The real effect of the Internet on Catholicism (or any other religion)

The Online Loser Guide that I just wrote was born also as a reaction to a vision of the Internet (haven for perverted and terrorists, huge time-wasting toy or mere work tool) very limited and narrow-minded. A proof that the effects of digital technologies are much deeper is in how they are influencing the religious sphere, in ways still largely ignored by traditional, mainstream media and by many blogs. The following paragraphs contain some evidence of this trend in Catholicism, but I’d guess that the same general concept is valid for any other religion (more on this at the end).

TV news shows do report, every now and then, about the Catholic Church and the Internet, but often it is very superficial coverage. All you get is announces and comments about project and activities which, while being without doubt welcome and really laudable, are nothing but extensions to a new media of stuff that was already happening before computers. The official Vatican page on YouTube, Internet streaming from Catholic TV or Radio stations like TeleRadio Padre Pio, software gadgets for Rosary on iPhone or Breviaries for the Android, or even spiritual advice on digital problems like “Is it a sin to dowload movies or buy pirated CDs?" have one thing in common: they use the existing digital technology, accepting without questions its more popular tools, to distribute the same informations and “services” of the pre-Internet era, in the same way, that is broadcasting from Church down to faithfuls.

While prime time TV coverage stops here, other things are happening in this field. Things at a different, more interesting level, if nothing else for its potential concrete effects in the medium and long term. The Vatican had already noted back in 2002 that “the technological configuration underlying the Internet has a considerable bearing on its ethical aspects” (Ethics in Internet). Later on other voices inside the Church started investigating if the official Church language in the field of Social Communications isn’t too unidirectional, that is too tied to a vision in which “professionals” must instruct the faithfuls in the most effective way, rather than one of a world where communication has became a “many to many” phaenomenon (Fr. J. Fox, SDB, “Digital Virtues”).

The fact that these are not isolated cases but signs of a more general trend would seem to be confirmed by more recent news. On June 3rd, 2009, Cardinal Hummes, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, announced that they are evaluating the possibility to introduce specific courses on these themes for priests and seminarists, in order to remain conscious and effective witnesses of the Gospel even in this digital era. Even the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for the 2010 World Day of Social Communications is “The priest and pastoral ministry in a digital world: new media at the service of the Word”.

Initiatives like these, at those levels, may bring to closer and deeper dialogues and relationships between the Church and its faithfuls, that is to a scenario where, side by side to the “unidirectional communications”, which certainly won’t disappear, there will be Priests who, according to Card. Hummes, “surf side by side with other digital people in the great sea of communication”. Such an evolution would be much deeper and relevant than any of the cases mentioned at the beginning.

Another field of Catholic investigation that may bring to interesting results is the one about the nature of digital technologies: are they purely neutral tools? Can Catholics just adopt the most popular software tools and use them as most other people do, without thinking to how they really work, or should they pay more attention? It is questions like these who brought the author of this article to study Free Software’s surprising sympathy with Catholic doctrine, which in turn gave birth to Project Eleutheros, a Catholic approach to ICT.

None of these projects will produce any visible effect in the short term, but activities like these may have many more consequences for religious people than the simple distribution of religious content and news also through the Internet. We’ll see. In the meantime, here at the Stop! we’d like to know more about the impact of the Internet on other religions: if you have relevant links and information, please let us know!