Pope Benedict XVI started tweeting last December. Two months laters, he becomes the first Pope in 600 years to step down voluntarily. These events are not unrelated. Twitter, which has already found Kony and liberated Libya, has toppled the Pope.
But the mistress that lured away the Pope has turned cruel quickly. The news of his resignition generated over 1.5 million Twitter comments in a day and a half. Not all of them were positive:
“We are receiving tweets that I consider not worthy of a human person,” said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Twitter is only the latest in a history of proving true Marshall McLuhan’s theory of technological determinism, in which he coined the phrase “the media is the message.” Twitter has taken some of the attention away from more real issues that could have possibly affected the resignation, such as scandal cover-ups.
It’s natural for the Pope to get intertwined in the new media. Benedict XVI used Twitter in an effort to assert himself as a more modern Pope. This itself also created minor controversy as it was unprecedented. This can be taken as a sign that the Vatican is itself trying to become more modern.
However, instead of updating their stance on social policy (homosexuality, abortion) to reflect the changes in popular attitudes, a Papal aide created a Twitter account. Both the media covering the Vatican and the Vatican itself seem content to allow Twitter to be their story.
Though their stance on social issues may not be changing in the foreseeable future, the medium by which we receive the message may undergo drastic change. Following with the ideas in McLuhan’s theory of technological determinism, the message from the Vatican will be shaped by the new medium whether they want it to or not.
While the comments the Pope received may have been ugly and “not worthy of a human person,”someone high up in the Vatican had to seem them. The message got through. Hopefully the message that is returned by The Vatican responds to these criticisms without succumbing to the uglier aspects of social media.