including sexual-abuse charges and convictions. Information services would now remain open after midday, and on holy days and weekends: 24/7.
The founding Prefect was 50-year old Mgr Dario Viganò, of Italian
parentage, raised in Brazil (and no relation to the excitable former
papal diplomat Carlo Maria Viganò). Viganò brought practical media
experience and theory to the task. Then he boldly announced his aim to
build “a central content hub … after the Disney business model”. The
comparison with the American mass media and entertainment conglomerate
with its gamut of movies, theme parks, streaming services, comics, toys,
and computer games appears crass at first sight. An essential feature
of the Disney model is the unmediated interaction between the centre and
the customers: in management-speak, “direct-to-consumer offerings”.
Imitating this model might suggest a Church shaped by focus groups, an ecclesiastical version of a demand-led business. In less commercial terms, Viganò invoked the influence on the new model for Vatican communications of Thomistic social philosophy. “Adhering to the concept of subsidiarity”, authority at the hierarchical apex would relinquish control over matters that can be handled locally. “The local churches”, Viganò explained, “have developed their own communication structures, and we must interact with them in a subsidiary way and never substitute for them.”
Francis speaks of de-centring what he has called the “self-referential” Roman Curia. Yet he insists that the centre and the periphery must be held together in creative tension. He made this clear in 2019 when the German bishops’ synodal pathway seemed headed in the direction of a declaration of independence from Rome. We “walk together”, Francis told them, or we risk “perpetuating the evils [synodality] seeks to resolve”.
With a budget close to £50 million a year, the content of Vatican
news and features is abundant, accessible, multilingual, and with
international and multicultural relevance. Archival resources are
user-friendly and free of paywalls. Vatican web pages receive 240
million views in 38 languages annually; the figures do not represent the
reception of Vatican-generated content, including streamed liturgy,
passed on via diocesan, parish, and local Catholic media.
In the fifth year of Francis’ papacy Monsignor Viganò was himself disrupted. Promoting a series of short books on the theology of Francis, the monsignor redacted a critical note from a letter of endorsement of the project by Emeritus Pope Benedict. In the shocked hue and cry Viganò resigned. Francis retained him in an advisory capacity. His replacement is the journalist Paolo Ruffini, the first lay person to head a major Vatican department.
Meantime Francis was calling meetings on info-tech’s future with a focus on artificial intelligence, the supreme expression of digital technology. The issue was the danger of surrendering human judgment and decision-making to the power of the algorithm. Francis was determined to engage with major technical and commercial corporations to understand the nature and far-reaching consequences of AI: social and ethical. He has met Demis Hassabis, the British joint-founder and CEO of DeepMind, Yann LeCun, chief AI scientist at Facebook, Microsoft president Brad Smith, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Google’s Eric Schmidt.
In September 2019 media heads and moral philosophers gathered with
Francis at a Vatican seminar entitled “The Common Good in a Digital
Age”. In February 2020 the Vatican issued a “Call for an AI Ethics”
which supported the development of a “common language to interpret what
is human” in order to create a future in which digital innovation and
technological progress serve human genius and creativity and not their
gradual replacement by a claimed artificial super-intelligence.
Meanwhile, Francis has confirmed the positive potential of social media by personal example. He is on Twitter (@Pontifex) in nine languages, arguably with more clout than political leaders because he is so widely retweeted. He has chatted with astronauts in space, and given TED talks via podcast; he collaborates in an app connecting callers to a “Worldwide Prayer Network – Click to Pray” in six languages. Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, tells how he paid two visits to Francis in 2016. After the second, he said, “We had just flown in. We were bleary-eyed. He walked in, and he turned the corner, and he goes, ‘Kevin!’ It was like seeing an old friend … We had an iPad, and it was all set up. The name was filled out. So, literally, all he had to do was click ‘sign up’.” Under the username @franciscus, he posted his first photo in March 2016.
In 2013 Viganò invited the German movie director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire) to make a film about Francis. He was given almost unlimited access and substantial independence. Wenders used a camera technology known as the Interrotron. The interviewee looks eye to eye at the interviewer on a screen rather than a cold lens, creating an impression of remarkable presence and intimacy. The resulting film, Pope Francis: A Man of his Word, was distributed via Amazon, Netflix, Google and YouTube. One reviewer writes that it shows Francis “opening up the Church to everyone and reaching out to the world. No one is off limits.” Exploiting Vatican footage from 800 hours of papal trips, A Man of his Word portrays Francis’s extension of Catholic moral concerns to include care for migrants, the homeless, what he calls the “left-overs”, and care of the environment as the world faces climate change catastrophe.
Yet throughout his papacy, a span of Catholic media platforms has exploited digital media to sow conflict. Within minutes of his election, a blog called Rorate Caeli (from Isaiah: “Drop down dew from the heavens”) announced: “Horror! Of all the unthinkable candidates he is perhaps the worst!” Drop down acid rain might be more apt. Francis has been attacked relentlessly by a variety of Catholic media platforms, often by quotation of anonymous “sources”, including bishops. He has been accused of heresy, insanity, and even satanism. The rancour of proliferating media platforms and social media in the US undermines the Church’s claim to unity.
Digital technology has also been used for political ends. US Catholics are increasingly targeted by “geofencing”, a digital practice first exploited in retail settings. Marketers access parishioners’ devices at Sunday Mass. CatholicVote.org, operating the largest Catholic voter mobilisation programme in the US, claims that geofencing of Catholics can win elections, and boasted its decisive contribution to Trump’s victory in 2016. In December 2020, after the Catholic electoral vote was evenly split, the website used its outreach to cast doubt on Biden’s victory.
Yet, while creating new ways for Catholics to fragment, info-tech also shows its power to bring people together. Close to our home at Waterloo, London, our parish church plays weekly host to a charismatic movement, the Cenacle. The group attracts members scattered across the city, yet in touch via their devices. Another London parish, Corpus Christi in Covent Garden, is a popular venue for Latin Mass devotees. In normal times worshippers came from all over Greater London; now far greater numbers are able to participate thanks to live-streamed Masses.
In an era of parish closures and priest shortages, info-tech offers
new ways of forming Catholic communities. The Amazon Synod in October
2019 made extensive use of new media, enabling delegates to come
together from across its vast and often inaccessible regions. The
experience revealed how information technology could be an essential
part of the Church’s synodal future, creating new opportunities for
rebalancing and keeping in creative tension the relationships between
pope and bishops, bishops and clergy and Religious, and clergy and
people. The Church is a conversation across cultures and generations,
between the past, present and future, with the potential for celebrating
what unites us as well as exacerbating what divides us. The digital
revolution has the power, despite current internecine conflicts, to keep
“Good communication helps us to grow closer,” says Francis. “To know one another better, and, ultimately, to grow in unity.” He has backed, and demonstrated, the extensive, positive power of digital technology. He has reached out to its major world players, while warning of its dangers and limitations. His digital disruptions have brought down walls of separation. And at the same time he has created new perspectives on the papal title Pontifex Maximus: the creator of access across barriers of time and space: the bridge builder.
Adapted from Church, Interrupted: Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis, published by Chronicle Prism at £21.99 (Tablet price, £19.79).
John Cornwell directs the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.