The election of Pope Francis makes him the second pope of the new millennium. Pope Francis will have to oversee a Catholic Church in a more connected and increasingly secular world. Even though the Church has often been conservative, resistant to change, and reluctant to embrace new ways, there are some signs that the Vatican is stepping into the 21st century with regards to communication.
One region where the Vatican is attempting to make strides is in social media. Perhaps the most visible was the reactivation of the Papal Twitter account, @Pontifex, which had gone dormant since March 1st after former Pope Benedict announced that he was resigning. The first tweet of the new pope was a rather dramatic "HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM”, roughly translated from Latin as “WE HAVE POPE FRANCIS." Tweets aside, is the Catholic Church ready to embrace the social media of the 21st century, and will it help in its problems of attracting millennial to the church?
The Vatican has not fully rejected the push of social media into the communication’s field. They have made an official Facebook page, YouTube channel, Flickr account, website, and several other Twitters run by the Vatican that tweet in different languages. There is even The Pope App for the on-the-go Catholic who needs up to date news on the Holy See. They are also aware of the importance of protecting their image, issuing an official statement on their Facebook page after a parody Twitter account was accidentally reported as authentic and reached over 100,000 followers. But beyond the level of the Vatican, the Catholic Church’s higher-level figures such as cardinals are terribly social media deficient. Of the 180 cardinals in the world the number of active Twitter accounts among them is about nine.
While it may seem rather silly for figures such as cardinals to figure out how to fit a sermon in 140 characters, the success of some cardinals active on social media shows the effects such outreach can have. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, is incredibly active of social media. In stark comparison to the Vatican’s YouTube account, which focuses mostly on official Vatican business such as visit by heads of state, Papal mass, and sermons by the Pope, Tagle’s YouTube presence is much more personal. He stars in a weekly YouTube broadcast that incorporates graphics, music, and at times even sign language translators. Tagle’s official Facebook page heavily promotes his broadcasts and is very popular in its own right, having over four times as many likes than the official Vatican Facebook page.
But absent all of Facebook likes, YouTube videos, and tweets, will this be the magic bullet for the Catholic Church’s youth problem? Polling says that this is unlikely, at least in America. A Quinnipiac poll finds that among American Catholics aged 18-40, 46% think that the Church is out of touch with the views of Catholics. When it comes to the question of whether the Church should move in a new direction, 18-40-year-olds support a new direction by 56%.
The figures become even worse when polled on issues that conservative factions in the Church oppose. 59% of the younger demographic supports allowing priests to marry. 66% support allowing women to become priests. 68% support the next pope relaxing the Church’s ban on contraception. On gay marriage, the overall support among all American Catholics is a whooping 58%.
These polls paint a grim picture for the Church’s future. The Church is slow to change on matters of doctrine at the best of times, most of the time being outright hostile as during the reign of the former Pope Benedict XVI. While more modern social media and outreach may be able to partially patch up the image of the Church as old and out of touch with the pubic, without more substantial change, the Church’s youth outreach will only get increasingly more difficult.