Textual abstinence, Italian-style

texting_in_trafficI love stories, like the one about giving up Facebook for Lent from a few weeks ago, in which ancient faith traditions struggle with the advent of modern technologies. How did the 15th-century church view the advent of the printing press, for example? Well, we have another example of the genre–a story in the Times Online (London) by Rome-based correspondent, Richard Owen that describes an effort by some Roman Catholic leaders to get laypeople to give up texting and other virtual communication for Lent.

Owen’s article skates along the surface of what could have been a very interesting story-a national (or semi-national) campaign asking Italians to temporarily set aside something they apparently love as much as fast cars and Sophia Loren-messaging each other. In addition, in a piece about church leaders asking their followers to give up online communication for Lent, there’s not a layperson to be seen.

The article begins in a way that suggests the texting campaign may have been implicitly blessed by Pope Benedict:

Chrch sez stop txtn 4 lent. Or, put another way, the Italian Church wants its followers to forswear text messaging, social networking websites and computer games in the run-up to Easter.

While many Italians traditionally give up fatty foods or, in extremis, alcohol, the appeal to go without some of the trappings of the modern world, including Facebook, iPhones and computer games, on Fridays — and on other days if possible — is unprecedented.

It appears to stem partly from Pope Benedict XVI’s recent warning to the young not to substitute “virtual friendship” for real human relationships.

The Pontiff warned on his YouTube site in January that “obsessive” use of mobile phones or computers “may isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development”.

As we can see from the fact that the Pope has his own YouTube site, the problem doesn’t appear to be the technologies itself-but what Rome apparently consider potential to disrupt social life and normal development.

The Vatican correspondent for the Times, Owen knows a lot more than many other journalists about what goes on in Rome –in other words, he’s got great sources. Here’s one lovely gossipy morsel:

Pope Benedict also has personal experience of the distractions of obsessive texting. President Sarkozy of France, a renowned technophile, came in for withering criticism for checking his mobile for text messages during a personal audience with the Pontiff.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?

As it turns out, a group of dioceses started the give up text for Lent movement-and it then spread to other parts of Italy. Leaders are also hoping that abstinence from text will draw attention to the trade in coltan, a mineral produced in the war-torn Congo and used in laptops and cell phones. Various dioceses are giving it their own unique twist:

The Trento diocese in the Italian Alps said that it was urging young Italians not only to give up texting and computer games but also to avoid throwing chewing gum on the pavement and “egocentrism”.

The church authorities at Rivoli near Turin are going one further and asking parishioners to switch off their television sets and drape them with black cloth until Easter.

It’s hard to imagine dioceses in the United States competing with each other to make more dramatic sacrifices. A nationwide campaign probably stands a greater chance of success in a smaller country like Italy. That being said, it’s not clear to readers if Italian Catholics, known to be independent, are taking this seriously at all, because Owen doesn’t quote any.

In a country that apparently sends more text messages than anywhere else in Europe excepting Britain, asking parishioners to keep their thumbs off the keys seems like an uphill battle. Even within the Vatican, the idea met with apparent skepticism. But we don’t find this out until near the end of the article, giving the impression that the Italian Church exists in some sort of a holy bubble.

Doubts were also expressed inside the Vatican, with Gian Maria Vian, editor of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, noting that text messages were “by their nature a neutral tool, neither good nor bad in themselves. It depends how they are used. If text messages are a proper way of communicating I don’t see why we should deprive ourselves of them on Good Friday or any other day.”

There’s even rebellion within the prelate’s own house-Owen quotes a theologian who writes for the Italian bishop’s own newspaper Avvenire, as saying the idea is “ridiculous.”

It does seem that there is an apparent disconnect between the Italian bishops and the Vatican, not to mention the bishops and their own staff. Which leaves the question wide open–is anyone listening? How come Owen didn’t talk to some normal people, perhaps some parish clergy, to see if they were taking the anti-text preachment seriously? In this instance, he seems to have sacrified content and context for comedy, at least to this reader’s eye. Which is, I’m sure, not what the bishops intended.

Let’s hope for a follow-up to see if Italy’s Catholic population (most of the country) got the message. Of course, if they did, it may be impossible to reach anybody until after Easter.

Picture of a girl checking her cell is from Wikimedia Commons

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  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina
  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    You gotta love the shoes on that biker. Europe.

  • michael

    Check out the take from Ruth Gledhill in the London Times. Technically, I suppose it counts as editorial since it is in the Comment section. But then again, Gledhill is advertised as a ‘Religion Correspondent’ for the Times, and she appears to fancy herself as something of a ‘scoop’ breaker.

    At any rate, pieces like this, which scarcely conceal Gledhill’s visceral digust with ‘that place’ (otherwise known as the Vatican), hardly inspire confidence in the Times’ dispassionate journalism on matters religious. However, they do make one wonder whether spending time on blogs and Facebook help to inspire the magnanimous spirit of irenic humanism displayed here rather than the ‘other-worldly inhumanity at work in that place.’


  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I hate it when people check their texts (or even respond to them!) when I’m meeting with them face-to-face. I’m glad to know that it even happens to the Pope.

  • Jerry

    There are two stories that, while not being about religion, add a bit of seasoning to this story. The first is that German men prefer the internet to sex and a car. http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,4069983,00.html

    The other story is about a former Taliban in Afghanistan that embraces his iphone. The story goes on to say with no doubt a bit of hyperbole that a cellphone is more important than food:

    “It’s like a custom now in Afghanistan that even if someone doesn’t have enough money to eat he’ll still carry an expensive cell phone.”


    So it’s clear from those two stories that asking people to give up the internet for Lent is asking for a truly heroic sacrifice in the modern world.

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  • Julia

    How did the 15th-century church view the advent of the printing press, for example?

    The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible or the Mazarin Bible) is a printed version of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible that was printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany in the fifteenth century. Although it is not, as often thought, the first book to be printed by Gutenberg’s movable type system,[1] it is his major work, and has iconic status in the West as the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the “Age of the Printed Book”.

    he [Owen the Times reporter]seems to have sacrified content and context for comedy

    duh Owen always does that. His UK readers eat up silly and salacious stories about Catholics. Unfortunately, there aren’t many US reporters who speak Italian to check his or Gledhill’s sources – so what gets in the US press about THE VATICAN is usually directly lifted from Owen and Gledhill.

    Why is Owen treating some suggestions about Lent as if they were commands from on high? I’d hardly call a disagreement about giving up a suggestion as rebellion. The Curia is like the President’s cabinet – its members don’t speak with one monolithic voice, anyway. At least not about giving up texting for Lent.

    Regiculous story & dangerous man to give any credence.

  • Julia


    I’d hardly elevate a difference of opinion about a suggestion (on what to give up for Lent) to the level of a rebellion.

  • michael

    “duh Owen always does that. His UK readers eat up silly and salacious stories about Catholics. Unfortunately, there aren’t many US reporters who speak Italian to check his or Gledhill’s sources – so what gets in the US press about THE VATICAN is usually directly lifted from Owen and Gledhill.”

    What is remarkable to me is that the Times could employ a ‘Religion Correspondent’ who exhibits such obvious disdain for her subject matter (Gledhill, in this case). (Imagine a ‘science correspondent’ with a similar vendetta against Darwin.) I realize that there is a difference between European and American journalism and that the latter makes a greater show of objectivity, but there is a question of basic trust here, of whether and in what sense one can count on even an attempt at honest reporting. If thoughtless screeds such as the one I linked are an indication of her true thoughts, why should anyone believe the first word from that writer’s pen?

    Then again, why should the Times care? Maybe that’s the more basic question.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    It’s a muddled and a superficial story, in some ways, but I think it could have been a much better one if Owen had talked to a few of actual players.

    Julia, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m very interested in your link between Gledhill and Owen and US reporters. Do you have a few instances you could share?

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    Julia (#7),

    I don’t actually think it’s a ridiculous story. But if you don’t care for the Times Online version, here is a news brief about the same topic from Catholic News Service:

    Italian dioceses suggest Lenten fasts from texting, bottled water

    ROME (CNS) — The stereotypical Italian communicates with his hands and sips Chianti, but text messaging and drinking bottled water have become even more common and some dioceses are trying to put a stop to the practices — at least for Lent. Archbishop Benito Cocchi of Modena-Nonantola has asked people “to fast” from sending text messages on their cellular phones, at least on the Fridays of Lent. And the Archdiocese of Venice’s office for Christian lifestyles has asked the faithful there “to turn on the faucet” and give up bottled water. Bishops and priests in neighboring dioceses have urged their members to do the same. As Lent began Feb. 25, Archbishop Cocchi told the faithful that Lent was a time to use fewer words and less food, drinks and games in order to concentrate on strengthening a real relationship with God and with others. The archdiocesan office for missionary awareness, he said, had a good idea: Give up sending text messages.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    Oh, and I agree with tmatt — love the biking shoes.