The Vatican and Wiki, the Global Village Well

The Vatican has finally given Wikipedia its nihil obstat, imprimatur. To provide biographical material on the 22 cardinals to be elevated in Friday’s consistory, it cut and pasted information from the online encyclopedia. In some instances, reports the U.K. Guardian, Wiki’s entries took a tone “that does not match the Vatican’s style.” Of Willem Jacobus Eijik, archbishop of Utrecht, Wiki says that his “strong tendency to conservatism, specially regarding abortion and homosexuality…has made him one of the most talked about religious men in the country.”

Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi has pointed out that the biographies were meant to be “unofficial” — not, in other words, the last word on any of the new cardinals. If that’s true, then Vatican interns (or whoever gets stuck doing this kind of work) couldn’t have picked a better place than Wiki. One of the great things about it is its orientation toward the tastes and interests of the average reader, which, after all, is exactly where journalists aim their own articles. If the Vatican hadn’t told those reporters where Archbishop Eijik stood on homosexuality and abortion, you can bet that would be the first gap they’d have wanted to fill. To do so, they might well have hit Wikipedia. At worst, the Vatican cut out the middleman.

There’s no backhand in these compliments. Since Pius XI became the first pope to be broadcast over the radio, “that remarkable invention of Marconi,” the Vatican has been striving to reach the common person through the mass media. Indeed, in his encyclical Miranda Prorus, Pius XII spoke of broadcast technology as one who still had some hope of dominating it. “The mounting technological advances in communicating pictures, sounds, and ideas must be subjected to the sweet yoke of the law of Christ,” His Holiness wrote in 1957.

Fifty-four years later, when speaking of the Internet on the 45th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict offered a more realistic set of goals. “The clear distinction between the producer and consumer of information is relativized and communication appears not only as an exchange of data, but also as a form of sharing,” he proclaimed. “This dynamic has contributed to a new appreciation of communication itself, which is seen first of all as dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations.” Rather than speak of yoking, he ordered the sheep to feed each other, to “witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically.”

Nothing online relativizes that distinction between information consumer and producer like Wikipedia. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, a lot of the information already produced is pretty good, by which I mean accurate, thorough and more often than not, flattering. Entries on papal encyclicals, for example, carry links to the documents themselves — in English and Latin — on the Vatican’s own website. Entries on popes are linked back to the official Vatican bios, and in some cases, to personal fan pages. (Did you know there’s a site called JohnXXIII@everything2.com? Neither did I.)

Cardinal Bertone’s entry includes an anecdote where the cardinal, having appeared on a Roman bus in full fig, flashes his “‘characteristic’ smile” at passengers, and engages the young ones “in a deep conversation on love, sex, virginity, and chastity.” (Source: Catholic News Agency, via Rocco Palmo’s Whispers in the Loggia.) In only one of the photos in his own entry does Pope Benedict wear that — that look. You know the one I mean. It could launch a thousand Chick Tracts. And it’s at the very bottom.

Judging by all that, it’s pretty clear that a number of Catholics are toiling in Wiki’s vineyards, producing information — per Benedict’s instructions — fit for Catholic consumption. Not that anyone’s been able to place Wiki under Christ’s sweet yoke; Wiki requires that articles be written from a Neutral Point of View (caps theirs), which means no “puffery,” “editorializing” or “contentious labels.” The statement “Not surprisingly, the syphilitic tyrant Henry VIII sent Thomas More to a glorious end,” for example, would not pass muster. But neither would anything about how the reactionary misogynist Pope John Paul II banned deserving women from the priesthood.

Wiki’s commitment to neutrality shows up best of all in its treatment of the Pius Wars. Visitors can slog through a Hardy Boys-length series of entries titled Pius XII and the Holocaust, Pius XII and Judaism, Pius XII and the Roman Razzia, and Vatican City During World War II. Taken together, the text and links add up to an admirably bipartisan mess. Me, I lack the intellectual and emotional energy. I’d rather check out the entry on the Cadaver Synod, which features Laurens’ painting of the living Pope Stephen VII cross-examining the dead Formosus, and wonder how the author could keep from calling it “cool.”

  • Billy

    In 2009 as I recall, there was big news about bringing some SSPX Bishops back into full communion. This was accompanied by some controversy in no small part due to some comments of one of the Bishops denying the Holocaust. I have to believe that if the Holy Father had but done a Google search, he would have handled it differently, would have made it a point to mention the issue, expressing disapproval, and maybe even giving a high level resolution path.

    I remember this because I somehow managed to lose friends over this, incident despite not being Catholic at the time but that’s a different story.

    I had hoped that maybe this would highlight the virtues of search to the Vatican. But this is another instance when a Google search would have produced a different result.

    [That is one heck of a good point. Wish I'd thought of it!]


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