New Media and Pope Benedict

Catholic Theological Association Annual Conference, Durham, September 2012 by Rev. Timothy Finigan
When I became editor of Faith Magazine in 2001, I introduced a column called Faith Online which was a review of new Catholic websites. In those days it was a realistic project to cover a representative selection at least. One of the most exciting developments was the launch of the Vatican’s own website in 1995: making the Vatican an impressively early adopter although unfortunately the website itself is now hopelessly “Web 1.0” and seems incapable of reform. (Perhaps there is a metaphor that some of you may appreciate for the difficulties involved in the reform of the Roman Curia.) At around the same time, the New Advent website announced the seemingly impossible project of putting the whole of the Catholic Encyclopedia online as a free resource for all. This early experiment in crowd-sourcing was a remarkable success that is now taken for granted.
In those early days, forums and message boards were the place to be if you wanted to find out breaking news. They still remain a part of the Catholic presence on the internet and are still of great use, but usually in terms of special interest groups retaining something of the community feel of the early newsgroups. Although the Vatican did pave the way with its website, many in the Church were sceptical about the value of this new means of communication. I remember my very kindly former Archbishop asking me “What is email? Is it like a fax?” I struggled to find the right answer to that.
Just as one might explain that an email is a string of text sent from one computer to another via other linked computers, one might say that a blog is a series of strings of text (that may include hyperlinks, graphical files or embedded videos) posted in reverse chronological order. Neither of those definitions remotely captures what has actually happened. They both omit the fundamental element of communication that it is interpersonal and therefore can have an impact on belief and behaviour. Both email and blogs (and latterly Twitter and Facebook) have enriched and destroyed the lives of others. Letters, books and the electric telephone have done the same in the past. We now have more powerful means to love and to hate, to destroy and to build.

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