Digital Media's role in the Church

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM -- We live in an era where constant technological and social changes take place. This case study was written in order to explore how a traditional Institution such as the Catholic Church applied social media to adapt in order to satisfy the demands and necessities of believers. The specific example studied in this case is the use of Twitter to grant indulgence to believers.


For many years the Catholic Church has been suffering from what might be called “bad publicity”, with frequent talk about pedophilia and financial scandals. In January 2012, while Pope Benedict XVI was the Head of the Institution, there was a scandal which the media called Vatileaks that allegedly exposed corruption through leaked documents. Later that year letters and memos between Pope Benedict and his personal secretary were published in a book called His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI, which exposed the former Pope’s personal finances, and also stories of bribery to obtain an audience with him. In 2013 Pope Benedict XVI decided to abdicate and Pope Francis was elected as his successor.

Pope Francis represented a change for the Church, so the Institution began a process of adaptation to the technological changes in society. Pope Benedict had a Twitter account that was cleaned (all the tweets that belong to Benedict were deleted) after he resigned. Once Francis was elected the user name for the account went from “vacant” to “Pope Francis”. The Twitter account is available in 9 languages and has over 8 million followers. When that account was under Benedict’s name it only had little over 400,000 followers. The Vatican has a website on which believers can follow Mass via the Internet. Pope Francis has a Facebook page that has over 75,000 likes where people can post almost anything, a YouTube channel, and an app called The Pope App for smartphones. He is the first Catholic Pope to use social networking to communicate with believers in a successful way. Being able to read words from the Pope on handheld devices creates a more dynamic relationship by creating the feeling of closeness. 

Indulgence is basically time off purgatory. On July 17 2013 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would be providing indulgence to whoever had a legitimate reason not to attend the World Youth Day (an event for young people organized by the Catholic Church, at the international level every two to three years at different locations) and followed the event either on TV or radio. Controversy arose because indulgence, a very conservative and controversial term, was being used to prove that the Church was moving forward. The Church realized that not everyone could afford the trip to Brazil to participate in the World Youth Day and that there could be other impediments for people who wanted to participate. The Catholic Church came up with a solution for anyone who could not attend the World Youth Day: grant indulgence to whoever had a legitimate reason not to participate. The question then is, how do we as part of society feel about indulgences being granted over Twitter? If we can start replacing the physical Church with social media, will it reduce civic engagement? Will people replace their participation in church as members of a community with digital participation? 


The media coverage regarding the indulgence via Twitter has been very diverse. Had it not been thanks to the relevance traditional media has given this matter, a lot of people would not know about the situation. Traditional media reported the news from an objective point of view in a positive way. While most of the articles read during this investigation merely stated the fact that indulgence was to be granted over Twitter, some showed their support to the Church’s decision: “In the age of modern technologies any mass media give a great opportunity to stay in touch of what is going on and participate in the prayer, including the service led by the Pope”. Others didn’t hesitate to mention that they don’t believe it is a good idea to use technology in a case like this: “great idea that the church tries to reach believers with technology, feels it is not right to offer indulgence over twitter .“ 

“Meanwhile, blogs had a more negative reaction towards the indulgence situation, which they expressed through mockery and ironic statements.” Of course, “genuine spiritual fruit” is hard to measure, so you may just have to input the proper prayers at the correct time and hope your spiritual fruit is growing right.” The fact that articles/blogs/videos are open to comments is very important because it generates action from the readers. My first and only comment about the Catholic Church and the recent news about using Twitter to cleanse a person from punishment is HERESY!” 

How meaningful is the interaction or engagement with the Church over Twitter?

The Church decided to open a Twitter account to improve the relationship with believers, especially the younger demographic. However, Pope Francis’ accounts only follows his other accounts in other languages. When the Vatican decided to inform the resolution for indulgence over Twitter, the news was delivered via traditional media. It is interesting that the Vatican chose a traditional form of communication to inform of their plans for innovation. That could lead us to ask why someone who wants to prove that they are leaving traditions would embrace said traditions to do so. In our opinion it could be because the news that indulgence was to be granted over Twitter they would generate controversy and it would be easier for people to understand through traditional media.