Why Twitter is Helping the Pope Improve His Image

Pope Francis‘ pronouncement yesteday on Twitter might come as a bit of surprise:


Benedict XVI made similar gestures during his reign, which predated the now-routine practice of official papal tweeting, but this message seems different in tone. I note a distinct absence of appeals to the supernatural; Francis does not claim that unemployment jeopardizes man’s capacity to walk with God, avoid sin, etc. He likely would have expanded on these points in a forum that allowed for elaboration, yes, but the name of the game on Twitter is concision, and careful thought went into the tweet’s precise composition.

You can imagine the average Twitter user — say, a twenty-something “spiritual but not religious” prototype with vaguely cynical feelings about the Catholic Church — glancing at this tweet and thinking, “Hmm, that’s kind of a surprising thing to hear from the pope.” Subsequently, you can imagine this person’s view of the pope improving at the margin. (I know mine did, notwithstanding whatever other objections I have to Catholicism.) Obviously a person who lacks sympathy for the unemployed would not respond favorably, but the average Twitter user is not a coldhearted industrialist.

Which is all a long way of saying — if their goal is to “soften” the pope’s image, Francis and his presumptive social media helpers appear to be doing an effective job.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Though “profit at any cost” has been the Catholic modus operandi for centuries, so it’s a bit hypocritical of them to complain about “profit at any cost” in others.

    • MineApostasy

      More like Prophet at any cost.

      Sorry.

    • Emmet

      How, exactly? In what ways?

  • 3lemenope

    I mean, the guy’s got style. This cannot be denied. I mean, refusing the papal vestments, insisting on paying his own hotel bill after being elected, taking away priestly financial bonuses, and (my personal favorite) washing the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner in the context of Maundy Thursday. Awesome.

    But so far, it’s much more style than substance. I mean, it’s great that Francis has all the traditionalists’ undergarments in a bunch, but it remains to be seen whether he can (or even wants to) do something more substantive with the Church. He’s done an admirable job of getting people’s attention in the right way, but now that he has it, the far more difficult task is ahead, for which he may yet be too theologically and doctrinally conservative to tackle.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      Essentially, Francis doesn’t want to upend much about the Church’s doctrine or policies; he just wants to appear less of a jerk about it.

      • 3lemenope

        So far, at least, though he hasn’t been in for long. They said the same about John XXIII (it was between that and some version of “heck, he’ll keel over in six months, so even if he goes off the reservation, how much damage could he really do?”), and look how that turned out. I will say, though, that tone does matter. Being approachable, interested in dialogue, willing to engage outside the strictures of tradition all can lead to better places if carried to their conclusion in good faith. After all, we are talking about a guy who proposed civil unions as a compromise when Argentina was debating same-sex marriage, so I’m not counting him out just yet.

        • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

          I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic in that regard as well, but the change here is incremental, not radical. That’s worth noting.

    • Carmelita Spats

      The “classy” guy needs to overhaul Ratzinger’sapproach to pedophilia which favors the criminal…The sexual torture of minors is grotesque…Washing the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner is just brazen opportunism…Pathetic…Francis would be the first to JAIL the Muslim woman if she had an abortion. He would also obligate a nine-year-old
      impregnated rape victim to squirt out her attacker’s semen demon. Francis also needs to meet with the victims of Father Julio Grassi in Argentina. He has refused to face the victims of a MONSTER he protected. He’s worried about unemployment? Baloney. Francis understands that REPRODUCTIVE freedom for women, freedom from a livestock version of compulsory breeding, has an obvious ECONOMIC impact. Francis is moral garbage.

      • 3lemenope

        I agree with you that the Church needs to buckle down and deal with pedophilia and child abuse in a serious manner, which so far they have been criminally unwilling to do.

        The rest of your comment is 99% rot; even some points that have an underlying kernel of sense are buried under ridiculous rhetoric and unjustified (to the point of laughable) speculation. You seem to have a monomaniacal obsession with calling out the Catholic Church which leads you to abandon sense, reason, causality, and decency on a rather frequent basis. Like that hilarious time you called my mother and hundreds of thousands of others of being moral toads, not for any other reason than that they worked for an organization you despise for their daily bread.

        Look, the Catholic Church casts a very long shadow, historically as well as socially in many many places on Earth. That history, as well as its present incarnation, is as complex and multifaceted as the history of any human organization of great size, scope, and longevity. One should expect, and one generally doesn’t find, moral consistency throughout; a few do-gooders, a few monsters, and large swaths of rather mundane moral mediocrity. To the extent that the organization has become dysfunctional because it hasn’t been able to face up to its own mistakes and crimes, and tries to cling to secrecy in an age where achieving organizational privacy is simply impossible, it deserves the criticism it gets, and certainly the secular world should not stoically endure the harm that results.

        That in turn does not mean one should, as you too often are, be sloppy in a factual as well as moral sense in casting aspersions like birdseed among all things and people with even a remote connection to the church you so hate. You end up pissing off and driving away a whole lot of people who would otherwise agree with you and be natural allies with your cause of bringing accountability to an institution that is in some ways out-of-control. It takes skill to get a person who cares to roll their eyes at a comment that ostensibly is about getting the Catholic Church to own its crimes in hiding pedophiles, and yet you succeed at this task with an annoying regularity.

        Also, protip: when you randomly capitalize words in a post, it generally degrades the authority to opine you desire to project, not least because it forces me in my head to read your post in the voice and famous cadences of William Shatner.

        • CottonBlimp

          “You end up pissing off and driving away a whole lot of people who would otherwise agree with you and be natural allies with your cause of bringing accountability to an institution that is in some ways out-of-control.”

          If I told you that you’re driving me away with your self-righteous whining, would *you* stop?

          • 3lemenope

            Except I’m not looking to enlist or implore you for anything, so I don’t care all that much.

            • CottonBlimp

              You seem to not realize that everyone has access to excuses that cheap. I don’t really get the impression Carmelina is that interested in you, either.

        • Emmet

          Nice one.

          This should be required reading for all Patheos atheist channel bloggers and commenters:

          “That in turn does not mean one should, as you too often are, be sloppy in a factual as well as moral sense in casting aspersions like birdseed among all things and people with even a remote connection to the church you so hate.”

  • Aguz

    Well, most of the Argentinians priest are inspired by John Paul II which was one of the “nicest” Popes. Also, Argentina has a very long socialist heritage that came with the Italians that run from the fascist regimen of Mussolini and influence the way of thinking even today.

    Now, one can only hope he actually changes the church for the better, starting with allowing contraception because the Catholic ban on it is one of the major causes of the uncontrollable spread of AIDs in Africa.

  • TiltedHorizon

    What nice sentiment, personally I’d rather see tweets about how he is prosecuting child molesters in his mists, denouncing misogyny, condemning the inappropriate behavior among prelates, or removing the Church from political involvement. I guess feeling bad for the unemployed is cool too….. :/

    • The Other Weirdo

      You mean you want him to do things that are completely against what that organization stands for? Good luck with that.

      • TiltedHorizon

        You mean its wrong to expect miracles from the miracle factory? Consider my bubble burst. What will you say next? There is no Santa?

        • The Other Weirdo

          Well, technically speaking, God is the miracle factory, one that’s completely invisible and his miracles are just things we didn’t understand. The RCC is just the organization that invented a specific aspect of God.

          • TiltedHorizon

            I used the term “miracle factory” due to the RCC’s penchant for “finding” them. Just a few weeks ago, if I recall correctly, the Vatican Doctors approved a miracle which would fast track Wojtyla for sainthood.

    • Sbel

      child molesters in the mist.

      worst Sigourney Weaver film ever…

  • Hat Stealer

    Be careful when the Pope talks about a “self-centered mindset, bent on profit at any cost.” Anyone who goes against Catholic teachings are self-centered in their eyes.

    You want to enjoy safe sex? “Self-centered!”

    You want to be gay and start a family? “Self-centered!”

    You want an abortion? “Self-centered!”

    You want a divorce? “Self-centered!”

    • Duke OfOmnium

      I think you’re onto something. Jesuits have always been very good at twisting words (source: 4 years in a Jesuit university), and so he’s very likely to be making up secular-sounding religious messages.

  • Reginald Selkirk
    • 3lemenope

      Dunno about PA, but I can offer substantial anecdote from RI. Where I work (a mid-sized hotel), easily 80-85% of the staff use cannabis recreationally often enough to never be able to pass a drug test. Heck, I use it recreationally occasionally. Thankfully we work at a place where the management couldn’t care less about reefer so long as you don’t stink of it when you’re at work, but I’m actually slightly less skeptical of the thrust of the PA Governor’s remarks than I might otherwise be, because it does in fact concord strongly with my own experiences.

  • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

    The thing about that tweet that most made the Pope look good was the unhinged response to it. People calling him an empty-headed left-winger and whatnot. Any decent person is going to be more sympathetic to the person who just said he was thinking about the unemployed than to the people who attacked him for it.

  • http://twitter.com/D_A_White Devin White

    Definitely thought the”self-centered mindset” he was talking about was referring to the unemployed at first. Thanks for clearing that up.

  • Tometheus

    I read it differently when I first saw it. It looked to me like he was blaming the unemployed person, accusing them off being too greedy. (E.g. someone with a degree who has been downsized and is too “greedy” to work for minimum wage.) I had to go back and reread it several times before I could see how it was helping improve his image.

    • Kengi

      Really? People generally use the word “wages” to describe what people are paid by their employers. In fact, you did it yourself. The word “profits” is generally used to describe the net income of businesses employing those people.

      • Tometheus

        I respectfully disagree, Christianity often uses “profit” to describe something besides businesses… “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul”

        • Kengi

          Of course the word profit can be used in a variety of situations, but my claim is the general association of the word in the specific context of the tweet, which was about employment, a business and economic concern.

          I suspect that if you really did see the tweet in a bad light, it was due to the author rather than the wording.

          • Tometheus

            Did I ever say differently? I said /I/ read it differently when /I/ first saw it. This is why I dislike ‘news’ coming from Twitter, 140 characters means clarity is often sacrificed for the sake of brevity. (And if you don’t think “gaining the world” is an economic concern in the context of the quote I posted, then we disagree again. The quote is about an individual being too greedy for worldy gain and losing their soul. I’d say it’s an exact parallel to the tweet in question.)

            • Kengi

              And I was expressing my surprise that someone would take a tweet about the economics of unemployment and misinterpret it to be a rant about victim blaming based on a misunderstanding of the most common use of the word “profit” in such a situation.

              I guess we both agree now that you reacted in a strange way to the tweet at first.

              Do you still dispute that “profit” is most commonly associated with the net income of a business rather than with the wages people earn? That was the basis of my initial response.

              • Tometheus

                (if this is a multiple post, I apologize as patheos seems to be acting up on me today.)

                Yes, I would still disagree at least among KJV reading protestants of a certain era, which I came out of. In the Bible, “Profit” is almost always used with respect to an individual. (Note the tweet said “profit”, not “profits”.) I’ll put the question back to you: would you agree that “self-centered” is usually used to refer to an individual?

                • Kengi

                  Yes, self-centered is usually used to refer to an individual, as it was with the Pope’s tweet. The individuals running the businesses which are firing the people. I don’t think the pope believes that the businesses were firing people magically on their own (despite the Pope believing in other types of magic), but at the behest of their owners. The individuals.

                  As for “profit”, I didn’t ask if that was the common usage amongst KJV reading protestants of a certain era.

                  You seem fixated on defending your initial false assumption based upon the word “profit” despite already having admitted the blame lies with your preconceptions about the tweet based on the author rather than the words used.

                • Tometheus

                  And you seem fixated on the word “profit”. The term that stuck out to /me/ when I read it was “self-centered mindset”. No, you didn’t specifically ask about that group of people, but I was telling you MY childhood context, and therefore, it IS relevant to how I saw it. I didn’t come here for an argument, I came to just laugh at myself for getting it wrong.

                • Tometheus

                  And maybe I misunderstood you earlier when you said ‘author’, I thought you were referring to me, not the pope. I would have interpreted that the same way no matter who said it, not some preconceived notions of the pope himself. It’s too early to judge this one.

                • Kengi

                  I don’t give a flying fuck anymore. If you would have told me from the start that you based your reaction on your childhood experience with the Bible rather than telling me I was wrong about the common use of the word, I would have replied “Ah, that’s interesting.”

                • Tometheus

                  I didn’t say you were “wrong” I very carefully phrased it “I respectfully disagree”. You kept prodding me, so I kept trying to explain myself. I’m sorry if you felt I was attacking you. I grew up in a very confined community. I only went to the church schools and only had church friends, so for me, “common” use of the word might be weighted differently than it is for you. I’m sorry if I haven’t been able to make that clear for you.

              • LL

                I’m not sure why you are blowing our initial instant reaction out of proportion. We are both admitting that we read it wrong and we now see that we did. Honest mistake. Why is that such an earth-shattering event for you? It happens. A lot. In all contexts and situations. Look at it like the humorous human moment that it is and stop nitpicking over the word “profit.”

                • Kengi

                  I’ll stop when Tometheus does.

                  I asked initially because I couldn’t understand why anyone would not see the tweet for what it was. No matter how I read it I couldn’t see it in a victim blaming light.

                  The “blowing out of proportion” came when Tometheus told me I was wrong about the common use of the word profit, but would only defend that position with special-case, limited-use examples.

          • CottonBlimp

            It was due to the wording. He never declares whose “self-centered mindset” he’s talking about. Grammatically, it’s implied he’s talking about the prepositional object that comes up right before that part.

            I don’t think that is what he’s saying, I think he (his office, let’s be frank) meant employers a being selfish but he put it poorly.

            • Kengi

              If the phrase was referring to the prepositional object “unemployed”, then the sentence would have continued “often as a result of their self-centred mindset” rather than “a self-centered mindset”.

              Is this kind of misunderstanding more than just pre-conceptions based on author and also unfamiliarity with the medium used?

              • CottonBlimp

                No, since I entered this post expecting him to say something supportive of the unemployed, considering this post’s title and Francis’ general PR style.

                Is there a reason you’re reaching this fucking hard to assume prejudice on the part of other people?

                • Kengi

                  Is there a reason you failed to understand my question? I specifically suggested there appeared to be more than just prejudice at work.

      • LL

        I actually had the same reaction. I was personally offended as I am chomping at the bit for just a minimum wage job that would no doubt never even be able to pay for my groceries. But now I get it :).

    • Pseudonym

      This is just a suggestion, but perhaps you’ve been subjected to so much US-style religious right that you’ve forgotten that in the rest of the world, even “conservative” Christianity is concerned about the welfare about the poor.

      • CottonBlimp

        Or at least that they can pretend to without being accused of socialism.

      • Tometheus

        Perhaps there is a grain of truth in what you say. Growing up in a family that was below the poverty level in the US and “concern about the welfare of the poor” meant being constantly subjected to Prosperity Theology and told we were Doing It Wrong. We must have been lazy (Proverbs 10:4), or sinful (Proverbs 23:21) etc or else God would have given us Blessings.

        However, I still believe I would have initially read it the same way no matter who wrote it. The use of “self-centered” again brings up verses like Proverbs 21:17 to my mind.

  • Randomfactor

    Well, Twitter is notoriously bad at “nuance.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/saralin.wilde Sara Lin Wilde

    Sorry, but one non-superstitious post does not a good Twitter image make. When I learned the new pope would be Argentine, I suspected there would be some more focus on social justice and economic concerns, which sounds good to me. But his tweets about Satan, his failure to address the sex abuse cover-ups, and the business-as-usual approach of everybody else in the Church has squandered all my post-conclave goodwill. I think the latest tweet might produce a teeny uptick in good feeling that will be likewise squandered as soon as the reader scratches the surface.

    Plus, did you read the comments? Ignoring the trolls, there were certainly a few “cold-hearted industrialists” . . . and more than a few calling for @Pontifex to put his money where his mouth is and sell off a few gold-plated tiaras.

    • kagekiri

      “Gold-plated tiaras”? Psh, only pure gold is good enough for the RCC. If they wanna be humble, they just cast it out of pure silver instead. Everyone knows silver is just SO much less extravagant than gold. /snark

  • Glasofruix

    Am i the only one who finds this tweet incredibly condescending?

    • 3lemenope

      Generally speaking, whenever someone undertakes to lecture someone else on the wickedness of their ways, there is an element of condescension in the mix. In that frame, I didn’t find it particularly *more* condescending than the average finger-wagging.

  • Anna

    It’s great that he cares about the unemployed, but I worry that having a “nicer” Pope will just encourage all of those liberal and nominal Catholics to continue to overlook the huge problems with the church. And outsiders, too. Plenty of people who don’t really know or understand what the theology entails are going to have warm-fuzzy feelings when they see tweets about helping the poor and downtrodden, but that’s obviously not the whole story.

    • CottonBlimp

      E.g. the liberal love for Mother Theresa. Ugh.

      • Anna

        Exactly. And Pope John Paul II, and all the others who promoted such terrible theology while maintaining a good public image.

  • http://twitter.com/Andrew_Marin Andrew Marin

    Amazing post. Thanks for that.

  • Sue Blue

    Noooo…he’s not an pointy-headed dick, is he? Not a bloodsucking parasite living off of the enormous wealth extorted from people and nations since the first century CE. Not a useless old geezer who’s never done anything in his life except gesture meaninglessly, chant and mumble and huff incense while wearing fancy, expensive robes. No, he’s not head of a criminal organization bent on profit and power at any cost, including the lives and innocence of all those children raped by pedophile priests. Nope.

    It’s all those selfish, immature, greedy unemployed poor people who cause all the problems. Right.

  • Keulan

    So far, Pope Francis seems to be all talk and no action. Maybe sometime he’ll get around to do something that might actually help people. I’m not holding my breath on that.

  • Robster

    Did poor pope Frank have an itchy ear the day they took the ol’ fellow’s photo for the avatar?

  • jenbo

    omygawd, if you feel so bad about it why don’t you donate a millionth of what your worth to a cause that provides for the actual, physical needs of the people you are pretending to be so concerned about? yeah, ONE painting, ONE freaking golden, gem encrusted candelabra, ONE day to feed the homeless.

    until then shut up and go back to sitting on your throne, detached from all reality.


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