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The Twitter Report: Let’s Have A Rousing Welcome for the Pope

On a related note to my last post, you’ve probably heard that the Pope recently took a bold step forward into the 21st century by joining Twitter. This is significant because it marks, to my knowledge, the first time that the Catholic church has ever taken a bold step forward on anything. (He chose the Twitter handle @Pontifex, I assume because @Popehat was already taken.)

It’s an interesting experiment, but I’m not expecting it to last. It’s not just that the Pope’s tweets so far have been disappointingly bland, although they are. Rather, I imagine that the dilemma, at least from a Catholic perspective, is that social media isn’t like a church: a hermetically sealed environment where information flows in a one-way conduit from religious leaders to the flock. It’s a raucous, open platform where everyone can have a say and dissenting opinions can’t easily be shut out.

And what’s more, from a Twitter perspective, anyone can now tag the Pope in tweets criticizing the church – meaning that Catholic believers searching for tweets relevant to their interests may get more than they bargained for.

Now, I don’t imagine for a second that the Pope uses a computer at all, much less that he reads his Twitter account himself. But it made me smile to picture some stuffy Vatican cleric, assigned to oversee their social-media strategy, checking the mentions as his eyes widen in horror. Surprisingly, something close to this came true when I came across this article by a Jesuit priest, who said essentially, “Guys, the Pope is just like your kindly old grandfather! Why do you have to be so mean to him?”

Before a creature was twittering in the Papal household, insults began flowing in like floodwaters bursting though broken levees… To my family, the Pope, despite being a white guy, is more family than family. He’s like our grandfather, and the idea of taunting and mocking our 85-year-old grandfather just doesn’t enter our imagination. Which is why it hurts – even made me angry.

Well, I can’t speak to the family dynamics of someone else’s household. But if I were gay and my 80-year-old grandfather was hectoring me about how I shouldn’t have the right to get married, or if he cut loose at a family dinner about how disgusting it is that slutty unmarried women are allowed to have abortions, or if he said that molested children only have themselves to blame for tempting innocent priests into sin – well, yes, there might be some sharp words and mockery that ensued. Being old doesn’t exempt you from criticism for bigoted views.

What makes this more amusing is that the tweets he singled out as “bitter” weren’t even especially profane. (I could have quoted some that were far more blasphemous.) In fact, they leveled some solid criticisms, like these ones:

#askpontifex Dear @pontifex why don’t you sell all the gold of Vatican and feed the hungry children with that money?

— Karapandza (@karapandza) December 4, 2012

Every time a homosexual child ends his life remind @pontifex he's in large part responsible. #endhate

— Unforeseen (@Handovertweets) December 4, 2012

#faiunadomandaalpapa @pontifex why you keep hiding pedophile priests in the Vatican, and do not judge them by the competent authorities?

— 2BOH_Official (@2BrothersofHard) December 5, 2012

These tweets sum up the dilemma: for religious leaders, social media is like a razor-edged sword with no handle. In the short term, it may give them another way to communicate with their flock. But in the long run, religion relies on controlling people's access to the flow of information, and the internet undermines that power to a tremendous degree. I'm fully confident that if we have a level playing field, atheism can win the competition of ideas, and the increasing influence of social media makes it an ideal place for us to take the fight to them.

POSTSCRIPT: I should mention that I had a chat with the author of that article on Twitter the other day. He acknowledged that some of the tweets he posted were well-founded criticisms, but he seemed to be under the impression that any well-founded criticism was inherently an expression of prayer for the church, rather than a rejection (sort of "I'm not angry, just disappointed"):

Many church leaders covered up the scandal n that there were many fair criticisms. i'm usually sarcastic but not this time @daylightatheism

— Quang D. Tran, S.J. (@LeMeTellUSumtin) December 21, 2012

For this reason i saw the bitterness as cries n 'prayers' rather than real attacks @daylightatheism

— Quang D. Tran, S.J. (@LeMeTellUSumtin) December 21, 2012

I made the obvious point that many people were angry, especially since the church has shown no sign of mending its ways, and asked what reforms he would support, to which he responded with this non sequitur:

Change must begin with each individual in and outside the Church.The human family shares in responsibility. @daylightatheism

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— Quang D. Tran, S.J. (@LeMeTellUSumtin) December 21, 2012

It's a safe bet to say that the church hierarchy is still nowhere near understanding why people are upset at them, much less what they would have to do to even begin regaining the trust they lost.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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