When the Vatican established Pope Benedict XVI’s Twitter account as @Pontifex (rather than @BennyRatz or something more Ratzinger-specific) I thought it was a smart move. Individual popes come and go, but the office remains, and it remains relevant to his millions of followers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. I envisioned a Twitter feed that would pass from pontiff to pontiff until some other networking tool inevitably pushed his tweets off the Internet’s collective radar.
Except now, Vatican spokespersons are intimating that, when the Benedict XVI papacy ends, so will the @pontifex Twitter account he established just over two months ago. Has there ever been such a well-followed, well-known, short-term Twitter experiment?
Benedict XVI has used Twitter to transmit his errant thoughts and reflections, but he’s hardly been groundbreaking or newsmaking there. In roughly three dozen tweets, he hasn’t had much of consequence to say. He’s regurgitated a few bits of trite wisdom about the invisible powers he loves best (“Everything is a gift from God”; “Let us imitate the Virgin Mary”), and made a few remarks about Catholic concerns like baptism, the Year of Faith, and false idols. But he has yet to make a single straightforward reference to his retirement, or what he’s doing with his time now and in the future, and he’s certainly not harnessing the power of the medium to address the vicious rumours he’d really do best to dispel if he can.
Shocking news: a clutch of elderly churchmen, skewing towards heavy-duty conservatism and out-of-date thought patterns, can’t figure out how to make social media work for them.
The truth is, it’s hard to blame the Vatican for concluding that the Twitter experiment has been a bit of a failure. Reaction to even the most uncontroversial statements from Benedict’s Twitter account has often been brutally angry. Everything he says seems to become the basis for an online skirmish between the faithful and the godless, peppered liberally with calls for him to face the charges against him related to his role in child-abuse cover-ups. In spite of the brigade of Twitter users admonishing anti-Pope tweeters to “show some respect,” it’s a hostile environment for anybody, let alone the elderly, sheltered theocrats who end up in the papal chair.
Twitter failed for the Vatican because it’s built upon principles of open access, exchange of information, and unrestricted speech — no reverence required. Catholics, non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, and anti-Catholics don’t need a papal audience to tell Benedict (and his would-be successors) exactly what they think of the church’s standing policies on condom use, AIDS in Africa, celibacy, gay-bashing, or molester priests.
For the first time in history, a Pope has tried on a medium that allows everyone — not just faithful Catholics — to easily express their opinions about the Church, instead of just passively listening to what the Pope has to say.
And, not surprisingly, the Vatican doesn’t much care for what it’s hearing. So it’s deciding to bury its head back in the sand and shut the doors on two-way communication with the faithful, the faithless, and everyone else with a stake in how the Catholic Church’s medieval Magisterium handles twenty-first century challenges.