On Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI, using the handle @pontifex (bridge-builder in Latin) made his Twitter debut. Dear friends," began his first tweet, "I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."
The Vatican’s entry into the world of micro-blogging has newscasters and reporters excitedly extolling Catholicism’s bold move into the 21st century. Of course, the myth that a revolutionary shift is happening because a movement or group is using social media should have been debunked in the past few years, but journalists seem to have caught onto something. People, especially people past their forties, are still struck by the leaps and bounds in technology If you give social media or blogging or smartphones enough credit, a good number of people will believe Facebook and Twitter created these shifts, not the people behind them.
We saw it in the Arab Spring, when an American who had never taken a history class would have thought the idea of a revolution — particularly a revolution in a non-Western country — was an internet novelty, much like a gif. And now reporters would have us think that the Pope’s Twitter debut represents a seismic shift in Catholicism in general.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Twitter is merely a forum. It doesn’t function as anything more than a public meeting, which the Pope holds regularly anyways. Granted, it puts him in constant two-way communication with a vastly wider audience than was ever accessible to him before, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that this incorporation of such a modern tool of communication has any implications for the more serious foundations of the Catholic Church. It is a continuation and expansion of the Pope’s most important job: to "spread the word," according to Greg Burke, senior communications adviser for the Vatican.
The excitement over the Vatican’s move into social media rings a bit hollow in view of its November ad campaign against gay marriage. In a front-page article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, historian Lucetta Scaraffia emphasized that homosexual acts are "intrinsically disordered," and the Vatican spokesman lauded "monogamous marriage between a man and woman" as an "achievement of civilization" in an editorial on Vatican Radio.
The Vatican’s anti-gay media blitz is just one way in which it has shown rigidity toward shifting 21st century mores. People continue to take issue with the exclusion of women from the clergy, as well.
Pope Benedict XVI’s tweet represents nothing more than a new avenue for religious organizations to possibly grow considerably in popularity in the coming years. Twitter has rarely ushered in any dramatic or substantive changes. At most, it has been a gathering place and an amplifier for already boiling-over tensions, as we saw with recent events in Iran and Egypt. Suggesting that the Pope’s Twitter represents any likelihood of real change in the Catholic Church — especially in a year in which it has doubled down on its more controversial positions — would be magical thinking.