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09.11.13

A Tweeting Pope Raises Questions About Social Media’s Effect on the Church

The Vatican says that anyone following the pope’s Twitter feed will receive indulgences. Lawrence M. Krauss on what religion’s online migration does to the concepts of worship and community.

I suppose it is not surprising the Creator of the Universe would eventually catch up with 21st-century technology. While the Scriptures may have been useful in their time, nothing compares with social media in the modern world if you want to reach people directly.

In particular, a recent pronouncement from the Vatican suggests that at least part of God’s plan for us on earth mimics a trend now occurring in higher education, in what one might call Massive Online Open Salvation (perhaps MOOS for short).

Just ahead of his trip to Brazil last month to celebrate Catholic World Youth Day, the Vatican announced that those who follow Pope Francis’s Twitter account (@Pontifex for those who are interested) would receive “indulgences,” which reduce the amount of time they have to spend in purgatory after death and before heading off to heaven.

Indulgences received a bad name in the Middle Ages because of the nasty habit many church elders had of selling them off for large sums of money. Happily, Twitter is free for anyone to use, so one could view the current Vatican offer as progress in that regard.

Of course, the Vatican insists that there is really no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to the road to heaven. Or, given Italians’ penchant for a quick espresso, another analogy was perhaps more appropriate: as Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the pontifical council for social communications, put it, "You can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether regular church-service attendance could be replaced by online sermons.

Instead the pious have to follow the pope’s tweets religiously, if you forgive the pun.  Celli insisted that praying while following the summit via tweets would need to be performed with "requisite devotion," though how the church could monitor that is not clear. 

Whatever one thinks of this most recent Vatican effort to evangelize, it does demonstrate the impact of the Internet on the changing face of religion in the 21st century.

Open access to information beyond that available in the pulpit has already had a moderating effect on the stability of faith. Recent reports suggest that some Mormons, for example, when presented with evidence online that some of Joseph Smith’s translations of key Mormon documents are fallacious, are choosing to leave the church.

Faced with open access to potentially damaging material on the Web, churches are regrouping to explore how to exploit the Internet and social-networking tools to help regain lost ground.  

For example, the Vatican has a Facebook page in addition to the pope’s Twitter account and has also created an app to provide online news. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that in the U.S. between 1998 and 2002, the percentage of churches with websites went from 11 percent to 45 percent. Something called the i-church is the first Internet community to be fully recognized as an Anglican church. And there is an online training site guiding churches in producing “Internet Evangelism Days.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether regular church-service attendance could be replaced by online sermons. It may sound odd to suggest that the fellowship provided by Sunday worship for many could be so easily replaced, but universities are exploring precisely the same issue as they examine to what extent joint classroom activity, in which students normally work together and benefit from hearing other students’ questions, can be effectively re-created online. I personally remain somewhat skeptical that online experiences can effectively compete with classroom ones, especially in courses that normally have a laboratory component, but the marketplace suggests I may be behind the times in this regard.

On the plus side, fewer real masses means fewer priests and churches, which certainly reduces the overhead, and perhaps the need for donations, while also providing fewer opportunities for the kind of misconduct that has been so rampant in the Catholic Church in recent years.

The real issues, however, are the same for churches as it is for universities: What is a viable business plan? If people have access to free online church services or free online instruction, how can the infrastructure necessary to support these services be maintained? Will online services be provided as free “loss leaders” by well-financed religious organizations like the Catholic Church as a way to force out poorer competitors, as appears to be happening in the U.S., with Ivy League schools, like Harvard, and their rich counterparts, like Stanford and MIT, providing free open-access MOOCs with no risk of losing their highly competitive and high-paying bums in seats?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, it appears that a little time spent in front of your computer or smartphone can get you to heaven faster, at least if the Catholic Church is to be believed.